THE FACT OF THE MATTER
Hi! I’d like bathroom tiles repaired please. When can you come? Tiler, Next appointment is in eight years.
Man, Oh. OK, I’ll take it. Tiler, Morning or afternoon?
One could be forgiven for thinking we were talking about Ireland today, with this quip doing the rounds in Eastern Europe long before the Berlin Wall fell.
It’s hard to get good help these days. I am waiting weeks for my gardener, the man who will run the mower over the front garden — with the minimum of effort, trust me. He’s booked up, he says, but at least with my wild lawn, as opposed to the prim ones of neighbours, I am doing my bit to ensure the survival of our threatened bumble bee. So important to food production, if they vanish we might as well all give up.
One of the fallouts from the pandemic is that a nation obsessed with their week in the sun or climbing the Himalayas, what with travel restrictions decided to use their hard-earned cash to dolly up their homes. I might as well have a new couch to relax in, went the argument, before I go mad altogether with HWS (holiday withdrawal symptoms).
Kitchen and bathroom retailers have been working round the clock to keep up with demand, cost of living increases or not. So, you buy the components and then set off on that journey to find someone to put all the pieces together. It would be easier to solve the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle than find such a craftsman.
After the crash in 2008 construction workers and tradespeople contracted significantly. Numbers have never returned to the figures of the mid-2000s, despite the demand, post-ish pandemic, for home improvements setting a new record.
In 2007, there were 23,700 apprenticeships in Ireland — by 2015 that had fallen to 4,400 and has not recovered since.
Dermot Casey of the Construction Industry Federation says a negative perception of trades endures. “Schools are only considered successful when 95% or more students go on to third level. The high drop-out rates of young people after one year in college shows the problem with this thinking.”
(The CIF says 86% of building companies have an inadequate supply of qualified tradespeople.)
The fewer tradespeople have us over the proverbial barrel. They know we are desperate to keep up with the latest interior trends and rotating AI kitchens or showers that resemble the Trevi Fountain but, wouldn’t you know it, they are run off their feet so can’t give you a concrete date to start work. Sorry, no Trevi Fountain for you, just a quick body wash with a damp cloth.
Among my coterie of friends in my teenage years, a good half of them went on to become apprentices in various trades from chippy to sparks, plumber to mechanic. Among them was the bold Mickey D, who was apprenticed to a carpenter and about five years after finishing his indenture had himself a successful little business.
My best friend Papo, lived two doors up. His mother was the wonderful Sheila. One day she decided to get a ‘lean-to’ at the side of her end of terrace house, to house the kids’ bikes, the rusting lawnmower and the bin — only the one in those days.
The bold Mickey D was given the lucrative contract which involved a wooden beam or two, some wooden laths and someone’s long discarded back door. The job was rushed, the door knob was a little dicey. “I’ll be back tomorrow to sort that out, Sheila,” says Mickey D, and he was gone.
Some weeks later I was leaving my parents’ home and stopped to say hello to Sheila who was in her garden pruning her roses.
“Jesus,” she said struggling for breath after many decades of smoking Woodbines, colloquially known as Coffin Nails, “will you tell that Mickey D fella to come back and fix my door knob.” And she pulling on the fag, the rose pruner to hand.
That conversation was repeated many times down the years until, 19 years on, Sheila died.
After her funeral we adjourned to a nearby hostelry. We lads were propped up at the bar and Papo, after settling his family in, came over to say hello.
“Jaysus Pat,” said Mickey D, “I’m sorry for your loss,” offering his hand in condolences.
Papo looked him square in the face and without batting an eyelid said: “Well, at least now you won’t have to come back and fix the door knob.”