Eleanor Tiernan: How I became the Greta Thunberg of Athlone

I was part of a crew that introduced wheelie bins to the town. Not everyone was happy

Wish you were here? Photograph: Getty

Wish you were here? Photograph: Getty


I was on a pay phone on the Isle of Man calling home when they told me the news. The plan was to ask for a temporary cash injection to tide me over until I could get a job. We’d arrived via ferry a week earlier in the hopes of spending the summer enjoying parties, sunshine and booze but reality was messing with our plans. We had just missed, locals told my pals and me, the biggest weekend in the island’s tourist calendar – the TT motorcycle races – and the chances of finding transient work now were vastly reduced. Our pooled stash of crisp sterling notes was almost all gone on fags and drink, and so a job offer should have been good news. Not this one though.

An official letter had arrived from Athlone Urban District Council offering me a 12-week student summer posting in its engineering dept. I’d applied for it months earlier, before the Isle of Man trip was even mentioned, but got no response. Now, however, receiving the news made staying away much harder. On the call, the case for taking the job was carefully laid out and the strongest arguments I had for staying (expanding my horizons, possibly losing my virginity and so on) seemed airy-fairy and shallow by comparison. With a heavy heart I gave myself up to the logic of “cutting my cloth” and agreed to come home.

Three days later my new boss was showing me around the offices of Athlone Town Hall. Jim carried himself with an enthusiasm for the job of town engineer that seemed more suited to a Renaissance painter. He gave me a donkey jacket, a high-visibility vest and steel toe-capped boots like I was in Karate Kid – all preparation for the important job he had in mind for me. A consignment of shiny new bins had been delivered to the council depot, and each household in the town had to be given one. My job? To travel in the delivery vehicle and note the six digit number on the lid and the address each bin went to. It was no struggle to hide my excitement.

Dreaming of drinking

Before 1995 rubbish in Athlone had been collected in black refuse sacks, which bin men launched overarm up into the back of the lorry that would take them to the dump. In the mini-lecture Jim gave me, he said that these new “wheelie bins” were the first step towards a more sanitary regime. They would be safer and more hygienic for both the workers and the environment. I nodded along to these sensible words but inside I was daydreaming about doing shots in a seafront bar in Douglas.

For the next week, in the scorching sunshine, I sat in the cab of a flatbed truck stacked 10 high with black high-density polyethylene wheelie bins while it inched its way through every nook and cranny of Athlone. For company I had two council workers who did all the heavy lifting, and The Outhere Brothers on the radio. The truck was such a tight fit for the streets, it created something of a spectacle. Passers-by stopped to watch us make a narrow turn without scraping the side of the lorry off a wall. News of the delivery spread. Soon when we arrived in a housing estate, residents would come out to meet us. Children eyed our cargo up to see what mischief they could use the items for.

It had the effect of making my job harder, as I was already scrambling to get all the detail recorded in my notebook before the bins where whisked away from us. I didn’t mind. It buoyed me up that people were feeling a sense of occasion around what we were doing, even if I didn’t. (Amazon delivery drivers will recoil in horror at the idea of doing this sort of task without a QR or barcode, but it was 1995 and it would be nearly 20 years before I’d have a smartphone in my hand.)

More and more the sense of drudgery left me. I got over my initial nerves and learned how to climb easily in and out of the vehicle. I became fluent in the geography of my hometown in the way that only comes from time spent in the realm of delivering things. And there was a sort of Zen-like immediacy to it that got me out of my “wishing I were elsewhere” head and rooted me where I was.

Angry Man

Somewhere in the middle of the week, things went astray. I was about to knock on a door when a man in a white vest tore out past me with his fist in the air. I didn’t get a chance to say Jim’s line of “Hello, I’m from the council, this is your bin”.

“Never!” the man roared. “You can take your bin back because I won’t be having it.” He looked around for someone in authority to speak to but there was only me. “These bins are a disgrace,” he said pointing a finger in my face. “Ye should be ashamed.” The man’s fury stumped me. There was nothing in the instructions to deal with this, so I departed from the script, saying “Oh, well, I’m sorry about that”, and gave it to someone else.

When I told Jim, he knew straight away who the man was. Angry Man was someone who’d long fought the arrival of wheelie bins in Athlone. Knowing the controversy that would arise if he had been the one to accompany the vehicle, Jim sent me out instead to absorb the man’s rage. 

It makes me laugh that my 18-year-old ignorance was deployed in such a clever way to improve our town’s environment.  Jim made an unwilling Greta Thunberg out of me. Luckily whatever improvements wheelie bins made to Athlone’s environment have still happened despite me not being the most enthusiastic of climate activists.

At the end of the week, I accepted a reverse-charge call from the Isle of Man. I braced myself to hear about the fun time being had without me. It couldn’t have been worse. The girls had all got jobs in a fish factory and were heading out that night with their first pay cheque. I laughed at their complaints that it was so very hard to get the smell of fish off at the end of the day. Yes, painful to miss out but not that much. A lot can happen in a week.

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