Sunday 25 September 2016

In memory of the 'summer job' - where hard cash was earned and lessons were learned

Published 11/06/2016 | 02:30

All day long we would be stooped over picking strawberries and, when the raspberries came into ripeness, we were switched to them (Stock picture)
All day long we would be stooped over picking strawberries and, when the raspberries came into ripeness, we were switched to them (Stock picture)

Anyone remember Alice Cooper singing 'school's out for summer'? Nowadays, the kids are hanging around their bedrooms glaring at screens and overdosing on social media.

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Whatever happened to the 'summer job'? What used to be one of the great training grounds for young teenagers is no longer legal for most of them in this new world of health and safety, where we treat kids under 16 as if they need to be kept wrapped in cotton wool.

My first job was at the age of 12, picking fruit on farms in north county Dublin - I don't know who came up with the idea, because we lived in deepest south county Dublin. But off we went on the first bus to Tara Street, where we would join a river of inner city kids on a special train to Donabate.

All day long we would be stooped over picking strawberries and, when the raspberries came into ripeness, we were switched to them. My sister Deirdre maintains that men with dogs and big sticks patrolled the fruit fields like something you would see in movies from the US 'deep south'. What I remember is that the controller thought us trustworthy - and I soon discovered the reason why. With strawberries, you were paid by the punnet, but with raspberries it was by weight - and the savvier kids from the mean streets of the city peed in their buckets to get the weight up!

After two years of that, I got a job cleaning the toilets in Sloopy's - a nightclub in D'Olier Street, which probably looked trendy at night, but when you went into the stale, foul-smelling atmosphere of stubbed-out cigarette butts, spilled alcohol and stale pee the following morning, it was anything but glamorous.

I soon jumped ship after that, succeeding my elder brothers in the Glass Bottle Company in Ringsend doing shift work. I was probably 15 at the time, and worked 8am to 4pm one day, 4pm to 12 midnight the next, and midnight to 8am the following day, and so on - including weekends. Unless you were in the furnace - which was stifling hot with molten glass - it was easy enough, taking bottles off what we call a 'Lir' and stacking them into containers.

I thought I'd received executive promotion when I was put on a screen-printing machine, stamping Coke Cola in hot white paint on the familiar bottles. It certainly encouraged me to think of a career other than the factory floor.

My next step on the summer career ladder was as a barman in The Ennell - my uncle's pub in Mullingar. I usually tended the bar, where the patients from what we called 'The Mental' (the psychiatric hospital in Mullingar) came for a few pints on a Saturday. They were mostly good people with sad stories, abandoned by family and society.

I learned to pull pints, make soup and deal with rows, and I tried to think on my feet - though not always successfully. One evening, my uncle went off to a funeral, leaving me in charge. A few minutes later, two big men came in and ordered two pint bottles of Macardle's ale.

I served them and, in no time at all, there were four, six, eight, 10, 20 people milling around - and I was selling pint bottles of Macardle's by the crate. My uncle came back, looked around in shock and said with a note of dread in his voice: "Are you trying to destroy me?"

They were Travellers, you see - and it was a different era. However, the lads were all in good form, so he shooed them out with a couple of free cases of booze to ease their passage. There were no complaints from these happy customers.

For the final 'summer job' after the Leaving Cert, myself and Charlie McNamara went off to London - with a few pound in our pockets. We had no job, nowhere to stay, but a with vague notion that Shepherd's Bush was a good place to live. After sleeping in a greenhouse, we got a job in what seemed to be a forgotten outpost of the Imperial College London, where we spent much of our time sitting in the canteen having obtuse discussions with our boss. That was 1979 - and on one of our infrequent visits to the pub, I watched the riots that occurred in Northern Ireland. When the time came to go back to Ireland, our boss - who was concerned about us - pleaded with us to stay and not go back to join the IRA.

It was the last summer of the summer jobs - I can't say that I particularly enjoyed them, but I learned a lot along the way about dealing with people on a one-to-one basis. It's something that modern generations seem to forget, with most of them seemingly surgically attached to their various devices.

Apparently, they can work a full 40 hours a week when they're 16. Maybe it's the parents' fault for not pushing them out there to learn more about life than they ever will during so-called 'work experience'.

Irish Independent

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