Fred Crowe, 64: ‘I was one of the first people in Ireland with an email address’

The Generations series, charting the experience of Irish people through the decades, by Rosita Boland, reaches over 60-year-olds in Saturday's Irish Times. Here we preview the voices from that decade with Fred Crowe from Clontarf

Generations series: Rosita Boland speaks to Fred Crowe who has lived in Clontarf for most of his life and has been an early and enthusiastic user of technology and computing. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012. Video: Bryan O'Brien


To visit the full generations page click here

Fred Crowe lives in Clontarf, Dublin

When my mother, Frances, was nine, her mother died on Christmas Day. Her father died when she was 11. She was raised by her four brothers, but she didn’t get much education. One by one her brothers died of heart failure or pneumonia or TB. They were all dead before 30.

My mother was from Mountmellick. She met my father, John, in a B&B in Portlaoise. The landlady set the two of them up. Then her sister, who had two children, died at 34. She never really talked about it, but she had lost her whole family.

One of my earliest memories is of going to visit those two cousins, at some kind of home in Kilkenny, and being shown into a parlour. Their father couldn’t take them. I don’t know why. I was about six. They were six and seven. I remember they were whispering, and I said, “Why are you whispering?” and they said, “We’re not allowed to make noise.”

They stayed in that home until they were 12, and then they went to Artane industrial school. They came to visit us sometimes on Sundays here in Clontarf. We had no perception of what was happening in Artane. Nowadays my siblings cannot understand why our family didn’t take them in.

My mother really valued education, because she had had so little of it. I broke my ankle when I was a child, and my mother brought me to school on a tricycle. My father wanted me to become an architect; that was his vision for me. I did commerce instead, in UCD. I graduated in 1971.

I met Niamh at the community centre in Dollymount. We met on the committee of the youth club there. We got married in 1973 and have five children. We bought this four-bedroomed house in Clontarf in 1982 for £50,000, and we’re still here.

I remember inflation being so high in the 1970s and lots of strikes. In 1976 my job was moved to Youghal, where I worked for Seafield Gentex, a big textile group. There was a bank strike that year. I remember going to Waterford city and going to one of the main shops with a cheque for £100,000 and picking up a bag of cash for the same amount to pay the wages back in Youghal. There was no police security or anything. I was on my own. I just put the cash in a Dunnes Stores bag in the boot and drove off. You had to find ways of overcoming the bank strike.

We wouldn’t go near the North in those days. A few times I had to go to Belfast. It seemed like it was Beirut, but it was only a 100 miles away. The only restaurants I remember were those in hotels and the fish-and-chip shops. There were no ethnic restaurants other than a few Chinese ones, but people would say about them, “I wouldn’t eat there. It’s not chicken they’re serving, it’s seagull.” There was no such thing as yogurt, there was no pasta or pizza, and it was Cheddar cheese or nothing.

In 1978 I finally qualified as an accountant and became a financial controller at Stokes Kennedy Crowley, which is now KPMG. I never set out with the intention of being self-employed, but going to work at SKC changed all that.

I always had a great interest in computers, and I convinced my boss to get an Apple II computer, in 1981. I started programming for tax calculations. By 1984 I had an email address. I think I was one of the first people in the country to get an Ireland On-Line email address. I used to go round telling people someday we’d all have email addresses, and they’d laugh at me.

I left SKC in 1985 and set up my own business, buying and selling computers. I said if I didn’t set up my own company I’d regret it for the rest of my life. It went into liquidation in 1992. I had overexpanded. The day that it closed was actually a relief, because for two years I’d been struggling.

It was hard owing money to other people, though. As you’re walking down the street you’re wondering who’s going to talk to you, or not talk to you, because your business failed, with debts owing.

This was all just before the web. I knew it was going to be massive. I spent a few years doing consultancy work. I built websites for some years. Everyone wanted a website, but nobody knew how to do it.

The last 15 years I’ve managed to cram a lot into my life. What gives me the greatest satisfaction is that three years ago I got involved with Child Aid Ireland-India, an Irish-registered charity. It’s a child-sponsor programme, and we build medical centres and orphanages.

I went to India on business in 2005. I was going to buy an apartment in Bulgaria at that time, and I thought the money could be spent better by giving it to charity. The charity built an extension to an orphanage to take another 75 children.

It’s so important to me because I really feel I’m making a difference, especially with my computer knowledge. I go out to India a lot and visit the projects. It gives me tremendous satisfaction to know that I’ve been involved in changing so many lives. I’m mostly retired, but I probably work five or six hours a day for the charity and one hour for my own business now.

I have bone cancer. It started as prostate cancer. I was told that it was very aggressive. My initial thought was, Jesus, this is not like a flu or when you break your leg: this is not going to be fine. I was pretty shocked for a few days.

At 9.30am on March 15th, 2012, I was told, “If it spreads – and it looks like it has – there is nothing we can do for you.” I was pretty shattered.

This time last year they told me it had spread to my bones, and they were going to treat me with chemotherapy. I’ve had a couple of scans since then. I operate every day now like I’m living my last year.

I talk about having cancer openly. I probably shock people when I tell them I have cancer. I focus on achieving as much as I can every day. I try to joke about it with my family, but I know they all must be devastated, as any family would be.

What’s important to me now in life is honesty, integrity, family and friends. What I’d like to say to others about what I’ve learned in my life is, don’t waste any of your time and don’t moan.

I’m not afraid, no. I’m not afraid, though the odd time I think it’d be great to have another 10 or 15 years.

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