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Why the Irish do well in the construction trade

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Auld Irish common sense is hard to find these days.


Despite living a safe distance from the coast, my friend Peggie bore the brunt of the last hurricane that cut a path through the Garden State.

Right after trees crashed on top of her cars and house, the insurance company dispatched contractors to make the repairs. On one Saturday morning, her 89-year-old father Mick Madden from Portumna, Co. Galway went to inspect the work of the Brazilian crew that buzzed around her property.

I’m told he shook his head in disgust as soon as he got out of the car.

“Ye nail two pieces of wood together in this country and they call him a carpenter,” he said.

This sounds a lot like my dad, who was born not far away from Madden in Athenry. He would always offer to “let the fellas in” while I was on the road and workers were doing something around my house.

That would put him in the catbird seat to be a contracting equivalent of an America’s Got Talent judge.

He’d never be more than a few paces away from the work at hand, making sure we got what we paid for and more.

“I didn’t think anyone was more useless than you are with a wrench, but I stand corrected,” he might say to me after a plumber left behind a shoddy job when he left it to me to supervise things.

Though they are too gentlemanly to boast, the fact is that guys like Mick Madden and my dad Mick Farragher (“no one was called Mike over at home,” Madden informed me) came from the lush farms of Ireland to either build this country and/or keep it running. Dad was a roofer for a while to keep the roof over our heads, while Madden kept the lights on and everything humming as a superintendent of his Jersey City apartment building.

These auld fellas are in their seventies and eighties now, and they just don’t build ‘em like them anymore. They have forgotten more about common sense approaches to broken things than most modern workers have learned and these workers know it, which makes the auld fella a contractor’s nightmare.

If God forbid a painter drips something on the carpet, the auld fella hovering nearby might suggest he places a rubber band around an open paint can to wipe your brush on -- it keeps paint off the side of the can as well.

On the rare event when this hopeless narrowback tried to build something, I might have been advised by my auld fella that a simple pocket comb was the secret weapon to keep that wobbly nail in place before you laid a hammer onto one of your fingers. 

My Uncle Tom was a master mason and all-around handyman in his day. He could make something out of nothing.

I remember how he would cut patterns from discarded plywood at a construction site he worked on, paint it white, and voila! You had life-size reindeer ornaments that he sold on his lawn by the truckloads for a small fortune during the holidays.

He also isn’t short of opinions and is a bit of a loud talker, two weapons I used to my advantage while I was shopping for houses a few years ago.

“Jaysis, did Stevie Wonder set this stone?” he might exclaim as he’d stare up the side of the brick facing on a potential house.

“’Tis a miracle that it stayed up as long as it has. And don’t get me started on the inside, with all those brown splotches on the ceiling. It tells me that there was a lot of water damage once, and yer man did a woeful job covering it up before he put it on the market, like.”

When we would submit a low bid for the property, Uncle Tom’s booming voice would echo in the heads of the real estate agents before any higher counter-proposal was suggested.

They may label themselves as an uneducated lot because they left school at the tender age of 15, yet the auld fellas have common sense smarts to burn that you just can’t hire nowadays.

(Mike Farragher will be reading passages from his book This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks this Sunday, July 29, at OurLand, an Irish gathering that is part of Lincoln Center’s free Out of Doors Festival. For more information, log onto http://www.lcoutofdoors.org)

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