Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Fifty years of working memories

When you have worked for 50 years in the one place, it offers a space for reflection, writes Brian Byrne. For Herbie Sheehan, who got his first pay packet in Brennan’s Hardware in Kilcullen five decades ago last month, it is the opportunity to remember times fond and sad, and the people he both worked with and served, his family, and a community in which he has lived for some 33 years.

“It was more simple back then, I suppose,” he says. “We were living at Martinstown in Ballysax, where my parents were caretakers. I was at school in Kildare, but I didn’t like it and wasn’t doing well.”

His mother decided that work might be a better option. Kilcullen baker and shopkeeper Jim O’Connell used to deliver ‘the messages’ to Mrs Sheehan each week, and she discussed it with him. “He’d come around in a van, we called it the ‘Wanderly Wagon’,” Herbie recalls. “He promised to look around Kilcullen for a place for me. He asked Andy Nolan first, but Andy had just taken on someone, so his next stop was Brennans.”

The long-established hardware store was then being managed by the late Billy Hughes on behalf of Mrs Brennan, whose husband was deceased. Billy agreed to give the young Herbie a trial, and he’s there ever since. “I remember, I was given a brush and a watering can, and told to keep the place clean. Last in always got the dirty jobs, but that’s the way it was. For the first year and a half, I never served a customer, but I was learning all the time.”

It was a time before the B&Qs and the Woodies of today, and there was a much greater reliance on local shops. “People didn’t have transport then, either, to go anywhere else. So they’d be coming in for a bag of coal for the week, or whatever else they needed. It was simple at the counter too, either a cash docket or a credit sale written into the Day Book, later written up by the girls in the office.”

The names trip out. Mary Nugent and Mary Bolger were ‘the girls’ in the office. Others in the shop, higher up the ladder than the young Herbie, included Andy Blayney, Peter Howard, Mick Davis and John Davis, Sean Guidera, and Pat Goulding. “Sometimes I look back and realise that many of them are gone, so I decide I won’t look back for another while. And when I do, there are more gone.”

But back in the time, when he got that first pay packet in 1967, there were decisions to be made at home. “I got £3 a week, and I asked my mother what would the ‘divide’ be? She said, ‘a pound for me, a pound for you, and a pound for the bank’. I thought about it, asked her what if we didn’t do the bank? She said ‘two pounds for me and one pound for you’. I said we’d try the bank, then.”

It was a good lesson, which paid off a year and a half later when Herbie was able to trade in his push-bike for a new Honda 50 from local dealer Sean McDonnell. “It was £150 for the Honda taxed and insured, a helmet and gloves, and I was down the road.”

A confluence things were helping the hardware business at the time, especially the builders providers side. “The rural water schemes were coming in, and in houses the old earthenware sinks were being thrown out in favour of the Maid stainless steel ones. Oil was cheap, and people were putting in heating.”

Other things were coming together too. The Credit Union movement came to Kilcullen, and Herbie became part of the voluntary operation. Kilcullen Development association, founded by Paddy Nugent, was acting ahead of its time by providing houses for purchase at low cost in Bishop Rogan Park. And Herbie met Stephanie Doyle of Logstown, the second-oldest Council estate in Kilcullen. They got married in 1973.

“Along with 76 other families, we had the chance to get on the property ladder. It was a very mixed group, some retired people, others in from the army on the Curragh. It was a great stepping stone for people like ourselves.” Again the names tumble out — Pat and Geraldine Carroll, John Chapman, Johnny Jordan, the Greys. And again there’s a pause as he thinks of those no longer around.

There was the holiday in America in 1980, himself and Stephie visiting his sister in Phoenix, Arizona on a trip of a lifetime that lasted a month. “My father and mother moved in to Bishop Rogan to mind the children. There was a petrol strike on, so we had to take the bus to Dublin for the airport, and I remember looking back and seeing someone pushing their car to the Hideout petrol station, hoping to get a gallon.”

There was no such shortage in Phoenix, and no shortage of heat either. “It was a hundred degrees and I joked that I’d be going home all dark. I went out for ten minutes and had to come back in or I’d be going home in a box.”

Back home, over the years Herbie and Stephie moved houses a number of times, eventually going back to Martinstown when they built a new home near where he had grown up. Life was good, then Stephie died suddenly in 2008. It’s the kind of thing that you don’t see coming, and it inevitably changes life drastically. “It’s as if nothing seems to matter. There’s no good going home to a house that’s … emptiness.”

But he had friends, and family, and the ‘family’ of co-workers and customers at Brennans. It can’t replace loss, but it helps. Today, Herbie is getting closer to full retirement in September. He’s been on a 3-day week for a few years, which in theory might have given him more time for thought. “You think, you have these four days off, and it’s like a week, but before you know it you’re in the kitchen, putting sandwiches into a bag to bring to work.”

Come September, that won’t be necessary. It’s going to be another big change. For everybody who knows him too, customers and staff alike. After 50 years, he’s much loved, and as much a fixture in the place as the counter and the shelves.

This article was first published on the Kilcullen page of The Kildare Nationalist.