Friday 26 August 2016

Career change after economic crash renewed my sense of purpose

Published 17/07/2014 | 02:30

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald
faced questions from the UN on
human rights issues in Ireland
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald faced questions from the UN on human rights issues in Ireland

I wanted to be a fashion designer. But secondary school in 1970s Ireland was not exactly focused on anything other than the bank or civil service. If only I'd known how to study, I could be on a fat bonus and pension package or a mandarin in Leinster House, or both.

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I eventually trained as an interior designer, when there were only 10 in the phone book.

The novelty of that wore off after I discovered I wasn't cut out for counselling – which is what a lot of interior design results in.

After my own marriage and babies, I thought a teaching job would be safer. When I looked at the menu in UCD, I chose what I loved: English and History of Art.

I'd figure out how to make a career somehow. I was in my early thirties and those BA years were the most enervating of my life.

I know I wouldn't have got the same out of college had I gone aged 17.

I never knew the true student experience of late parties, grunge dressing, radicalism, anarchism. So I'm doing all that now instead.

The only way I could attend university was to be self-employed and work all hours. To go on and complete a Masters was a thrill, though how I would find work on Palladian architecture, I didn't know.

But I did and I even sold some of Jeffrey Archer's Warhol collection as part of my art business.

Five years later, when I lost twins due to fatal foetal abnormality, friends were worried. One bought me a book on heritage preservation, which I thought was ridiculous at the time.

But within months I enrolled at UCD for a Masters in building conservation for two years and another set of student friends.

It was my rehabilitation, but also a great asset during the construction boom.

At last, I had a career, great clients and money to take my sons – the heirs to the overdraft – on holidays.

Well, there were about five good years, with some publishing along the way.

Then came the crash.

Slowly but surely work stopped coming in, architects were emigrating and firms closing down.

By 2011, with my sons going on their J1s, it gave me the opportunity to write in earnest.

During 2013 I was on serial re-writes of my first novel and job hunting. Neither was getting very far.

Then I came up with a long shot; a career where I could be self-employed and write. I Googled: 'How to be a Barrister'.

In May, I sat my first year law exams, six of them, three hours each. My memory was erratic and my writing was indecipherable: I still have the blisters.

We are a class of about 40 ranging in age from 22 to 60-something.

They say the law isn't ageist which is lucky for most of us.

And I can't believe how much I learned; so much so, I believe some element of legal studies, especially criminal law, should be covered in Transition Year.

People said I was mad taking this on, that "barristers are leaving the country and the law library is nepotistic".

I don't even have friends in the legal profession, never mind family. I just have to hope experience and hard work count for something.

The exam results came out on Friday the 13th. I asked heir number two to open the envelope.

"Okay, you got them," he said.

Career prospects aside, going back to study has renewed my sense of purpose and broken the spell of alienation.

And in a week where gender imbalance is to the forefront in politics, when human rights issues in Ireland are highlighted at the UN, the legal profession is one where women have soared and succeeded.

The Chief Justice, Minister for Justice, Attorney General, Chief State Solicitor, Director of Public Prosecutions and Acting Garda Commissioner are all female.

There is hope yet. For women and for Ireland.

Irish Independent

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