Building a new life from construction chaos
Nearly half of job losses in Ireland in the past four years were from the construction industry and, while many emigrated, some who stayed have embarked on creative new career paths. We speak to three such people and a fourth who is cutting the price of holidays for cash-strapped architects
Draughtsman turned basket maker
Ciaran Hogan from Finny, Co Galway, studied architectural design at Carlow IT and worked, during the boom, as an architectural technician with various firms.
In 2008 after being made redundant from Douglas Wallace Architects in Galway, Hogan left for New Zealand where he worked on building sites while looking for employment in his field.
When work didn’t materialise, Hogan considered retraining as a carpenter in New Zealand. “But that would have taken another three years and I was already 30. There was no point in me looking for a job in Ireland. I was a junior technician and some of my senior associates were applying for jobs in Supermac’s. So I phoned my dad and asked if he would consider training me.”
Hogan’s father Joe is an award-winning basket maker, who has scooped many international awards including the 2012 European Prize for Applied Art in Belgium, and first place in the Pinolere International Basketry Competition in Spain.
“I have a lot to live up to,” says Hogan, “but it’s great and I am lucky that my dad is my tutor but can also send work my way.”
Hogan initially tried to learn the craft when he was 16 “but I only lasted three days; our workshop was in a very remote rural area and it just wasn’t the life for me then”. Having spent eight months as an apprentice with his father, Hogan now operates from Spiddal Craft Village along with 10 other arts and craft people. “I really enjoy working for myself, it’s highly rewarding but the hours are long.”
Not only does Hogan create and produce all types of baskets, he also plants an acre of willow each year, in wondrous colours such as purples and oranges, which he then uses for his craft.
He has no regrets but does find basket making a little isolating. “Our location in Spiddal is inspiring – looking out over Galway Bay – but it can get quite lonely, so I decided to start giving weekend courses where people can spend two days getting some idea of the basics and leave with a basket they have woven.”
On the courses, which were partly done for financial reasons too, he enjoys the company of people and the craic. “We really have a lot of fun on the courses and I use softer rods so anyone can partake. We get individuals, women’s groups, families, hen parties and nostalgic Americans taking part.”
Does he miss the technical drawing? “To be honest it was very repetitive and involved lots of computer work. I had an inkling I needed to do something more creative. Maybe it was always in my blood.”
Architect turned baker
Architecture runs deep in the Peppard family and Louis, whose father was an architect, worked in Scott Tallon Walker for a number of years. “He was born with a pen in his hand,” says Peppard’s wife Siobhan who ran their practice for 23 years, employing seven at the peak of the boom. Their portfolio includes private houses, heritage developments, hotel and leisure complexes, including the Bridge Shopping Centre and Cinema in Tullamore.
Today the couple and their son are literally trying to earn their bread with the Lilliput Loaf Company. “For us,” says Siobhan “it was a double whammy, as we both lost our business and our income with the recession. At the same time I ended up on a life-support machine after complications to remove a tumour. We had invested in a new office which we also lost and really struggled to put food on the table for our children.”
Louis always had an interest in outdoor baking, a skill he learnt from his grandmother: “I was involved with a heritage festival in Mullingar in 1990 and took part as a hobby. I had collected old outdoor cooking implements over the years and 19 years later saw a way of supplementing our income after my business had got so small I had to run it as a sideline from home. Using my architectural experience, I built a mobile fireplace, which won a Bridgestone Award in 2012 for Best Mobile Catering.”
The couple and their son Owen Mark travel around the country to fairs and concerts selling their Boxty and artisan breads. Recently they received the thumbs up from the HSE to open a bakery in Mullingar to start producing on a commercial scale.
“I suppose the recession is good in one way,” says Louis, “as it has brought people down to earth and made them appreciate the fundamental basics of life. It is an extremely difficult time for everyone involved in the construction sector and we were hit badly at the worst time in our relationship with two young adults to guide and support.”
Siobhan, who is retraining to become an accountant, agrees. “Health is what really matters and it has made us very close as a family. We have lost some of our friends to suicide: it puts everything into focus.”
Their second son Luke, ironically, is completing his first year in architecture in UCD. “It was his choice and we were actually delighted, I have lived through two recessions as an architect and hopefully in seven years’ time, when he qualifies, this will all be over,” says Louis, who also runs a small architectural business from home, mainly focusing on hybrid houses with low running costs. He is now employed by his son Owen Mark, who runs Lilliput Loaf, and can be found at major festivals flipping his famous Boxty over the coals.
Carpenter turned garden designer
Martin Connor from Castlebar, Co Mayo, is a carpenter by trade. “I left school without the Leaving Cert and worked on building sites all my life. I enrolled on a carpentry course at the age of 30 as there was so much work. I spent seven years working as a carpenter and in the middle of establishing my own business the crash came.”
Connor has three daughters of college age. “It was a disaster, as I was self-employed I couldn’t get a grant for the girls, I couldn’t even get a medical card. I ended up in the RDS looking for jobs abroad.”
He and his wife Anne are young parents and enjoy a close-knit family. “We had a simple life. I built a small bungalow for my family, nothing out of the way, just an ordinary family home. The thought of having to leave was like a death.”
Due to depart for Canada last Christmas, Connor tells of how he sat down to try and come up with a plan that would keep him near his family. With an inherent love of nature and gardening he embarked on a plan to teach gardening in schools, where young children learn “where their dinner comes from”.
Schools have been keen and he currently teaches 300 children about the seasons and planting vegetables, which they get to take home. “Polytunnels have become outdoor classrooms.”
From there Connor embarked on therapeutic gardens for nursing homes and pre-school sensory gardens. Connor, who uses his carpentry skills to build the gardens, finds his new line of work very rewarding having “swapped the hammer for the pencil”. Anne also works and mortgage repayments can be met or else, “I would be gone, it’s that simple”.
Regarding the future of his new venture Connor is adamant: “Sustainable? Of course it is. I hope to employ a few people by next year. This project will blossom.”