Bernie Walsh is the co-founder of Sunflower Recycling and talks to Mary McCarthy about growing up on Dorset Street, working aged 70, as well as her grandmother and how she studied a community work course and set up the social economy business
I’m 70 this month and loving still working. I still have something to contribute, and the best thing is now I’m retired, I’m not tied to it.
I retired because I was over 65, and with Covid I had to, but I felt I was a support for the manager so I went back on the board of the organisation I co-founded, Sunflower Recycling.
It’s like a baby to me with several projects floating off from it. Sunflower I see as the mothership and I like to foster belief in what it can do to help the long term unemployed.
I left school before my fourteenth birthday and went to work in Jacobs, the biscuit factory – they were good employers. I should have been fifteen but used my sister’s birth cert.
I had a new job every year. I worked in a bakery on Dorset street. I was a bit stoppy back then. The boys got trained as bakers and went off to technical school once a week, the girls also trained but did not go to college. Then I was working in Gala makeup on the assembly line.
I loved to go on foreign holidays – very unusual at the time. When I was 18 myself and a friend went to Molly Hynes recruitment agency in O’Connell street as they placed people abroad. All they had on their books was work in a laundry in Denmark, so off we went.
This was an eye opener, I got to know all sorts of people from all over the world.
In later years when we got European funding with Sunflower Recycling, and I would get to go off to meetings around Europe several times a year.
I was born and grew up on Dorset avenue. My grandmother Mary McCarthy was a young widow who ran two shops and she was involved with the fruit market, though she could not read and write. She kept pigs and geese after it became illegal to keep horses near Temple Street when I was around twelve. She kept the family going.
My mother was also very strong. She worked alongside my father in the Shelbourne hotel.
I came home from Denmark after six months as we were homesick but two weeks later we were saving to go travelling again.
We went on holiday to Turkey where my friend met a young man and so we went back to Istanbul for the summer and she stayed on. When I got back to Dublin I met my husband Jackie Walsh from the Falls Road in Belfast. From then on I did cleaning work while I was having children.
I worked in the Higher education authority (HEA) for nineteen years as a cleaner and housekeeper – my cousin Jennifer came to work with me and I loved it.
It was a beautiful Georgian house on Fitzwilliam Square and everyone was so supportive. We were friends. I went to their weddings, their children’s baptisms. I felt appreciated. I was also becoming very involved in community work. I joined a women’s group with the organisation Lourdes community services and the Dublin city partnership.
I always thought because I hadn’t done my exams I could not go to college but when a community development course came up everyone in the HEA said I must do it.
I look at organisations now and how cleaners come in the night and they are gone. But I was part of the organisation and considered an equal.
And then when I did the course at Maynooth I found out I knew a lot about community work, maybe even more than the people running the courses.
Sunflower was set up nearly thirty years ago as a social economy business in response to long term unemployment in the north inner city Dublin. It was an idea developed as part of my community leadership course funded by the Dublin inner city partnership.
Sunflower Recycling collects recyclable materials. Our customers at first were small businesses but today are Government departments, DITs and many well known retailers and offices. Our numbers have increased through funded programmes and Sunflower now employs 55.
We also operate the Green Ribbon project which develops initiatives with resident associations and community organisations in owning and maintaining areas with Dublin City Council.
There are bigger waste companies, but organisations choose Sunflower Recycling as they know their money is going back into a business creating jobs for the long term unemployed
Yesterday I had two meetings. I’m very involved in local groups set up after the Mulvey report five years ago. I went over to Sunflower at noon as Lindsey the acting manager was doing a big Government proposal and I wanted to help her finish it.
Then I had a meeting with a man called Michael McGrath who is writing about the social economy and wanted an inner city case study.
I don’t particularly like meeting on Zoom, but it allowed us to keep up our business in Covid.
I only lived on my own for about a year after my husband died thirteen years ago, my brother moved in and now my daughter and two grandchildren live here.
I am not a nervous person but when I’m sitting in the house, particularly in the winter, it’s great to get a shout from the kitchen if you want a cup of tea. Milly is ten and Jack is 17 and they keep me young telling me what is going on in their lives.
I like to keep busy, even more so after the lockdowns. I have some underlying issues, so I stayed in and did what I was told and now I feel so free. I never want to go back to sitting in the house again.
I’m catching up on two years of not doing anything. I’m going to see Elvis later, six or seven of us down in the lighthouse cinema in Smithfield – I often go to the cinema and on a Sunday go to a jazz session with friends and for dinner after. I go visiting all over the country.
Sometimes people see profit as something we don’t get involved in but there is no sin in a profit, it is what you do with your profit. We can offer something a big business can’t, you are helping the local community to get on its feet. That’s what kept me going.
And also we have great relations in the community sector, you can’t get a big head, it’s not about personal career growth - everyone is working towards something bigger. I’ll get a right slagging off now for doing this interview.