Una Hughes, 60: ‘Most of my friends are single or divorced. We’re very happy’

Photograph: Alan Betson

Photograph: Alan Betson

Fri, Aug 22, 2014, 11:30

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Una Hughes lives in Balbriggan, Co Dublin

I grew up in Blackrock, outside Dundalk, in Co Louth, when it was a little fishing village. There were five of us children, and at one point my grandmother lived with us, too. When I was 11 we moved into Dundalk, and I remember not being able to sleep with the street lights.

I trained in Carysfort College, in Dublin, as a primary-school teacher. It was run by Mercy nuns, and it was like a boarding school. It was all women, you wore your skirts a regulation length, there was a roll-call at meals, the food was stodgy, and you put on a lot of weight. You were allowed out once a week, and had to be back by curfew, at 10pm. It was not at all what a third-level education should be.

I did enjoy teaching, though. I loved it. My first wage was £60 a week. I lived at home the first five years, and worked in a school in Dundalk. I remember going on holidays the day school finished and not coming back until the day before it started again – island-hopping in Greece, travelling in Portugal. I was always interested in history, culture, architecture. We travelled on a budget with haversacks, stayed in hostels, sometimes slept rough.

We drank pints of Harp and smoked Carrolls Number 1s. You smoked everywhere. I loved trains with compartments and those ashtrays: you never knew who you were going to meet next. We went out constantly, but we never missed a day’s work. For us there was no difference then between the week nights and the weekend. We went out all the time. People who work only seem to go out at weekends now.

At 24 I did something people didn’t do then: I resigned. There were no career breaks in those days, and I wanted to travel. I had wanderlust. Travel is a wonderful education. You become more resilient and independent; the people you meet, the amazing things you see. I always loved difference in cultures. I craved difference. You know that Robert Frost poem? “I took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” That’s my life.

I went to Rome as an au pair. The people I worked for were millionaires. They had a five-year-old boy, and a housekeeper. After a few days I was left on my own with the boy and the housekeeper, who hated me. The woman of the house had a wardrobe full of fur coats, and when she wasn’t there I used to try them on. I quit after a fortnight. I just didn’t like it. I stayed on in Rome for a year, teaching English to bankers, and then came back and got a job in Dublin, in a school in Coolock. I was still single. Everyone I knew was still single.

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