Una Hughes, 60: ‘Most of my friends are single or divorced. We’re very happy’

Photograph: Alan Betson

Photograph: Alan Betson


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Una Hughes lives in Balbriggan, Co Dublin

I grew up in Blackrock, outside Dundalk, in Co Louth, when it was a little fishing village. There were five of us children, and at one point my grandmother lived with us, too. When I was 11 we moved into Dundalk, and I remember not being able to sleep with the street lights.

I trained in Carysfort College, in Dublin, as a primary-school teacher. It was run by Mercy nuns, and it was like a boarding school. It was all women, you wore your skirts a regulation length, there was a roll-call at meals, the food was stodgy, and you put on a lot of weight. You were allowed out once a week, and had to be back by curfew, at 10pm. It was not at all what a third-level education should be.

I did enjoy teaching, though. I loved it. My first wage was £60 a week. I lived at home the first five years, and worked in a school in Dundalk. I remember going on holidays the day school finished and not coming back until the day before it started again – island-hopping in Greece, travelling in Portugal. I was always interested in history, culture, architecture. We travelled on a budget with haversacks, stayed in hostels, sometimes slept rough.

We drank pints of Harp and smoked Carrolls Number 1s. You smoked everywhere. I loved trains with compartments and those ashtrays: you never knew who you were going to meet next. We went out constantly, but we never missed a day’s work. For us there was no difference then between the week nights and the weekend. We went out all the time. People who work only seem to go out at weekends now.

At 24 I did something people didn’t do then: I resigned. There were no career breaks in those days, and I wanted to travel. I had wanderlust. Travel is a wonderful education. You become more resilient and independent; the people you meet, the amazing things you see. I always loved difference in cultures. I craved difference. You know that Robert Frost poem? “I took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” That’s my life.

I went to Rome as an au pair. The people I worked for were millionaires. They had a five-year-old boy, and a housekeeper. After a few days I was left on my own with the boy and the housekeeper, who hated me. The woman of the house had a wardrobe full of fur coats, and when she wasn’t there I used to try them on. I quit after a fortnight. I just didn’t like it. I stayed on in Rome for a year, teaching English to bankers, and then came back and got a job in Dublin, in a school in Coolock. I was still single. Everyone I knew was still single.

Most of my friends now are single or divorced, and we’re very happy. I love being single, apart from the supplements. I don’t think I was ever meant to be married. I don’t think I was cut out for commitment or compromise. I didn’t want to be cooking a dinner every evening for someone else. I love my life.

All my life I never saved. I would advise young people to save. We just lived for the day. We never borrowed, but we always had money. “Pension” was a dirty word you’d laugh at. It’s only when you get to this age you think you should have had one all along.

I was working in Coolock eight years. I went to Istanbul and ended up being there for three years. I taught in a high school and learned to speak Turkish.

I decided to go to Bahrain to teach, to make money. I had no house, no savings, nothing to my name. I was 36. I thought it would be an experience, as well as saving money. I got the job in June 1990. Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Bahrain was the R’n’R place for all the forces, so it was like one long party. It was eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. It was a carpe-diem, beer-for-breakfast kind of thing.

I did feel unsafe in January 1991. You could hear the screech of the Scud missiles in Bahrain. We had visions of being maimed by chemical warfare.

I left the day before Operation Desert Storm. I came back to Dundalk and lived with my mother, and subbed. There were no wing commanders in Dundalk.

That year I bought a house in Balbriggan, for €34,500, and went back to the school in Coolock. I had a lot of fun, a lot of relationships. In 1999 I moved to a school in Donabate and was there 11 years.

I retired early, at 57. I’ve lost out financially, but I’m happy that I retired. I became disillusioned with teaching. Education has changed, become more bureaucratic.

I still travel, but I’m less adventurous now. I’m more concerned with safety. I’m so glad to be living in Ireland. I don’t think we appreciate the fact there is no war here. We have running water. Many countries don’t.

Now I feel conscious of mortality. How much longer do I have? I don’t want to know. I am conscious of making every moment precious. I savour everything.

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