By Anita Henderson
I was shattered when my mother arrived home one cold winter’s day in January 1961 and told me she had found me a job. I was at the time happily attending our local Technical School, where the previous summer I had got Honours in my Group Certificate Examination.
I was in no hurry to leave my friends and my school, where I had spent two very happy years. My class mates and I, all from the local convent National School, loved the ‘Tech’ where we were treated like adults. The thoughts of being the first to leave really upset me.
My mother’s idea of a job for a 16-year-old was a secretary/book-keeper in a firm of local undertakers. She had known my future boss since childhood so I had been given the job without an interview.
It was not a job I would have chosen but those of us growing up in the Fifties and Sixties did what we were told.
I reacted negatively to my surrounding by shutting down emotionally. Working in a small office eight hours a day, hidden behind a high wall, and surrounded by the trappings of death, was no place for an outgoing young girl like me.
I was very poorly paid even by the standards of the time. I worked 44 hours a week, spread over 5 ƒ days, for the princely sum of £2.00 per week; thirty- shillings of which my mother took for my keep.
A further half-crown was deducted from the remaining ten shillings for the Whole Life Insurance Policy my mother insisted I take out in case I died. I wasn’t even 17 for goodness sake!
With the remaining 7s. 6p., I went to the pictures three nights a week to escape into a fantasy world far removed from the one I was living in.
In addition, to my normal office duties, I also had to engrave the breastplates for the coffins – for which I received no extra pay. I could be called in at week-ends too.
Undertakers, I found, were a source of considerable social interest. During the course of the day you meet every human type and may eavesdrop on some of the most deeply emotional moments in people’s lives.
I found that grief was universal and not restricted to social class.
Some of the people I dealt with during my time there left a lasting impression on me. One was a 9-year-old boy who drowned while playing with his friends on a nearby beach. I can still remember hot tears running down my face and spilling onto little Robert’s breastplate as I painstakingly engraved his name on it.
On one occasion, the mother of a local criminal died and, as she had no other relatives, the young man was taken out of prison for a few hours to arrange her funeral.
He looked so vulnerable as he sat in the office handcuffed to two Gardai, while he told me tearfully how he regretted having broken his late mother’s heart. Moved with pity for the young man, I made him a cup of tea.
My worst experience involved a middle-aged man calling to our house at midnight in December and telling me he needed a habit for his 40-year-old brother who had just hanged himself.
As the family were high profile farmers and two of his siblings were priests, the news was hushed up. Only those involved in the funeral really knew what happened. My boss was away at the time and his wife had sent the man to me.
I remember trying to open the office door in the pitch dark and going up the rickety stairs with the man to the dimly-lit room where the habits were stored in large cardboard boxes. I found it surreal to be standing next to a stranger looking through these coarse brown garments which were emblazoned with pictures of the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mary.
In time, the realisation sunk in that working in the undertakers, I was on a one-way street to nowhere. There was no financial incentive even to remain as my mother took most of my meagre pay and had commandeered any future pay rises.
Getting up the courage to face her wrath by leaving was a daunting prospect so I made a plan which involved using a friend’s address.
Unknown to my mother, I applied to Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Mosney to become a Red Coat for the summer. I would be provided with my keep and any money I earned I would save towards renting a flat in the city. I knew that with my 2 years office experience I would have no trouble finding a job.
My life really began on the morning I arrived at Butlin’s Holiday Camp and the friendships I made there have lasted a lifetime.