Late Summer 1967, Age 15
“You need a job.” Mother’s announced out of the blue one morning in the middle of August. Dad had sent me my O Level results—I hadn’t done too badly—and had reminded me that school started soon. Now Mother wanted to settle the question whether I was staying or going once and for all.
Work was scarce in Dungarvan. Dejected men in dirty gray coats stood around the Square each morning, smoking and hoping for a day job. As soon as the pubs opened, the Square emptied—but the shabby men were there again the next morning and the next. What chance did I have? But Mother had a plan: we should talk to an old friend of hers.
That afternoon we set off toward the other end of town, past the dreaded Mercy Convent School and St. Mary’s Catholic Church, an ugly gray barn-like structure with a cross on top. I’d never been to the bad end of town; it had a scary reputation for poverty and violence.
Mother was in a cheerful mood, striding along with focused intensity, dressed as usual in her short coat, black slacks and boots with a floral scarf tied tight under her chin. She was on a mission; I just wanted to be invisible.
“Keep up Owen. Stop dawdling! We’re going to see Jackie Donovan. I’ve known him for years. He was a regular at the Harbour Rest—a good man.” I wondered if they’d been more than friends.
“Be careful around Jackie.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He’s from an old tinker family. You don’t want to get on his wrong side: he’s got a fierce temper. Nearly killed a man, I’m told.” Mother hardly paused for breath. “Tinkers: they have their own ways. I knew Jackie’s mother, a lovely woman—she’s dead now—collected fine porcelain. Before they settled, they traveled around in a painted caravan.”
Tinkers, itinerants or travelers were fringe members of Irish society, often on the move, fiercely clannish with their own code of honor and flexible rules around property ownership—particularly settled people’s property. The days of the horse-drawn caravan were almost over; the government settled traveler families in low-rent council housing and we were headed to one such development in Cathal Brugha Place.
Near the end of town, trim houses gave way to rough, open ground; potholes appeared in the middle of the road and the sidewalk pavement disappeared. We turned the corner into Cathal Brugha to find a rabble of young boys with grubby faces and bright straw hair playing in the street. One of them called out in a shrill voice, “Who ya looking for, Mam?”
“Is Jackie Donovan home?” Mother asked.
“He’ll be down the pub. I’ll go tell ‘em you’re coming.” He sped off down the street and disappeared through a door in a row of unpainted concrete-block houses. We approached the house through a cramped front yard filled with odd pieces of junk and knocked on a battered front door that had once been blue. Something had chewed a chunk out of the bottom. The door opened and a heavy-set young woman with a round open face greeted us.
“Hello Missus Evans; little Jimmy told us you’d be calling. Come on in—come in and have a cuppa. The kettle’s on. Da will be back in a little while.”
“Hello Mary. Owen, this is Mary, Jackie’s eldest.”
Mary nodded in a friendly way and ushered us into the main room, a large dim space with an open hearth dominating one wall. A fire glowed red amidst gray ash; a sooty kettle hung from a hook. To the right of the fire, a big metal teapot sat on a low concrete ledge while a mound of fibrous peat turfs, like furry brown rodents, were piled on the concrete floor.
I looked around: Where do I put myself? The room was bare except for three stick-back chairs circling the fire and a plain pine table in the center. In the gloom, I could just make out a sink and painted dresser against the farthest wall.
We sat around the fire on the hard chairs drinking strong milky tea from mugs, while Mother and Mary chatted about the weather and gossiped. I kept silent.
After ten minutes, the front door flew open and a girl my age came bouncing into the room chattering as she came. “I was round at Aunty Bridget’s and the boys said we had visitors. Good afternoon, Missus Evans.” Her voice was light and lilting.
She walked in front of the fire, looked me straight in the face, beamed a wide smile and said, “Hello.” I was taken aback but I managed a mumbled reply.
Mother turned: “Oh, Linda—just who we’re looking for. I heard you’ve been working at the Ormond Hotel. How’s the new manager?”
Linda tossed her head, making her blond curls bob up and down.
“The job’s grand. The new manager, Mr. O’Connor, he’s a sound man—treats the staff well.”
She picked up the big metal teapot and looked at me. “Would you like some more tea?” Her eyes sparkled as she gave me another big smile.
“Yes thanks,” I mumbled and held out my mug.
Mother finally seemed to remember me. “Oh Linda, this is my son, Owen. He’s looking for a job. I thought you might know of something.”
Linda looked thoughtful. “They might be hiring. I’m on the early shift tomorrow—I’ll speak to Mr. O’Connor.”
The front door rattled and I heard the sound of heavy boots tramping on the concrete floor. We all turned as a bear of a man loomed into the room rumbling a greeting: “Good afternoon, Pam. It’s good to see you.” He went over to the fire and helped himself to a mug of tea.
Everything about Jackie Donovan was dark: his wavy hair, his complexion and the atmosphere he carried with him. His daughters fell silent; Linda’s smile faded and her brightness dimmed. I knew to be careful.
In the hush, Mother explained I was looking for a job at the hotel. Jackie listened, never interrupting, hardly acknowledging my presence. I could tell he respected Mother and I wondered why. Was it her upper-class manner, their shared history or that she treated him as an equal?
As soon as she’d finished, Jackie turned to Linda. “You’ll go talk to Mr. O’Connor this evening.” He gestured at me. “Make sure he knows that Owen here is Pam’s son.” Linda nodded: no questions, no comments. We gave our thanks and left soon after. As we stepped into the street, I took a breath and felt a shadow slip off my shoulders.
I got word to interview with the manager of the Ormond Hotel later that week. Dressed in the best clothes I could muster, I set off with my stomach in a knot. The hotel was on O’Connell Street, just up from the square. I’d passed it a few times without noticing while on route to the Ormonde cinema. The hotel didn’t look like much, just a faded hotel sign over double doors set back from the street.
I climbed the step, pushed open the door and entered another world. The small lobby with its crystal chandelier, floral carpet and dark wooden reception desk was worn, but it looked grand to my eyes. The blond young woman behind the desk smiled and asked, “Can I help you?”
I gave my name and she led me back into a tiny office with a desk piled high with papers. A youngish man—no older than my sister Veronica—sprang from behind the desk, caught me by the hand and shook it vigorously, explaining he was the manager—and that he was very pleased to meet me.
His youthful energy took me by surprise. Somehow I’d pictured a hotel manager as fat and balding, dressed in a baggy suit. Instead, here was a handsome fellow, in blue blazer and gray trousers with twinkling eyes and a ready smile.
He seemed to like me—and my confidence rose. The interview passed painlessly and in what seemed like minutes, Mr. O’Connor shook my hand again and welcomed me to the Ormond Hotel. I’d been hired part-time as a lounge waiter at one pound, fifteen shillings a week (about $30 now). It was not a fortune but with tips and free food, it was good enough.
Mr. O’Connor called for Eileen, the girl at the desk. She was lovely, with a pure Irish look: translucent fair skin and deep blue eyes. As we left the room, I caught a special look between her and Mr. O’Connor.
Eileen showed me around the hotel with a familiar mix of bossiness and sisterly concern. “Come in on time and get a fresh bar coat from the linen press.” She led me to a large closet, rummaged around and pulled out a short white cotton jacket with two buttons and wide lapels.
“Your job is to look after the lounge: keep it clean and tidy and serve the customers their drinks. You start this weekend; come in at four on Friday. You finish when the lounge closes around 11.00.”
We entered the L-shaped lounge with its long mahogany bar and stools. Behind the bar was a confusing array of beer taps, bottles and glasses in front of a long mirror. The room was slightly frayed, dimly lit with wall lamps that illuminated more floral carpeting set about with small tables and chairs.
This was to be my domain. To counteract a tremor of anxiety, I reminded myself I was a fast learner and people seemed kind. Maybe this would be just what I needed; maybe I’d found my place.
After the lounge, Eileen led me though the formal dining room and into the kitchen. Hot and steamy, clamorous with crashing pans and people yelling, it felt far too cramped for the four people hovering over the stoves and sinks. She raised her voice above the uproar. “Get your supper at 5.30. That’s the staff table over there.” She indicated a table in the far corner.
We slipped out a door into a backyard crammed with a jumble of crates, aluminum barrels and random piles of bottles—tiny green Babycham, fat brown bottles with long necks, tall beer bottles and a bunch of smaller ones. The air smelled of stale beer and sugary sweetness. Part of my job was to sort bottles into their respective crates ready for Tuesday pickup.
With a few more instructions, Eileen ushered me out the hotel door. She was so nice and pretty, I wanted to show her how hardworking I could be—I’d never let her down.
The first couple of weeks everything was strange and I was constantly on edge—fearful of spilling drinks, forgetting orders or giving the wrong change. Gradually work settled into a familiar routine: I came in early, wiped the tables, vacuumed the carpet, sorted a few bottles, chatted to the bar staff and went into the kitchen for supper, hoping to see Linda Donovan and her cheery smile.
All of a sudden, I was doing a job and making money, being useful and appreciated, finding my place in a small convivial world. Best of all, I could pretend to be normal, chat with ordinary people about nothing in particular and not think about Mother, the caravan or even Cardiff and Whitchurch Road. It was a blessed relief.
Sitting around the staff table for supper, the housemaids told scandalous and raunchy stories. One evening, I was finishing my food when Linda rushed in, overflowing with a juicy tale.
“You know the young couple that registered this afternoon?” she burst out. “Well they ordered drinks in their room.” She looked around the group to make sure we were paying attention. “I knocked and there was no answer. So in I goes—Bejasus, what a shock! They were going at it on the bed, stark naked.” Her face dawned a beautiful sunrise pink.
There was a ripple of giggles around the group and I caught one or two glances my way. “Why didn’t you join them!” called out one of the brassy girls. The group cackled hysterically, rocking in their chairs.
As Linda flushed a deeper shade of pink, the freckles on her cheeks stood out like flecks of caramel. She looked delightful, lit up. Her only flaw was a large nose, but that was balanced by flashing green eyes. From her smiles and sidelong glances, I knew she liked me—but how could I get up the courage to ask her out?
Luckily, I didn’t have to. The following week Linda and two other girls invited me to go to the cinema. I met them outside the theater and the girls arranged it so that Linda and I sat together at the end of the row in the balcony. During the forgettable film, her hand snuggled into mine and when it finished, I walked her home.
Along the way to Cathal Brugha, we stopped in a dark spot for a bout of breathless kissing (we called it snogging in our family), but as we got closer to home I felt her tense: she was frightened her father might see us. At the corner of her street, we said our stilted goodnights without a kiss. Even so, as I walked back in the dark, I felt light-hearted with a pleasant humming inside.
Whenever our work shifts coincided, Linda would join me in the hotel yard to smoke a cigarette and steal a quick kiss. She was vivacious and flirty and it felt good to have a girlfriend: a feather in my cap. The other staff teased but it was kindly, particularly as the hotel was a hotbed of rumor and romance—we all knew Eileen and Mr. O’Connor had a thing going on. The Ormond was a small self-contained world, a miniature secret society hidden away from outsiders.
With a girlfriend, protective white coat and clearly defined tasks, work was something to look forward to. Other than the shifting demands of hotel guests, waiting on customers in the lounge fell into a predictable weekly pattern with familiar faces ordering the same drinks each time. Every Friday night at eight o’clock, I served a Jameson whisky and a Pimms #1 to a non-descript couple who sat at the corner table. When Mr. and Mrs. Nondescript got their drinks, they sat in total silence: Friday was their big night out.
There was one table near the main door I never served. Every couple of nights a group of beefy men ordered drinks at the bar and carried them to their corner. There were three regulars: a balding middle-aged man in an ill-fitting suit, another with a cheerful look in a tweed jacket and a powerfully built younger man with a red slab face above a thick neck.
Máire, the most experienced of the bar staff, took me aside. “See them fellas in the corner.” She flicked her eyes towards the end of the bar. “They’re the O’Brien brothers—they own the hotel.”
She went on in a low voice, “They’re just farmers who made piles of money with their digging machines. Now they think they’re someone—buying this hotel—but they’re really just a bunch of ignorant culchies.” Culchies was the disparaging term for country people.
“Look busy when they’re around. And keep an eye out for Paddy, the youngest one. He’s a real pig—nasty temper on him.”
One night a group of six hotel guests from Dublin came into the lounge, laughing and chatting. The focus of the group was a man in his forties with dyed blond hair, a pale lined face and unnaturally red lips. He kept his band of admirers in stitches with his sharp Dublin wit.
As I appeared at their table to get their order, the pale man looked me up and down as if I was a tasty morsel.
“What have we here? Oh, isn’t he darling! At last, a bright spark in this dreary town.” He played to his audience, drawling his phrases, each word rich with innuendo.
Taken aback, I asked the standard question, “What would you like to drink, Sir?”
“What would I like?” He paused and made a melodramatic pose with a finger to his lips. “Well… ” He drew the word out. “What have you got to offer?” He made a kissing pout at me with his bright red lips. The group tittered.
I reddened and began to fidget. A woman in the group came to my rescue: “Ah, don’t be teasing the boy, Eamon. Can’t you see you’re embarrassing him?”
“Embarrassed—not at all. He’s just smitten with me.” Eamon looked up at me and fluttered his eyelashes. “Isn’t that right, Dear Heart?”
Uncomfortable as I felt, I knew it was all in good fun. Trying to appear composed, I answered, “Yes, Sir. Of course, Sir.” That got a chuckle from the group. “Would you like to order your drinks now?”
It was a busy evening. I rushed up and down the lounge with a full tray and even enjoyed being a foil to Eamon’s jokes. By closing time the group was uproarious, loudly calling the length of the lounge, “Dear Heart, we need another round.”
After a long night and a good haul of tips, the bar closed. I’d stepped out of the hotel entrance to have a quiet smoke when I heard the door open behind me and sensed a presence; it was Eamon. He was quite drunk, swaying slightly as he moved close beside me.
“Ah, there you are, Dear Heart.” His voice slurred slightly as alcohol breath wafted into my face. “No hard feelings, I hope?” His face looked drawn—lined and sad in the half-light.
“How about a little kiss to make up.” His red rouged lips swayed toward me and brushed against my cheek. I steadied him with a hand on his shoulder and sensed a sharp pang of loneliness. His attraction to me was strange, but I felt a kind of sympathy. I knew how it felt to be alone and work hard to be liked.
“I think we should go inside now, Sir,” I said and opened the door. He entered unsteadily and climbed the stairs to his room.
Many nights, after the bar closed, staff gathered in the lounge for a nightcap. That was our time to gossip and make fun of the residents, give them nicknames and share intimate details of their habits and belongings. The conversation flowed easily, lubricated by a free drink or two. I found my own favorite tipple: Hot Irish Whiskey–a shot of Paddy’s, boiling water, brown sugar, lemon and cloves. It helped me relax and join in. Tired after a long shift, swapping stories and sipping my soothing lemony whisky, I was part of a bantering, comfortable tribe, more like a family than my own family.
All of a sudden, it was October and my sixteenth birthday. Veronica and Dilly sent me birthday cards with messages demanding I come home: Dad was worried. I was wasting my life in Ireland and neglecting my education.
The letters made me furious: What do they know or care? Who gives them the right to tell me what to do? And what about Mother? Is she just forgotten, consigned to the family garbage heap? I’m doing what I want to. Fuck them all!
Creating an Identity
The visit to Cathal Brugha and subsequent entry into the hotel world was a ‘rite of passage’. It heralded a momentous transition from the dependency of childhood to the beginnings of adult independence. I’d stepped over the threshold between school and work and now I had to grow up and shape up.
Rites of passage are events or rituals that mark a change of status, a transition from one phase of life to another. High school and college graduations are obvious examples but more powerful are the life events of leaving home, finding a job, getting married and having children. After a major life event, we are different, not only in the eyes of the world, but also in our experience of our selves. The outer situation, with its unfamiliar and uncomfortable demands, provokes a necessary inner transformation.
Initially, that transformation is superficial. We learn the rules of the game, adjust our behavior—and fake it ‘til we make it. At the Ormond, I tried on different outfits and different aspects of personality. Like sorting though a costume chest, I found what fitted and what suited the situation. Inwardly scared, as soon as I dressed in the white coat I was a waiter and could feel like a waiter. That is the benefit and persuasive power of a persona.
Think of the persona as a culturally accepted disguise and shield for the ego; we put it on depending on the social situation and role we have to play. It is why doctors are so often doctory, why a soldier stands like a soldier and why a psychotherapist acts as you expect a therapist to act. We are playing a role, following the script for that part. C.G. Jung describes the persona as a, “… system of behavior which is dictated by the demands of society and partly by one’s fiction of oneself.”
The persona is a two-edged sword. Established social roles protect our fragile egos, but the personal ‘fictions’ we create around them are seductive and potentially perilous. Have you met a nurse who is always a Nurse, a businessman who has everything under control, or a therapist who psychoanalyzes his family and friends? They identify their selves with their performances; they have merged personality and behavior with social status. The mask of the persona has fused onto the face and they can’t get it off.
Possibly that’s what happened to Eamon, the instigator of ‘Dear Heart’. He lived and breathed to entertain his friends, wearing a kind of fascinating Oscar Wilde caricature. But on that rain-drenched hotel porch, the mask slipped and beneath the wit and wisecracks, I glimpsed a raw, lonely person. Those who cling to persona, to a particular presentation of their self, often hide inadequacy and insecurity beneath the mask. They don’t exactly know who they really are, so they fixate on an external veneer; their façade props up a shaky personal edifice.
Like most adolescents, I had little idea who I was, so a ready-made persona was extremely valuable. My identity was an unfinished jigsaw puzzle with oddly shaped pieces. Some parts slotted together but most were scattered loosely about, uncertain where to fit.
At work, behind the shield of my white coat, I unconsciously sorted through childish and worn-out slivers of selfhood shaped for survival in my family. No one knew what it meant to be an Evans; no one thought I was too clumsy, too bookish or two shy to do my job—I was simply expected to get on with it. Through the faith of Mr. O’Connor, Eileen and Máire, through having a girlfriend, I began to view myself as a different, more complete person.
To become whole, we need our selves to be reflected in the eyes of those we trust and respect. Someone sees us as competent and we discover competence. Someone assumes we can do it and we find the necessary inner strength. That is the essence of good parenting—and also of good psychotherapy. The therapist sees and reflects back the wholeness, the sanity and the full potential hidden within the client’s self-doubt and dysfunction. In that sense, the Ormond was a good parent and my first therapist.
They say the reason we choose to become psychologists is our burning need to understand our dysfunctional families. That is true for me: my family was a painful knotty problem that I struggled to unravel. An equally important motive has to be fascination with human beings and why they do what they do.
The Ormond gave me my first glimpse of the vast range of characters, motives, actions and interactions that characterize our human species. I remember being blown away that people were so diverse, so different from what I expected. My experience in that hotel goldfish bowl inflamed my curiosity about other human beings. More important, the Ormond staff helped me become human. We need help to become human.
Read the next chapter: 11: Going Public
 C.G. Jung Speaking. Eds. William McGuire and R.F.C. Hull. p. 282. 1980. Picador.