Eilish Cullen, 75: ‘Ageism in society is very destructive. Don’t teach us how to knit. Make us more self-reliant’
Photograph: Aidan Crawley
In conversation with Rosita Boland
Eilish Cullen lives in Walkinstown, Dublin
I grew up on Bath Avenue, in Sandymount, where my parents rented rooms. When I was seven we bought a house and moved to Inchicore. My mother, Lily, worked in the Swastika Laundry, in Ballsbridge, and my father, Tommy, in the packing department of Arnotts.
My father got TB when I was eight, and spent three years in hospital. My mother took in lodgers to make extra money, so there wasn’t a lot of room at home then.
I became what was called a “granny sleeper”. Children often went to stay with their granny in those days, especially if they were from large families, even though in my case there were only two of us, myself and my younger brother. I’d be in our house during the day, and then I’d sleep at Granny’s at Bath Avenue.
My father came home when I was 11, just before puberty. I moved back home to Inchicore full time, and then I started to go off the rails. I discovered boys, and I was half mad at the time.
At school, unless you had nice ringlets down your back, you were made by the nuns to feel you were not important. They made sure everyone in the class knew who was on free books, like me. The Gresham Hotel was for posh people, and banks were for other people, not for us. I left school when I was 13, which was pretty much normal for the time. You were expected to be adults at 14 in my working-class area. There was no extended childhood then.
I met Jimmy, my future husband, when I was 13. I thought he was an Adonis. I thought he was beautiful. His eyes were blue as the ocean. I fell for him. He was 13 too. His mother had just died, and in a way we were both troubled spirits who just found each other, or so I like to believe.
My biggest regret in life is taking up smoking. Jimmy gave me my first cigarette when I was 13, and I coughed my way through it. At 75 I’m still smoking. I smoke 12 a day – a dirty dozen.
My first job was in Arnotts as a messenger, for a year, when I was 14. Then I worked as a receptionist in a dentist. After that I worked in retail. When Jimmy moved to England, at 17, I took off. I never even told my mother. We went down to London from Liverpool, and slept in an air-raid shelter our first night.
You didn’t live together in those days. He lived in one digs in London, and I lived in another.
We came back to Dublin, and I got married to Jimmy when I was 22. You were on the shelf in my circle if you were 21 and not married. Women didn’t realise then we had choices, or I certainly didn’t. I didn’t ask those questions before I got married: do I want a career, do I want to get married, is this right for me right now? It was a time when women were very much second-class citizens.
Walkinstown has been my base for most of my adult life. We had five children. Work was always important to me. I always had this need to go out and earn for myself. I always did part-time jobs, even after I’d had the children. I did shifts in a factory.
I went back to education when I was 40. I did English and history in the local school, and sat the Leaving Cert exams. I got Bs in both of them. I didn’t do it to get a job. I did it for my own self-esteem and to put two fingers up to the nuns who told me I’d never amount to anything.
My 40s were my worst years. My parents both died when I was 46, and I fell apart. I’d always been the type of person who got on with things, and the image of me to everyone else was someone very capable, but under it all I was falling apart. I went on antidepressants and sought counselling. I thought it was important to start taking a role in my own wellness.
I have learned in life that it takes time to be confident about yourself. Roles became less important to me. I was always defined either as Mrs Cullen, Jimmy’s wife, or as the mother of five. In my 50s I decided I had to look and see what I could do for myself. I enrolled in an extramural course in Maynooth in counselling skills. I got a job with the health board on their drugs and HIV helpline. I stayed there for nine years.
When we go to Spain, which we do from time to time now, I’m anonymous. I like that. Suburbia is great, and the local community in Walkinstown is terrific, but sometimes you don’t want everyone to know everything about you.
A lot of people in their 70s, particularly women, say they feel invisible in society. I hate to hear women running themselves down. I don’t feel invisible. I think that sense of invisibility comes from a lack of self-esteem and from being taken for granted; for instance, I know a lot of grandmothers being used as unpaid babysitters who don’t want to be doing it.
Ageism in society is very destructive. When you look at the courses that are being given by the powers that be to older people, they are often so patronising. Please don’t sit us in a corner and teach us how to knit. Recognise our wisdom and experience and talent instead. Make people more self-reliant. I don’t think it’s useful for everything to be done for people as they get older.
I get tired. My knees are gone. I have a sense of loneliness because my brother died two years ago. I’m the last one standing from our family now, and it is very much a reminder of my mortality, but I have to be careful not to wallow in it. Everyone wants to be 75 but nobody wants to be old.
I have been very happy in my marriage. Jimmy keeps me well grounded, and he allows me freedom to be myself. I was always happy when I heard his key in the door, and I think that’s a fair assessment of a marriage.
For me the most important thing in life now is peace of mind. I don’t care what people think of me. I’m at the stage of life where I’m looking back, and instead of saying all the things I did wrong I’m saying all the things I did right. And I’m owning that knowledge.