Service with a smile
IT’S 2006. Imagine you’ve just left college, you’re armed with your qualifications and you’ve just landed your first real job. Now, try and wonder what your reaction would be if you would be told on entering your new place of employment that for the next 38 years you would be an employee of the company. Methinks, you’d be back out the door quickly and the first port of call would be the recruitment agency that set you up in the job in the first place.In the world we live in now, no one spends 38 years, or anything even approaching it, in the one workplace. But for the generation of people that are retiring around Ireland about now, spending their working life in the one place was not the exception, it was the norm. In most instances, the job was precious and it was for life, or at least until retiring age.Mary McGreal is one such person. Her career working in the Westport Tourist Office has spanned three different offices, various tourism officers and hundreds of summer staff. She started working for Ireland West Tourism just after the company had moved from a caravan to a permanent office at the Mall. The accommodation sector in the town was three bed and breakfast houses, one hotel and not an awful lot more. Today, there are eleven hotels in Westport and the hotel accommodation alone in the town well and truly exceeds a thousand rooms. She has been the one constant through all this dramatic change in the tourism industry, an industry that’s of inestimable value to Westport.
However, when the idea of this interview was first broached, Mary was not too enthusiastic. Eventually, she was persuaded, but before we even think about turning on the dictaphone the ground rules are laid out. “Plenty of people have spent as long as me working somewhere or other and there was nothing about them in the paper. In any event, I want you to make it clear that I couldn’t have done what I did were it not for my colleagues in the office down the years. Right through from Liz [Browne] to the girls in the office today, they were all brilliant.’’
She remembers vividly her first day working in the Tourist Office at the Mall. It was May 4, 1968 and it was only on the advice of her cousin, Jim Kearns that she applied for the post. She recalls her first day because her colleague, Liz Fahy, went to Dublin to buy her wedding dress. “I was alone in the office with one phone and not a lot else and I had never seen a phone before, never mind used one. I had to ring Rosie [sister] who was in Boyle in the bank at the time and tell her that I had started working. I was so naive that after I had called her I rang up the operator and told her that I wanted to pay for the call!’’
Tourism was different in the sixties to what it is today. It was more information based and the book-ahead philosophy was a long way off. “There were so few bed and breakfast houses and just one hotel so our business was more about giving information out to tourists. There was nothing to buy in the office. A night in a B&B then cost about £2, compared to around €33 per person, which is the average today. But we were busy even then and every July and August we’d be open between 9am and 9pm. Fishing was huge and the sea angling festival attracted thousands to the town every year.’’
Even then, in the late sixties and early seventies, Westport was regarded as a vibrant, go-ahead place to live and work in. Men like Tommy Brennan, Myles Staunton Snr, Mick McLoughlin and John Jeffers were part of the Westport Tourism and Development Association that did so much to put the town on the map.
“What they did at the time in promoting the town was so innovative and clever and in many ways they were the people that laid the foundation for the tourism business in the town today,’’ she says.
The biggest changes in the past three decades plus has probably been in the growth of the accommodation plant and the provision of the facilities that go along with such growth. She acknowledges that it had to happen but somewhere along the line there was something lost. “It’s hard to describe it but the B&B homes in the past were so homely and welcoming. Put it like this, you always knew that you were in someone’s home when you stayed in one. I’m not sure that’s the case any more. Most of the B&B houses are lovely and they’re purpose-built but you might spend a few nights in one without even meeting the owner. I think we’ve lost something there.’’
She finds people are more demanding today than they used to be. And she doesn’t necessarily mean the visitors that stand opposite her in the Westport Tourist Office on James Street.
“You can get abuse at times from within the trade but obviously not from them all. Some of them want to be full all the time and that’s not possible and they complain to us when they’re not full but what they should remember is that we’re a tourist office for the whole of Ireland, not just the region around Westport. What can you do though, but grin and bear it and take their sarcastic remarks,’’ she says.
It would be wrong though to suggest that Mary has had anything other than a fulfilling career taking care of the needs of the tourists. As we talk the memories flow back. Westport Tourist Office was always at the cutting edge of technology and it was home to the first Telex machine in the town. Later on, in 1982 when the banks were on strike, three men – Reggie Blackstock, Joe Masterson and Andy O’Mahony - who worked in the three banks in the town, set up a Bureau de Change in the Tourist Office. Amazingly, it was the first such establishment in the country. “That was a huge success and we had a great time.’’
1979 was a stressful year. Petrol was scarce, there was a P&T strike and the Pope visited Mayo. “For some reason we were given £5 vouchers to hand out for petrol to tourists but we couldn’t give it to any Irish person. There was this man one day who was driving American visitors around in his own car but we couldn’t give him a voucher because it was his car. He wasn’t a bit happy. The whole thing was crazy.’’
Mary McGreal worked in the formative years of Irish tourism, a time when the hard sell was just that, a hard sell. She recalls being sent to England for three months on what was imaginatively called the ‘Ethnic Programme’. It was at the time of the Troubles and there was a drive to get the Irish in England to visit home because nearly everyone else had stopped coming. “It didn’t go down well at all. They said to us that no one bothered about them for years but now they were desperate to get them back. One day, a priest ate the head of me for trying to put up some literature in his church,’’ she said.
And then there was Joe McNally and Frank Mahon who worked alongside Mary on the Mall. “Two amazing men. The craic there was unbelievable and Joe was some character. One day, I was upstairs and I heard this roar from Joe downstairs at the door, ‘Love, how do you spell business?’ I had it spelt wrong on the sign on the door and Joe was delighted to tell me of my error!”
Mary is about to leave behind her the world she has occupied for most of her adult life and enter a totally new phase. It could be daunting and she’s not sure what it will be like, but she’s determined to enjoy it. She very cleverly makes the distinction between missing working with the ‘girls’ (her words) and missing work. “I’ll definitely miss the girls but I don’t think I’ll miss work. When you’re at it for 38 years, it’s time to walk away from it and do something else. But I’ve loved it, really, really loved it. We’ve had wonderful times, always managed to do our work and have a bit of fun. But we always met our targets and I like to think that we were very professional along the way.’’