No easy job running a recruitment firm

 

TradeNames: A recruitment firm has come full circle from finding jobs for Irish emigrants to getting work for today's immigrants. Rose Doyle reports.

Recruitment agencies, so thick on the ground these days, were rare in the Dublin of 1939. A spade was called a spade then too. When Dublin Corporation renewed the Universal Employment Bureau's operating licence in that year it gave permission to carry on "the trade or business of a Female Domestic Servants' Registry".

The agency, started by the redoubtable Mary (Molly) Hynes, was then just two years old. In time and hard work it would become a force in the Irish labour market, not to mention a social institution at home and abroad.

Iverna Hynes, daughter of Molly - who is 87 years old and just five years retired - is the keeper of the flame, living and breathing the business in much the same way as you imagine her mother must have done. She sits at her mother's desk, in the building at 52 Lwr O'Connell Street, where it all began, and tells a story which, more than most, puts a shape on social change in this country.

"Grandad started the very first agency in 1889," she begins at the beginning. "His name was Sean Brophy and he was one of Ireland's first entrepreneurs. He started Tramore as a resort, too, when he got a licence for a dance hall there. No one went near the place until then."

Sean Brophy also owned a "couple of buildings" in South Anne Street. His daughter, Mary Elizabeth (later Molly) was born in one of them.

"He got the idea for the agency from a lady in Madrid," his granddaughter explains, "and started what was the first ever recruitment agency in Ireland, then called employment bureaus. My mother began working with him in the office when she was 14. She'd won a scholarship but he took her out of school, insisting she would learn more working with him."

Mary Elizabeth learned. In 1937, when she was 19, she started her own agency. "That was truly amazing for a woman at that time," says her daughter, "but then my mother moved a lot of goalposts. She set up on the third floor of this building with a desk and a broken typewriter and worked all hours. She handwrote letters and, for the first year, didn't have a phone. A yearly wage then was less than £10 and it cost £20-£25 to get a telephone. She recruited staff for shops, hotels, offices, hospitals."

Sean Brophy went on running his own, separate Brophy Employment Bureau until 1953. Molly Brophy married Timothy Hynes of Roscommon in 1939, had four children and, in the 1950s, changed her agency's name to the Molly Hynes Agency.

Iverna Hynes likes the personalised aspect of the business and so did her mother. Molly's was a very personal business in the early days. "Everything had to be done by letter and telegram," says Iverna Hynes. "To contact a girl in Roscommon to tell her she'd got a job in the Strand Hotel in London, for instance, there would be letters back and forth to the candidate, the parish priest, the doctor and then someone would go by bike to the house with a telegram."

Early recruitment was mostly of domestic staff for hotels, colleges, nursing homes and hospitals as well as nannies, cook housekeepers and maids for large private houses. The latter were recruited for European royal families, for the Grimaldis of Monaco, the Kennedys of the US, for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope of Hollywood, for Winston Churchill's household, for Buckingham Palace, "which always liked Irish staff. The Molly Hynes agency earned its reputation by word of mouth and was world famous".

Recruits didn't have an easy time of it. "Those were days of huge emigration," Iverna Hynes reminds, "girls taking up jobs would come to Dublin from the west of Ireland or wherever, travelling for the first time in their lives. My mother would send them a piece of red ribbon on a pin for their lapels so as they could be identified by whoever went to pick them up, usually my father with me in tow. They would wait in the ladies waiting room of the station and would leave on the boat for England that night.

"Most of them were probably never going to come back. There was a huge trade in housemaids in those days and mammy would have made all sorts of checks on the other side, including with the PP or rector or whoever to make sure girls were going to a reputable family and would be given time off for religious observances. The Molly Hynes Agency was the first port of call, too, for people coming from the Magdalens and industrial schools. A live-in job with their own room and a salary was a new life for them."

Molly Hynes worked and played and lived to become a legend in her own time. Between 1937-1942, while running the agency, she made dawn trips to the markets to stock the fruit and veg shop she owned in Thomas Street. She became a player in the property market and was for a while the owner of the Rockfield Hotel at Brittas Bay. You get a sense that life chez Hynes was eventful: on a Christmas cruise in 1963 they were dramatically rescued from the Lakonia as it burned at sea off Madeira.

"She ran the agency from the age of 19 until she was 82," Iverna Hynes says. "She was the person who stopped the parading of girls in the late 1930s, and the inspecting of their personal items, when a 'lady' said 'show me your teeth' to a girl. Our client list still reads like a who's who of Dublin. My sister, Ena, was the first to go into the business when she worked with mammy here. In about 1960 she started her own Shamrock Agency in London. She's now retired. I had a hotel recruitment agency of my own as well as a PA career consultancy. When mammy retired and closed down that was that."

Except that it wasn't, quite. Iverna Hynes started to get phone calls, queries about the agency.

"I'm still not sure how it happened but I somehow found myself advertising for nannies and the like and, in September 2002, sitting in my mother's office, behind her desk, running my own Hynes Staff Agency. The building had been renovated and was standing empty so I just moved in."

Today's business combines the hotel recruitment agency and PA Career Consultants and life, as it does, coming full circle, finding work for those coming into the country rather than leaving it.

"We're dealing with people coming in from the EU accession countries - places like Slovakia and Lithuania. We get fantastic candidates - coming to us for same socio-economic reasons as in my mother's time but with third level education, degrees in languages and the arts and driving licences. They can earn in a week here what they would earn in a month at home, most of them are intent on making a new life. But the majority of clients would still be young Irish girls."

While a large part of the Hynes Staff Agency business deals with the "very wealthy" they also recruit for "two-job-families who need home help and single people who want someone to do the ironing and housework. We recruit professional nannies, housekeepers, butlers, chauffeurs and live-in family help as well as staff for leading hotels."

Checking references and confidentiality are "huge things. They're what our clients pay for and, if we haven't got it right after three generations, we might as well give up. Mammy respected the staff and employer both, and that's why she was successful. We have third and fourth generation customers coming to us."

Iverna Hynes loves what she does, every day of it. "But I'm certainly not going to sit here until I'm 82! Just until it stops being as fascinating and rewarding as it still is. The agency, in any event, tends to have a life of its own."