Happy days as an office worker in Cork in '60s

This week, a Throwback Thursday reader tells JO KERRIGAN about his days working in a Cork insurance company - plus, do you recall when Woodbines were popular?
Happy days as an office worker in Cork in '60s

A view of Shandon from Shandon Street, Cork city, in May, 1928. T. O’Callaghan and Sons on the right at No.29 has a sign for Gold Flake cigarettes

WE have one more person identified in that classic photo of the Cork floods and the canoe rescuing marooned shoppers, that we showed last week (and which also features in the Holly Bough).

The young man sitting safely on top of a VW minibus, and appearing to enjoy the situation immensely, was Donal Herlihy. His father ran a garage on Washington Street, across the road and slightly further west from the Book Mart, and they had a big plate glass window with lots of car parts on display for customers to check out.

That story of the inevitable Cork flooding that occurred whenever the tides were high and the wind from the right direction (one could almost think they worked together to create as much trouble as possible, couldn’t one?) reminded Tim Cagney of his first experiences in working life, and how it became his career.

“Speaking of Cork floods, I once worked in an office at Cook Street - well, I remember having to go there wearing wellingtons during those inundations!

"The man who employed me actually died earlier this year, at the age of 98, and his passing brought back a flood of affectionate memories.

“The year is 1967. I am chatting with Timothy Condon, my former English teacher at CBC. It’s been a few months since securing my Leaving Cert., and work is scarce. I’m plumbing his brain, in case he might ‘know someone’. [Ah the old Cork tradition of seeing if somebody knows somebody else who might be able to fulfil the need we have at the moment. May it never lapse!]

Tim goes on: “Mr Condon tells me another former pupil of his operates an insurance brokerage in town, and is looking for a junior clerk. The man in question is one Ray Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald (Insurances) Ltd is situated at 6, Cook Street. The set-up is small. Apart from Ray himself, it consists of a salesman, who travels the highways and byways of Cork in a Morris Minor, presumably mining the depths of the lucrative Life Assurance market. There is a clerk - a young chap called Anthony Duggan, from Western Road - who deals with the clients and engages with the insurance companies on the phone. There is an elderly ‘bookkeeper’ who divides his time between reading newspapers and burying himself between the pages of a giant ledger. There are two typists, one of which is a daughter of said ledger-keeper, and finally - at the bottom of the pile - my humble self.”

Tim’s tasks in this, his first job, are less than challenging, he admits. “I keep a diary, do the filing, and prepare the outgoing post, with the aid of a hand-cranked franking-machine.

“Once a day, there is a break-out! I go on an excursion throughout the entire South Mall, delivering memos to the insurance companies and collecting documents, mostly motor insurance certificates.”

One imagines you became familiar with every paving stone, every turning and side street, every frontage, during that time, Tim!

“I certainly became familiar with all of their staff,” says Tim. “They were a most affable bunch, in the main, and I greatly enjoyed the interaction. The companies had names such as Norwich Union, Shield, General Accident, Hibernian, Royal Exchange, Zurich, and a peculiar one called National Employers Mutual.”

Zurich, he recalls, had at that time a small office in what were then known as Bank of Ireland Chambers. “They had a staff of three, who addressed each other very formally, by their surnames. They were presided over by an individual, who bore an unfortunate resemblance to the Bond villain, Dr No!

Ray Fitzgerald. Picture supplied by Tim Cagney
Ray Fitzgerald. Picture supplied by Tim Cagney

“The only company which did not live on the Mall was Royal Exchange, who were situated on Grand Parade. Just a few doors down from them stood a small brokerage, run by one Vincent W. O’Connell. I became friends with his eldest son, Peter. We shared interests in angling and music, and remain in touch to this day.”

Tim learned his new-found craft well, under the excellent mentoring of Anthony Duggan. “I particularly enjoyed reading the business letters written by Ray Fitzgerald, in the many files which passed through my hands.

"He was a highly-professional individual, and was the cause of my acquiring many skills which were to sustain me throughout what would progress to be a 42-year career in the world of insurance.”

The only error Ray ever made, recalls Tim, actually had nothing to do with insurance at all. “One night, the office was burgled, prompting Ray to have an intruder-alarm installed. This looked like something from the flight-deck of the star-ship Enterprise, bedecked with green and red lights. It was fitted in an already over-stuffed ante-room, used for keeping what were known as cleared files.

“Ray - unfortunately - had forgotten about the cleaning-lady, a mostly unseen entity, who emerged from the shadows every evening, armed with dustpan and brush, to keep our work-environment spick and span. Her remit did not include the requirement to cope with the complexities of switching an alarm on or off, so the intruder alarm was rendered virtually redundant, almost from the day it was installed.”

Ray could, of course, have dispensed with the services of the cleaner, and replaced her with a more compliant Mrs Mop, but he wasn’t that kind of man.

Around two years after Tim joined the ranks of Fitzgerald’s, the aforementioned Anthony Duggan, his mentor and friend, left, to take-up an appointment with Shield, and Tim assumed his role. “I took to the task like the proverbial duck to water, and spent four very enjoyable years there.

“I dealt with - in the main - the “bread and butter stuff, i.e., Motor and Household, while Ray handled more challenging matters, such as Marine, Employers Liability, and Consequential Loss, to mention but three.”

Whereas all of the outgoing correspondence was generated by both Ray and Tim, Ray always took the precaution of checking - and signing - all letters himself. “If any of mine failed to pass the expert scrutiny, the errant missive would be discreetly dropped on my desk, with the words ‘see me’ written across it. Wise words of counsel would then be dispensed, after which the letter would be re-worked. Thus was a professional ship kept securely afloat!

“When I left, in 1971, Ray presented me with a Parker writing-set - fountain-pen and ball-point - engraved ‘TC - March 1971’.”

In the late 1960s, a fledgling underwriting operation began manifesting itself on the Irish market, recalls Tim.

A vintage Woodbine packet
A vintage Woodbine packet

“They were a ‘homespun’ entity, known as PMPA. They opened a branch-office in Cork, and advertised for staff in the local press. I applied - successfully - for a position. However, the vacancy turned-out to be for the head office in Dublin, instead of Cork. It was time to move on, so on February 1, 1973, I pointed my car in the direction of the metropolis. By the time I retired, in March, 2009, PMPA had been taken-over by Axa. “

Today, Tim and his wife live in contented retirement in the Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham. He reflects: “As I may have mentioned earlier, my career in the world of insurance spanned some 42 years. Of these, however, I can say, in all honesty, that the embryonic four years I spent with Fitzgerald Insurances were among the happiest.”

Those are great memories, Tim, and your tribute to Ray Fitzgerald a warm one. The details you give on working life in Cork back in the late ’60s are sure to strike a chord or two with others who started their careers around the same time. Thank-you for sending them.

Fintan Bloss, a regular correspondent to this page, is always quick to send pictures of objects he thinks other readers might find interesting. This time it is two great images of a pack of Wild Woodbine, dating from the late 1930s. Incidentally, the box still has the ten cigarettes in it!

Now, we realise that today smoking and cigarettes are totally disapproved of, but you cannot deny they are part of our history. How many kids sneaked in for a Woodbine and a match that would strike without the box, in their young days?

So what’s the story here, Fintan?

“I received the box from Con Desmond of Blarney Street. His late cousin, Joe Barry, used to work for the South of Ireland Petroleum Company, and used to deliver oil to T. O’Callaghan and Sons at 29, Shandon Street. It was there that he acquired the cigarette packet. ‘1939’ is written on the side of the box, so somehow somebody must have remembered that that was when he got it.”

Fintan recalled a photo in the Echo archives - reproduced above - of the O’Callaghan premises, dating from 1928. “It shows Shandon with O’Callaghans to the right and a pub to the left. There is a horse and cart outside O’Callaghans, with a Wills Gold Flake Cigarettes sign covering the shop window.

“Con and Martina Desmond’s father, Danny, who died 40 years ago, received the Woodbine packet from his wife Bridget’s nephew, Joe Barry.” Joe gave them to Danny as he was a Woodbine smoker and Joe was not.

Ah, the memories of yesteryear. How many more stories lie tucked away in the streets and lanes of Shandon? Countless, one would think.

Which reminds us. A reader has asked if anyone knows where Porter’s Lane in Blackpool was situated? He had a relative born there in the 1890s, but can’t locate it. There were several lanes with that name around the city, but the one in Blackpool seems to have disappeared. Or was it ‘upgraded’ to something more fitting like Porter’s Avenue? Come on, you Blackpool local history experts, let us know.

There was a great reaction to the extracts we ran from Richard Goodison’s book of childhood memories, Daisychains & Trout, so here are a couple more from the days of growing up around Gardiner’s Hill and Dillon’s Cross, which of course was conveniently close to Goulding’s Glen, a veritable Paradise for children back then.

“At the top of the Glen, near the home of the musician composer Aloys Fleischmann and his family, there was a not-too-steep slope covered with grass and daisies.

“This, as far as I can remember, was called ‘Shepherd’s Hill.’ There on a summer’s day one could sit happily and read a book, or just relax, or watch others at play.

“Mothers would bring their young children here and while they just sat or did a bit of knitting, the youngsters would make daisychains or they would fish in the stream for ‘thorneens.”

Simple pleasures, but ones to which the mind returns with affection in later life.

Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com with your memories of growing up in Cork. Or leave a comment on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/echolivecork.

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