By Ken Sheehan
“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”
This famous quote has become a cliché, but it does capture that sense of strangeness we experience when contemplating our past lives.
As a youth, like most people, I suspect, I was scornful of adults reminiscing about their past when they would make the observation that “It seems like only yesterday …”.
How could it seem like only yesterday when many decades had passed, I wondered?
Sixty years ago I got my first, and only, summer job. But there was an interesting preliminary to it, almost a presentiment. In 1959, the Hill of Howth Tram was scheduled to be discontinued and as I had never been on it, my parents decided that we would go for a spin on it before it ceased operation. Little did I realise that in a few years’ time, I would have a connection, however tenuous, with the Howth tram.
I was studying for the Inter Cert in 1962, and was looking forward to three months of freedom during the school holidays, but I was in for something of a shock, for unbeknownst to me, my father had other plans.
To my surprise, he sprang a summer job on me to keep me occupied during the school holidays. As he was a strong-willed man who brooked no contradiction, I had to fall into line. He worked in the painting and decorating trade, and was friendly with the manager of a paint-manufacturing firm, with whom he had placed orders.
As a favour, the manager took me on as a temporary junior in the factory laboratory. The duties were light, chiefly mixing paint, running errands and making tea, and the staff was friendly, but there was one major drawback – the noise!
It was deafening.
The factory was housed in a building, which formerly had been the power plant for the Howth tram. There were four horizontal mills in the factory on pedestals where the electric generators once had been which supplied the power to the trams. These mills were half-full of marble-like balls that made a tremendous crashing sound when they were rotating, grinding and mixing the paint, not unlike the sound of the waves beating on the seashore, only a hundred times louder.
There were few health and safety precautions then, and certainly no ear protection. Though I wasn’t on the factory floor most of the time, the noise still penetrated the lab, and I suspect that my hearing was damaged as a result. But as my father was under a compliment to the manager, I never complained about the noise.
My brother recalls that I used to reek of paint when I came home in the evenings. I have often recalled that summer job over the years. I can still visualise the three men who worked in the lab, and can remember the names of two of them, though the third one’s is lost in the mists of time. I had never gone back to the factory until approaching the 50th anniversary of my stint there, I had planned to make a return visit, only to discover that the building, which had lain derelict for some time, had been destroyed by a fire 3 years earlier in 2009.
Finally, in 2017, on a balmy summer day, I once again walked down that road, which is a cul-de-sac, to the site of the former factory, some 55 years after I had first made the journey as a 14-year-old-boy in 1962. It was a strange feeling. I vaguely recalled some of the houses along the route.
And there were newer houses and apartments built since that time. It was hard to believe that over half a century had elapsed since I was last there. And yes, in ways it did seem like only yesterday. The line “One a quiet street where old ghosts meet” came to mind. And at the spot where the busy factory once stood, I mused on the way our past lives, at one time so real to us, acquire the quality of a dream in retrospect, and vanish into thin air …