Nuala McCarthy, 72: ‘Even though Irish people talk a lot, it is very superficial. It’s hard for people coming here’

Faithful friends: Nuala McCarthy with her dog, Honey. Photograph: David Sleator

Faithful friends: Nuala McCarthy with her dog, Honey. Photograph: David Sleator

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 01:00

In conversation with Rosita Boland

Nuala McCarthy lives in Cabinteely, Dublin

I was born in Cork city. My father worked in the Hanover shoe factory. Geography was always my favourite subject at school. I knew there was something else out there.

After I left school I had about three office jobs in Cork, and the last one was at Sunbeam Wolsey. It was one of the big employers in Cork. They had baths, and once a week you could go and have a bath on the premises. We all went. It was one of the perks of the job. Could you imagine that now – a free bath as a job perk?

When I was 20 I decided I was leaving. I handed in my notice, got my holiday pay and moved to Dublin with a friend. People were shocked because Sunbeam Wolsey was a pensionable job, and you didn’t give up a pensionable job in those days.

I left because I wanted adventure, which was probably unusual in those days. Girls didn’t leave home to look for adventure. They left home to move in with their husbands. My friend and I rented a bedsit on Harcourt Street in Dublin. It had twin beds, a sink in the room and a bathroom down the hall. We thought it was a palace.

I worked for the Austrian tourist and trade office, which was on St Stephen’s Green in a Georgian building which has now been razed. There was no heating. There was a wood-burning stove, and a woman used to come in and light it every morning. In the winter we would keep all the shutters closed, and it was pitch dark. At lunchtime I would go to Stephen’s Green and rent a deckchair for a penny.

After two years the same friend and I decided we wanted to go to a warmer climate, and we went hitching around Europe. It was my first time outside Ireland. We flew to Cherbourg and went out on to the main road. We wanted to go to Paris. We started hitching on the wrong side of the road, because we didn’t know people drove on the other side in France. How would you know that living in Ireland?

We hitch-hiked through France and down through Italy. Then we stayed in Naples. I loved Naples right away. Then back to Switzerland, Cannes, Antibes. Every now and then I sent a postcard home. Going to Dublin had been a shock for my parents, and now I was in Europe. I ate my first peach and first avocado. I loved the diversity and the differences: the languages, the food, the people and how they lived. And the freedom, because nobody knew me.

I came back to Dublin and worked for another year. Then I decided I wanted to go back to Naples to live, which was very naive, because I couldn’t speak Italian and I didn’t know anyone in Naples, but when you’re young you don’t think of these minor obstacles. I saved my money again, then went back to Naples. I got a job as a legal secretary in the US naval hospital there. It was my first time meeting Americans. I was there for three years.

After that I got a-six week visitor’s visa for the US, and I ended up staying over 20 years. I went to San Francisco, and as soon as I got off the plane I said this was the place for me. I liked everything about it: the colours, the scenery, the water, the people.

At first I was there illegally, so I did babysitting, house-cleaning, pet-minding for money. Then I got a job in the Canadian consulate. You get a special visa if you work in a consulate, and I could leave the country. I had different boyfriends, but I really preferred living on my own, and still do, so I found a studio apartment and lived there.

I went to Latin America, and back to Ireland to visit. I remember my parents coming to Shannon to pick me up, and driving through dismal villages that looked so shabby and quiet. Ireland seemed a very depressing place in the 1970s. I was always very happy to go back to San Francisco.

I came back to Ireland in 1995 because I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. I was in my 50s, I had got my green card and I was a US citizen. I had a really good job as a budget analyst. I had bought a house and some apartments. Then life changed.

When I got the arthritis I couldn’t work, and work was a big part of my life, as was the social aspect, plus the job satisfaction. All my friends were working, so I was in the house a lot, and I started thinking I might as well be in Ireland as be in San Francisco.

I moved back to Dublin with my two dogs, Basil and Oliver. Obviously, they’re dead now. Honey is my dog now, and I have two cats, Lucky and Tiger.

It was extremely hard coming back, and that was before email or Skype, and when phone calls were very expensive to my friends back in the States. People were very friendly and very curious as to why I’d come back, but I realised I wasn’t being invited to anyone’s house for lunch or dinner.

Even though Irish people talk a lot, a lot of it is very superficial. Everyone here has their life set up, their husbands and children and grandchildren, and they don’t really need anyone else, so I think it’s hard for people coming here starting out.

I joined different organisations, and I volunteered at the DSPCA. I went to lots of things to meet people. It took a few years, but gradually I made friends. It was right to come back, as all my very good friends in San Francisco have now left and moved back to where they came from. I went back to San Francisco to visit only once, but every year I go to Florida for February and meet up with friends there. I have to get out of here. It’s too dark. I need it mentally.

I’m surrounded by friends who are young not in age but in mentality. I try and avoid people who pull me down. When you get to my age you don’t have that need to be liked, so I choose my friends, and the friends I have are all positive, encouraging types of people. At 72 I know what I like. Life is simpler. There are fewer decisions to be made. I’m not climbing up the corporate ladder, and there is much less pressure in general.

I think older people need to be more assertive about the way society treats them. It’s not just that we become invisible. We are patronised. For instance, this talk about “silver surfers” on computers, I find that very patronising. And I heard someone on the radio lately describing someone of 62 as elderly.

I love what Eleanor Roosevelt said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I think no one can make you feel old, either, without your consent.

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