Friday 22 March 2024

Working in teams


According to my elderly neighbours, just as men formed meithals to bring in the hay or build a house, women to turn pigs into sausage and flax into linen, so did they form teams to lay rail tracks or carve stones or unload ships. “There was no need for leaders or bosses back then,” John McArt said of the men stringing the first electric lines across the country. “Every man was a leader and if one man was flagging there was always a colleague at hand to pick up the pieces and not let the side down.”

Most jobs were not done in isolated offices as they might be today, but in company and often in public, with the work and the results visible to all. Even in Dublin, each neighbourhood was like its own village, and elders remembered passing dozens of shops every day. “I was born in Blackhall Place and this part of Dublin, to me, always had a sort of ‘villagey’ atmosphere,” O’Donnell said. “In this area I remember saddlers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, bootmakers, tobacconists, and bakers, and they all did a great business.” Friends gathered around  the barbers’ or the smithy to chat and watch the work. “There was something very special about the forge,” Ann Gardinier said. “It was a place people were reluctant to leave.”

Even ringing church bells required surprising training and precision. “The most complicated are sequences that have long and tricky gamuts of changes requiring a difficult and lengthy pattern to be retained in the brain as a route map and consulted all the time in the mind’s eye,” Taylor said. “The tolerance of error is a tiny percentage. Mis-timing will have a devastating effect on change-ringing, one person’s error running like a cancer through the ringing. It can only take one person to cause bad ringing, the ripple of defect running through the whole thing, a domino effect and a catastrophe…”

While corporations today might call their employees a team, they are not responsible for them, nor are the workers loyal to each other; everyone just puts in their time and leaves to their far-flung addresses at night, while their children are mostly raised by strangers and neighbourhoods evaporate into mere collections of houses. In today’s workplace one can build up many relationships, but they amount to a pile of threads, not a tapestry. Many of these craftsmen, though, had grown up in the same neighbourhood, sat together in church and were destined for the same churchyard, and had an interest in seeing each other do well. There was a great feeling of comradeship,” O’Donnell said of the 300-or-so coopers in Dublin, and the same was true for most crafts.

Photo: Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton, The Gleaners, 1854. National Gallery of Ireland

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