My employment record is what my friend Paul calls portfolio employment and many others would call chaotic. I think it’s because I started on the wrong track.
1972 was a big year for me. I did my Leaving, Certificate, voted for the first time in a referendum on the EEC and I started my first job. As I was eighteen in April, I had joined the local drama and musical society.
A family friend recommended pharmacy and got me a position. I had no idea what it entailed.
My first job was as an apprentice in a Dublin inner city pharmacy, an old-fashioned system involving three years training in the shop and a year at the College of Pharmacy.
Unlike friends in school who had a plan – a direction – I was much less focused. As the second youngest of six, there was no financial support for University. Although my passions were writing and theatre, I needed a livelihood. Choices were few. It was assumed I would marry and have children like my older sisters
Starting in September as the days got shorter, I set out each morning from my home facing St Anne’s Park in Raheny to a dreary inner-city space, long neglected by policy makers. It always seemed to be raining and grey.
The signs were not auspicious – the boss, a woman with eyes like the sea on a stormy day and a tight smile, did not like young people. She confused my animation with being over-confident and my talking for brashness rather than fear of the unknown. You must learn to work without chatting and without praise. And don’t ask too many questions!
Many of the customers were women only a few years older than me with young families – living in small houses or flats near their mothers.
I was a quick learner and enjoyed the doing and making – creams and lotions – two very different consistencies and mixtures. But the conditions were terrible. I was required to be everything from a trainee pharmacist to a cleaner and load carrier. The large front window where we could see the local folk going by had to be cleaned by me in all weathers.
There were a number of shocks and realisations: the poverty – hard grinding poverty – I had only seen in films. Often people would ask for medicines on account and pay later in the week on payday. There was the number of women on tranquilisers and anti-depressants. On reflection, I could see that medication was used to tranquilise women against poverty and against perfection. The state and the Catholic Church placed a burden on women to be mothers of many children, and to be the moral compass of the society.
The most profound shock was the level of domestic violence. Women’s lives were hard but they had no compassion for themselves. A woman who came in badly bruised with a prescription of enzymes to help her healing would say, I probably brought it on myself, love.
I didn’t know how to respond at first but learned just to listen.
It was a tough start for me whose family was not wealthy but was comfortable, well-fed and clothed. We lived in an area with generous houses and prosperous people. I considered myself well-informed, even worldly-wise, and the realisation of how little I knew was like a slap in the face.
It broke my heart. I was open, positive, prone to be dramatic and had no idea of the lives of my fellow citizens. My dad used to say you are a loss to the Abbey Theatre but actually, the Abbey Theatre was a loss to me – my mother considered it a high-risk profession, not just because of the chances of success but because it was not quite a respectable calling.
My exploration of a new course in Journalism was also strongly discouraged.
It surprises me now, how little agency I had. While lively and assertive, I didn’t have the confidence to hold out for a career I could thrive in, to work towards a way of being in the world that would last through my life. Nor did I blame anyone else – this is the way things were – family and God demanded conformity.
Pharmacy it was then, a huge awakening as well as learning. Many of the women had little understanding of their anatomy – embarrassed to ask consultants about their hysterectomy and whether they still had their ovaries. Even much younger women were coy about their bodies unaware that pessaries had to be inserted into their vagina.
We never used the word vagina, customers pointed and said ‘down there.’ This was in contrast to the bawdy jokes they told one another as they queued or waited for prescriptions. When one woman told me that she would put her contraceptive pill under the mattress, I must have looked startled as she leaned in and whispered, I know I have to take it but my mammy says it’s not right!
The antidote to the days were my nights singing, acting and my sport. I played golf and tennis and enjoyed walking in the hills outside Dublin. I was also politically active joining a party that I believed was committed to change in Ireland.
Although unusual, I managed to change jobs after a year, moving to another northside pharmacy, more humane, busy and with a more mixed customer base. I was given more responsibility and worked with colleagues who were easy to relate with. And I had some good experiences there. But there was no scope for imagination.
I was trapped in a career where I lost a sense myself and of a future. Like someone who consistently bought the wrong size in clothes, I was either squeezed too tight or engulfed by a too large fit.
When I was twenty-three, I broke.
My Dad had another heart attack, my brother was seriously injured playing rugby and my older brother’s and his wife had a bonny baby who died at six months. After hospitals, the routine grind of pharmacy, even my music and my words stalled.
I became depressed.
Every bone is my body ached, I could hardly function. And I couldn’t feel – like a deer shot in mid leap, or a minnow swallowed by a shark, I was bewildered, feeling dull, lost, without animation.
I was fortunate to have a doctor who listened, who asked about my reading, my interests and my joys. Although sceptical when I said I would like to be a writer, he acknowledged that I needed more intellectual stimulation. He prescribed anti-depressants. My mother was distressed about my diagnosis. She was fearful that I would become a discontented woman – something frowned upon in the Ireland of the time.
However, the tablets didn’t suit me, and I was fearful of the traps of medication. After a bad headache one day, I decided to stop.
Then I saw an advertisement for mature entry to University College Dublin. I forged a plan, saved for a year and got a place. I wanted to study English and Politics but timetabling (of the English faculty) would not allow it. I opted to study politics, history and philosophy.
I loved it, the freedom to read, to chat and to debate. I felt unshackled. Every day was full of possibilities.
Even when my Dad died the following Christmas, I knew that learning, using my brain and writing could keep me from slipping into darkness again. And it did for a long time, until another set of circumstances knocked me sideways again.
It was late when I came back to poetry, to the word and the life of the imagination. The journey was harrowing, dispiriting and while there are dramatic stories to tell, the toll on my body and my spirit are high.
When I was fifty-two, I did a theatre course at RADA in London. It was fantastic, I sailed through the long days, script learning and movement classes with an energy I hadn’t had in years. Every day was a joy, a discovery, a renewal. I keep hold of that energy, savouring my days writing and reading, being more and more at home with myself.