‘Any Jobs Going?’ Career Advice in Post-War Ireland

From October 1949 until March 1950, the Irish Press ran a series of articles under the title ‘Any Jobs Going?’ with the aim of giving advice to teenagers about to enter the workforce. A weekly feature that covered over a hundred different trades and professions during its six month run, the articles in it are notable both for their clinical frankness and the research that went into them. Tom Garvin, in his popular history of 1950s Ireland, News from a New Republic, argues that this series of articles represents a rich and untapped source for students of labour history. Indeed, ‘Any Jobs Going?’ represents a unique snapshot, not only of the contemporary labour market, but also of the lives of working people and Irish society more generally in the post-war period.

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Máire Leane and Elizabeth Kiely write that Irish society in the 1940s and 1950s was ‘class-divided, patriarchal and repressive in many aspects.’[1] Similarly Diarmuid Ferriter wrote that the same period was characterised by ‘the huge gulf between the rhetoric of aspiration that coloured so many of the supposed advantages of Ireland as an unsullied classless, rural idyll, and the reality of a society that failed hopelessly to live up to such rhetoric.’[2] Ireland’s unequal and class-polarised society is blatantly demonstrated in ‘Any Jobs Going’. Professions such as medicine or law, for example, were far beyond the reach of working class people. The cost of becoming a doctor was estimated to be between £1500 and £2000 at a time when even a relatively good job like glass worker brought in an income of just £8 to £10 per week.[3] Another article noted of barristers that it was a common belief that ‘no young man should come to the bar unless he has a private income of at least £300 a year’.[4]

Any job requiring a university degree meant several years of tuition fees and, especially for those living outside of Dublin, much more to be spent on food, accommodation etc. To become an architect through the course in University College Dublin cost £45 in fees per year over a period of five years though, if your home was not in Dublin, it would take ‘well over £1000 to make an architect of you’.[5] Given that most Irish teenagers left school at 14 in order to contribute to the family income, the likelihood that anyone from outside the ranks of the elite could climb the ladder to a profession was unlikely. Similarly, while it is almost certain that scholarships and the like were a possible means of advancement for the working and lower middle classes, these were rare and not mentioned in ‘Any Jobs Going?’ as a reasonable means of social advancement. In my own oral history research on manufacturing workers in Cork, I found that when narrators were asked what they would have liked to have done after leaving education, most cited either craft jobs or unskilled but relatively well-paid work, demonstrating the limited (and accurate) horizon of expectations held by working-class people in a deeply unequal society.

IT Sep 4 1950 - 1

Job Advertisement in Irish Times, 1950

‘Any Jobs Going?’ also reflected the highly gendered nature of employment in 1950s Ireland. The number of occupations covered that were geared towards women was minimal and concentrated in traditional ‘feminine’ spheres of work such as hairdressing, millinery, dressmaking and waitressing. The series also paints a clear picture of the discriminatory practices that existed in relation to payment. In Cork, in 1949 for example, a waiter earned 55/- compared to the 33/- per week earned by his female counterpart, while, after ten years working as an assistant in a grocers or off-license, a man would have a weekly wage of 105/- compared to the female rate of 75/-.[6] Professions and high-status jobs were almost exclusively male domains, with only a handful of female exceptions, such as hotel manageress. The series also gives an insight into the brevity of women’s working lives. Better paying and high-status jobs for women in state bodies or semi-state companies, such as national school teacher or railway clerk, were inevitably cut short at marriage: ‘But girls, a word of warning, if you want to get married and still hold your job, national school teaching is not for you.’[7]

Even in jobs where there was no formal, legal requirement to quit upon marriage it was still the case that gender ideology ensured that the majority of women usually exited employment once they were married. As one working-class woman from Cork commented in her memoirs: ‘Every husband liked to convey the notion that he could support his wife on his own income and a working wife was tantamount to an admission of failure in that regard. It made him feel less of a man.’[8] For an older generation of women workers, the phrase ‘She got married then’ was also a shorthand way of saying ‘She exited employment’. Though married women gradually began to remain in employment from the 1970s, to the point where it is now the norm, the old notion of a male breadwinner and female caregiver had a long shelf life. Indeed, I recently interviewed one woman who recounted feeling guilty when she returned to work in the mid-1980s because she felt she was betraying her role as a mother.

Even within traditionally working class spheres of employment, many avenues were closed off due to restrictive work practices. As the first article in the series comments, ‘some jobs are easy to enter’ but others are ‘hedged about by all kinds of barriers, fees, waiting-lists, trade union regulations, age limits’.[9] These were not the only restrictions. To be a Garda, one had to be ‘not less than 5’ 9’’ in height (barefooted) with a mean chest measurement of 37 in the event of his being 5’ 11’’ or over, and at least 36’’ if he is less than 5’ 11’’ in height.’[10]

Gardaí in the 1950s. Height restrictions remained in place until the 21st century.

Gardaí in the 1950s. Height restrictions remained in place until the 21st century.

Leaving aside the barrel-chested giants of the constabulary, the most significant barriers to employment were in the trades. Many skilled jobs in this period were dominated by a guild mentality that owed more to early skilled trades societies than modern trade unionism. Carpentry for example, a well-paid and high-status craft, was effectively closed to those without relatives in the occupation: ‘If you are not a carpenter’s son or do not have relatives who are engaged in the industry, your chances are not so bright.’[11]  Similarly, the majority of those involved in the confectionery business were ‘closely connected to the trade by family ties and preference is given to those who have relations in the trade.’[12]  These practices tended to prevail much more in the older, more traditional trades such as those mentioned above. Other were less restrictive. To become an electrician, a profession whose ranks were being rapidly expanded by rural electrification, was a more reasonable prospect for a young worker. While the sons of electricians ‘naturally get some preference’, nominations of apprenticeship were shared equally by trade unions and engineering firms, meaning that there were a number of avenues available to those seeking an apprenticeship.[13]

While craftsmen had higher status, pay, conditions and bargaining power than other workers, to become a tradesman also required a lengthy apprenticeship. As Garvin notes: ‘Apprenticeship periods were far longer than in other countries . . . the international norm was three or four years for most trades, but Irish apprenticeship periods amounted to six or seven years of essentially underpaid labour.’[14] Indeed, one of the most striking things about the series as whole is the sheer number of jobs that required an apprenticeship. Even bartending, which is today an unskilled job that doesn’t require a qualification, required a four year apprenticeship in 1949/1950, while to be a grocer’s assistant necessitated a training period of three years.[15]

INNISFALLEN-A

The Inisfallen, which carried thousands of emigrants from Cork to England

Ultimately, ‘Any Jobs Going’ paints a picture of a highly closed and stratified labour market. After the miniature industrial revolution that coincided with Fianna Fáil interventionism in the 1930s, the limits of protectionism had been reached by 1950. The Irish economy was stagnating and, as a result, there were not enough new jobs and industries to provide fresh opportunities for the young. Beyond the jobs described in the Irish Press, the single most common occupation in the country was that of the unskilled worker, whether factory hand, docker or agricultural labourer, not to mention the thousands of unemployed.

The restrictive practices of many craft unions, which sought to maintain exclusivity within their trades, are understandable in this regard. With a vast reserve army of unskilled workers and the unemployed waiting beyond the factory or the workshop, lowering the barriers to entry would have meant that the industrial power of the craftsmen would have been decreased and the importance of their skills diluted rapidly. For most ordinary people in this period, who lacked the wealth of the elite, or the connections and trade protections of the craft workers, employment prospects were bleak. It is no surprise then that during the decade that followed the publication of ‘Any Jobs Going?’ more than half a million people left the country, seeking a life that the declining and stagnating emerald isle simply could not provide.


[1] Máire Leane and Elizabeth Kiely, Irish Women at Work, 1930-1960: An Oral History (Sallins: Irish Academic Press, 2012), pp.6-7.

[2] Diarmuid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000 (London: Profile, 2005), p.506.

[3] Irish Press, 9 December 1949 and 23 February 1950

[4] Irish Press, 7 November 1949.

[5] Irish Press, 26 October 1949.

[6] Irish Press, 20 October 1949 and 26 December 1949

[7] Irish Press, 8 November 1949.

[8] Eibhlís de Barra, Bless ‘em All: The Lanes of Cork (Cork: Mercier Press, 1997), p.139.

[9] Irish Press, 15 October 1949.

[10] Irish Press, 19 November 1949.

[11] Irish Press, 17 October 1949.

[12] Irish Press, 25 October 1949.

[13] Irish Press, 27 October 1949.

[14] Tom Garvin, News from a New Republic: Ireland in the 1950s (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 2010), p.149.

[15] Irish Press, 21 November 1949 and 26 December 1949.

8 Comments

Filed under Irish History, Labour History, Social History, Twentieth Century, Uncategorized

8 responses to “‘Any Jobs Going?’ Career Advice in Post-War Ireland

  1. A friend has just sent me a piece on how dreadful careers advice was in England in the 60`s. In his town there were two choices, the packing case factory or hairdressing.He became a lecturer in criminology.

  2. When I was finishing secondary school around 10 years ago only those students deemed able for university by the careers teacher we permitted to attend university open days. The rest were sent to the local IT to find a vocational course. It’s probably still happening.

    • *we’re permitted, sorry.

      • Not surprised it’s still going on. I can’t remember anything like that happening in my old school though they did divide everyone up into classes based on an entrance exam meaning that, to a large extent, most people’s futures were largely determined by a test they took when they were 12 or even 11. Utterly backwards that that system is still in place.

  3. Pingback: ‘Work Or Maintenance’: Unemployment, Unrest and Organisation in the South-East, 1931-1945 | The Dustbin of History

  4. Yeah there are serious problems with the Irish schools system and how it prepares teenagers for real life, be that the world of work or just life in general. Great post anyway, good to see stuff like this being presented in such a way.

  5. Pingback: ‘Work Or Maintenance’: Unemployment, Unrest and Organisation in the South-East, 1931-1945 | David Toms

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