Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

From Shop Street shoes to Sussex streetwear

I had no idea at the time, but applying for a minimum wage job in a shoe shop in Galway after graduating was the first step towards a successful career on the UK high street, writes Seán Mahon.

Sat, Jul 14, 2012, 08:57


I had no idea at the time, but applying for a minimum wage job in a shoe shop in Galway after graduating was the first step towards a successful career on the UK high street, writes Seán Mahon.

I like to think I had the foresight to sidestep the economic downturn in Ireland, that I somehow had an eerily accurate premonition on just how bad things would get for young graduates. Of course I didn’t, and when I graduated with a BA from NUI Galway in 2007 I did what any self-respecting Arts graduate would do – look for minimum-wage employment serving the delightful members of the public.

I lucked out on having my application for the local sex shop turned down, and got a call back to the local branch of a high-street footwear chain when their first choice candidate dropped out. When I entered the store on the 24th July 2007 (the day of my 23rd birthday), little did I realise I was taking my first steps towards leaving the land of my birth.

Six months down the line and the opportunity arose to interview for a post at the company’s head office, based just outside Edinburgh. The job advertised seemed too good to be true – get paid to write descriptions about shoes, and to never have to deal with the public face-to-face ever again. Ideal! I flew over on a Wednesday morning, got locked in a room with a few boxes of shoes to describe, received a phone call instore on Thursday offering me the job, and then flew out from Galway that Sunday to start my new life as a site content editor.

I loved Scotland – battered everything, football sectarianism, a kindred appreciation of Buckfast. The job was great too. I learned the ins and outs of e-commerce, online marketing and all kinds of persuasive ways of making internet users part with their cash. I eventually took over the role of affiliate manager, and this led to frequent conference visits to London.

Let me tell you something about being Irish abroad in a business setting – 90 per cent of people love you, love your accent or have a granny invariably from Mayo or Donegal. The other 10 per cent will take pity on the simpleton, and presume you have an ass and cart outside waiting to bring you back to the lush green countryside. Being Irish has helped, at least people remember the lad with the red beard and the funny accent.

Testing waterproof beanies for the shop

After three years in Scotland, my American girlfriend and I decided a change of scenery would do us good. Neither of us had any particular ties to Scotland, so we both packed our bags and made the big trip down south in March of 2011. I had managed to convince a men’s streetwear store in Eastbourne, East Sussex to take a chance on me a few months earlier, having flown down one September morning to tell them in no uncertain terms that employing me would make total sense. I guess it helped I was an ardent supporter and frequent customer of the store too.

One year on and all is well. I love working here and it gives me the excuse to hang about with like-minded souls with trivial things like waterproof beanies and limited edition trainers.

So there you go, that’s my story as a young emigrant chancing his arm abroad. I will admit I’ve been lucky in parts, but I’ve also worked hard to get to where I want to be. When I walked into the shoe store four and a half years ago, I had no idea it would land me where I am today. If I look back on it now, it does make sense; every step led me on to the next challenge and then ultimately to doing what I’m really passionate about.

There have been tough spots and I still feel homesick for certain things like proper Guinness, but I hope I don’t end up as one of those expats who pine for an idealised Ireland that never was. I don’t know if I’ll ever move back, and I honestly do feel very settled in the UK. Who knows, I may convince herself to smuggle me back to California and land a cushy job at some multi-million dollar skateboard company. Stranger things have happened…