When money was too tight to mention

Because of my legal aid work, I am interested in characters who do not have an easy life

My father, who died in 2017, was always proud of the fact that he’d had three retirement parties. He had a permanent job in the forestry service. Then he took early retirement and worked in the private sector, retired again, and then retired a third time.

From a large family on a poor farm in Co Clare, he was determined that all four of his children would have a better start in life. He was a good family man. He didn’t drink or smoke. However, he was naïvely generous, with an unfortunate tendency to lend his hard-earned savings to friends and family, though often these people had more than he did, and merely found themselves in “situations” – and he was seldom, if ever, paid back. What with that, and us, and the mortgage for the house he bought when I was eight, money was always tight.

Like many young girls, I did heaps of baby-sitting. My first proper summer job, when I was 15, was in a paint and wallpaper shop. I used this setting for a short story called Wallpaper, my second published story. (My first was published in 2008 and went on to win two Hennessy Awards in 2010).

In the summer after Leaving Cert, aged 17, I worked in a computer factory. This became the setting for Clocking Out, published in my first short story collection Waiting for the Bullet (Doire Press, 2014). The story was also inspired by the Kerry Babies case.

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I deferred my college place (I’d got the points for law) and used the money from my factory job to go to Paris, where I worked as an au pair. In my new book, Liberty Terrace (Doire Press, 2021), a story called The Callinans Went to Paris is partly set in a restaurant that bears a distinct resemblance to Chartier, where the waiters still write customers’ orders on the paper tablecloths. When my au pair job ended, I sold doughnuts and ice cream on the beach in the south of France. Then I worked as a grape-picker. I almost didn’t come home.

Back in Ireland again, I resigned myself to accepting my place in college; everyone seemed so keen for me to do law. I had a partial grant and my father supplied my student house with bags of spuds, onions and carrots from his garden, as well as bags of turf he cut from a rented patch of bog. In the summers, I waitressed, worked as a barmaid and as a shop assistant. A sullen waitress makes a cameo appearance in my story Human Soup, and part of me sympathises with her.

After I finished my law degree, I got a temporary job with Cork Gas Company, during the conversion from town gas to natural gas. I loved going inside other people’s houses, noting the serial numbers of their appliances so that the technicians who followed would have the right kit to convert them. Like most writers, I am interested in what goes on behind closed doors.

Cork Gas Company promoted me to a clerical job and then to radio operator. There was talk of giving me a permanent job. How bad, as they say in Cork. I had money in my pocket. Decent money at last. I sat the entrance exam for Blackhall Place (then the only way to qualify as a solicitor), to please my Dad, quietly confident that I’d fail, since half the entrants did. To my horror, I passed it. My father was so proud. I couldn’t bear to let him down. So I accepted the place.

By then I’d squandered most of my Gas Company money on a holiday in Greece. To his dismay, my father realised he didn’t have money to pay the fees either. I had to take out a loan of £2,850 (equivalent to perhaps €15,000 today), at an interest rate of 18 per cent. It was secured by a letter of guarantee from my father and authority from the Incorporated Law Society. I was clueless about loans and interest. It was a terrible mistake.

As part of my qualification, I had to train as a solicitor’s apprentice in Cork. It was poorly paid, so I ended up waitressing again at night.

Eventually, I moved to London, where my then partner had a record contract. I found work in a criminal legal aid practice in Soho. I was qualified as an Irish solicitor but not yet admitted to the English Law Society, so my starting pay was £7,500 p.a. (about €20,000 today). Enough to cover rent and bills but very little else. I could barely pay the interest on my student loan. I worked occasionally as a waitress for a private catering company to get some extra cash. No matter how hard I worked, I was on a treadmill of debt that it seemed I’d never be able to get off. I could hardly breathe when I thought about the money I owed. Nobody should have to begin their working lives with a millstone of debt around the neck.

I was so naïve in matters of love too. I bought my then partner an expensive leather jacket when I couldn’t afford one of my own. Oh, the folly of those years! I am so well rid of him.

After a few years, I belatedly remembered that, after all, I was a solicitor. I wrote to AIB, with words like “unconscionable bargain” and “inequitable practice’. I may even have quoted case law and threatened court proceedings I could not afford. Finally, the bank agreed to a reduced sum in full and final settlement.

Later, I worked as a legal editor for Butterworths Law Publishers and as a freelance editor and project manager.

When I least expected it, I met a man who is the salt of the earth and is now my husband. We moved back to Ireland in 1999 with our child. I worked briefly for the Refugee Legal Service before suffering ill-health and stopping work for a while. In one of my stories, Ezinna’s Flamboyant Tree, a family who have obtained refugee status rent the most run-down house on Liberty Terrace.

I’ve also worked as a freelance editor, a creative writing teacher, and as a census enumerator (the last of which also features in Liberty Terrace).

Because of my own experiences, and my work in legal aid, I am interested in writing about characters who do not have an easy life. These days, as a writer, I don't earn much money, but – apart from things that cannot be measured, like love, respect and loyalty – I don't owe anyone a goddam thing.
Liberty Terrace by Madeleine D'Arcy is published by Doire Press in paperback, €15