Brave new worlds


This is the day when people silently resolve to turn their lives around and then do nothing. Rosita Boland talks to four people who are taking a leap into the unknown.

From Dublin to Cairo

"Turning 40 definitely had something to do with my decision," says architect Declan Jones. After six years as project architect at Scott Tallon Walker in Dublin, last year he was offered, and accepted a job as senior project architect for Henegan Peng's award-winning Grand Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. The existing museum, which holds priceless treasures, most notably those from Tutankhamun's tomb, opened in 1902. Its design was the result of a competition. Now badly outdated, overcrowded, and with its artefacts in need of a modern conservation space, a century later, another international architectural competition was held to find a design for a new museum - which Irish-American team Henegan Peng won.

Although there have been several site visits in the interim months since accepting the job, from early in the New Year, Jones will be permanently based in Cairo. It's estimated the project will take 10 years to complete.

"I mulled over my decision for a long time," Jones says. "I thought, I can continue on doing what I'm doing now; I'm very comfortable, I'm established here; Scott Tallon Walker are good people to work with. I could stay with them, or I could go for something completely unknown - I'd never even been to Egypt at that point and had no idea what working and living there would be like!"

It was the combination of the prospect of adventure, living in a new culture, and the experience every architect dreams of - the opportunity to work on a prestigious landmark building - that decided Jones.

"The museum is a once-in-a-lifetime project, and it's going to be an internationally famous building, so it's hugely exciting to work on a world-class project like that. A few people said to me before I decided, oh your social life now will be sitting out there in ex-pat bars drinking gins and tonics, and I found that a bit worrying, wondering, 'Will I?' But people generally were very supportive: their only worry was the security situation in Egypt. So far I've been travelling out to Cairo once a month and staying in a hotel, which is a very sanitised experience. When I move out for good, I'll have my own apartment, and that'll be very different: I'll be living there properly then.

"Once I made the decision, I forgot about the pain of making it, and since then, I haven't looked back or regretted anything. That must mean it was the right decision. There was nothing stopping me except myself."

From school teacher to opera singer

For the last five years, Cárthaigh Quill (29) has been working full time as vice principal at Gaelscoil Chluain Dolcáin in Clondalkin. This autumn, he took a five-year career break and has gone back to college full time, to pursue a career as an opera singer. He's currently doing a foundation year at the DIT Conservatory of Music in Rathmines in Dublin.

"I was doing singing part-time for a couple of years at the college," Quill explains. "My teacher, Emmanuel Lawler, encouraged me to study full-time. I was a bit iffy about it; going from a steady job to something that's not that steady, but I decided that I might regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't do it. I didn't want to wake up in my 40s and find myself wishing I'd done this."

Quill had a house, which he has rented to generate some income. With his house let out, he's had to move back with his parents; something which can't be easy on either party. "I am still doing a bit of subbing for money, but I can't teach much. It wrecks your voice, when you're using it in a classroom so much. My subbing is mainly one-on-one for special pupils, so that I'm not using my voice as much."

Quill thinks his age made the decision easier. "At 19 or 20, my voice wouldn't have matured enough. At 39 I might be married. I have to do it now. I'll be broke for two or three years, but hopefully I'll make it big time then! My long-term aim is to be a professional opera singer."

He has already started making an impact. Tenor Dennis O'Neill gave a masterclass at the school a month ago and as a result, Quill has been chosen as one of 12 people world-wide to participate in a future week of masterclasses with a range of teachers.

"People still say to me, oh, you had a permanent, pensionable job, and there's not much money in opera. But I had to try it. I probably would have gone for it anyway, even without the fall-back of an option to return to teaching in five years. My advice to people who are thinking of making a career change is to weigh up the odds, and to go out and try it. But whatever it is you want to do, you have to have a passion for it."

From financial services to skippering boats

"I was working in financial services in the IFSC for some years," says Bob Harris (35). "I ran an office for a Swiss investment management [ company], and then moved to day-trading stocks and shares for an American company. They packed up and went back to California, and I continued to day-trade on my own, but it's very difficult to do it alone."

Harris had been sailing since he was 16, and had kept it up ever since. Coinciding with the move of his American employers back to the US last year was an invitation to sail in the Arctic with a friend, John Gore-Grimes. He accepted and the experience set him thinking about moving his life in a different direction.

"I got a chance in the summer through friends to go and work in Portugal for South West Charters. They're based in Lagos and they have two yachts, three powerboats, two speedboats and a RIB [rigid inflatable boat]." Harris enjoyed it so much that he was told by the company if he did a yachtmaster course, they'd offer him a skippering job. It would mean moving to Portugal and giving up the financial job. He has decided to do it, and will be moving out in January, with a view to staying at least three years. He's also training to be a sailing instructor, as the company plans to open a sailing school..

"People had mixed reactions to what I was doing. Some were very supportive and others were saying if it didn't work out, it would be harder for me to come back to Dublin. But the way I see it, it's a combination of two of my interests, sailing and business. In the summer, we'll be sailing and teaching, and in the winter, we'll be thinking how to strategically grow the business, and how to promote it.

"I probably am taking a cut in pay, and there is a slight worry that it won't work out, but to me, it's worth taking the risk."

From nursing to running a cookery school

Billie O'Shea (42) worked first as an intensive care nurse in Blanchardstown, Dublin, and then taught nursing there. "I really enjoyed what I did, but I always had a desire to be my own boss," she says. In 2001, she started a four-year management degree, which she did at nights and weekends. She also did a Start Your Own Business course.

"I had run some food and wine nights in my house as fund-raisers for charity in the past," O'Shea explains. "I wanted to see if I could do it for a living. To change any job, you need to be a risk-taker, and have a sense of adventure. But you also have to do your research properly.

"Where I live - by Fairyhouse Racecourse - is a great location and the population there has spiralled but amenities haven't. In the last 10 years, I think in general, we are showing a lot more interest in food and wine in Ireland. I was sure there was a market for a cookery school."

O'Shea built a cookery school beside her house, and Fairyhouse Food and Wine School opened in October. She has left her nursing job for good. Already, she is reporting a huge demand for her classes, particularly for children.

"But I couldn't have done this overnight - decide I wanted to stop being a nurse and open a cookery school. I needed to know about the business end of it first. Nor could I have done it without the emotional and financial support of my husband. The big difference between a permanent pensionable job to working for yourself is that you don't know how much money will be coming in. I've never worked as hard in my life as I am now, but the buzz is fantastic, and it's all worth it to me."