It was a cold Monday morning, the 3rd of December 1979, when I arrived at 8-11 Lower Baggot Street in Dublin for my first day at my first ever real job. I clumped up the stairs in my brand-new tan cowboy boots to the third floor, where I was asked to take a seat in the cramped reception area.
As I sat down the tiny bells attached to my new peasant dress made a little tinkling sound. I will be forever grateful to whoever it was in JWT who saw my sales potential because I looked far more like someone who might head off to the Aran Islands to grow funny weeds, than a travel executive.
Like many girls who grew up in Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, I harboured dreams of being an “air hostess” for Aer Lingus. At a time when Ireland seemed to be behind the curve on everything from women’s rights to entertainment, Aer Lingus was up there with the best airlines in the world. The hostesses wore great designer uniforms and were portrayed as glamorous ambassadors for Ireland, literally flying the flag abroad.
My dreams of joining them died the day I got the letter telling me I had failed their “aptitude tests”. My life seemed to be over before it had begun. The job with JWT was a kind of consolation prize. But it was the travel business, and I had a nice enough uniform. Although unlike Aer Lingus women, we weren’t issued with uniform footwear which became a bit of a challenge for a tall hippie who disliked heels.
JWT was founded in 1961 by Joe Walsh, a tough, straight-talking northerner who began by operating pilgrimages to Lourdes. As we rolled into the 1980s,
JWT was Ireland's leading tour operator, offering holidays to a wide range of resorts in Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy.
It was a young company. Joe Walsh loomed over us all, like a taciturn father. He was a man with no time for trade unions but believed very much in keeping morale high and staff loyal. He achieved this not by paying us generous bonuses or top wages but by laying on plenty of entertainment and social events, long before the terms “team building” or “away days” were ever uttered in corporate Ireland.
As Ireland sank into a recession, the reservations department took on the guise of an African souk, with much wheeling and dealing to 'get bums on seats'
There were mid-season parties, Christmas parties, an annual conference held in December in his hotel in Kenmare and various departmental get-togethers. And then there were the weekends away in one of the resorts, sometimes disguised as “educational trips” and sometimes just because we had free seats going out and perhaps an empty aircraft coming home, which generally happened between seasons.
Joe Walsh had no issue with this gadding about as long as you weren’t occupying a seat that could be sold, which meant we all were adept at last-minute packing. We also knew we had better be back at our desk at 9am on the Monday.
After a year or so on the sales counters, mainly in the office on Grafton Street, I moved up to head office to work in tele-sales. Here, along with nine other colleagues we manned a bank of phone lines and dealt with queries from both the public and travel agents.
JWT operated the first computerised holiday reservation system in Ireland. As Ireland sank into a recession, the reservations department took on the guise of an African souk, with much wheeling and dealing to “get bums on seats” for that weekend’s departures.
From October till Christmas, the business was dead and the office quiet with many staff taking advantage of “winter leave” – another of Joe’s great ideas whereby staff were encouraged to take unpaid leave for up to three months to head off to foreign shores, with the security of knowing that our jobs would be waiting for us on our return in January.
Many of us returned from abroad early in order to attend the annual conference in December, when the new season’s TV ad was unveiled to staff before its first airing nationally on St Stephen’s Day. JWT’s TV ads were famous in their own right. “Join the JWT Set” was Ireland’s version of Shake’n’Vac.
I have a million stories from those happy years. I have a handful of friends with whom I never lost touch and I am connected to many more former colleagues on social media. There is a collective sadness among us – that the company in which we spent our formative years is no more.
But among the cascade of old photos and memories flooding my timeline is a common thread. We all loved working for Joe Walsh Tours. It was a special place and a special time to work in a business that dealt in dreams and sunshine.