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Back learning after 70 years

Written by: Neil Cubley


Josephine (76) has a story to tell about how she ended up on a Age Action Getting Started Computer Training programme; the course which provides free training in computers, smartphones and the internet for everyone in Ireland over the age of 55.


I didn't know what a tablet was!

"Shane, my grandson," she explains, "used to come for sleepovers when he was about nine years old. So he said to me one evening, 'Nan, I'm off to bed now give me my tablet'.

"And of course I'm searching the bag - nothing there, no tablet and I was worried. 'Your mum didn't say there was anything wrong with you.'  

"'No,' he says, 'I'm not sick I just need my tablet. Eventually, I couldn't find it so I said to Shane, 'you'll have to come out and find it.'

"He showed me the tablet and it was this thing (Josephine draws the shape of a large rectangle in the air with her fingers) and he said to me, 'Nanny, I always thought you were crazy.'  He couldn't figure out how I didn't know what a tablet was!"

But, although her grandson didn't know it at the time, Josephine was no stranger to computing. In fact, her relationship with them went back to the birth of the modern computer age in the 1950s.

Shane might be surprised to learn that when his Nan was still a young woman she was the equivalent of a computer programmer today.

I decided I was going as well

Josephine is originally from County Tipperary and she grew up in a farming community. "I didn't start going to primary school until I was seven because we had such a distance to walk," she said.

Before attending primary school, she, her three brothers and her sister helped out on the farm. "When I was 16 years old, and just about to do my leaving certificate, my sister Eileen announced that she was going to England so I decided that I was going along as well!

"Eileen was working in the post office but she wanted to go to England to join a brother we had over there. She didn't have a job lined up (and neither did I) but we had friends who got us both jobs at the Huntley and Palmer's biscuit factory in Reading. 

"That was back in 1957. An awful lot of Irish people went over to work in England in those years, we weren't the only ones.

Comptometer operator

"After only a week I got a promotion to work in the offices and I ended up as a Comptometer operator," she says. "That was back at the beginning of the computer age, really."

A comptometer was a large mechanical calculator used in offices right up until the 1970s. There were keys for the numbers 1 to 9 arranged in columns representing single numbers, 10s, 100s, all the way up to millions.

Comptometer operators used to 'type' on the machines to work out calculations just like typists did on typewriters. The results of their sums - Jospehine had to work out the wages due to the biscuit factory workers - were shown in small windows at the bottom of the comptometer below the number keys.

Josephine also used punch cards (the equivalent of a USB stick back then) to store information for Huntley and Palmer's.

"You kept all the information on cards with holes on them each representing a letter of the alphabet. We fed them into a machine and that’s how they kept the information."

Getting married meant losing you job

Josephine left Huntley and Palmer's to join the Prudential insurance company and her career seemed to be going well when it was stopped in its tracks because she got married.

"I met my future husband Tom in England," she explained. "We're only 60 miles from each other back in Ireland -  he's from Cork - but we'd never met in Ireland. So then we got married in 1961 in England. Not all of the family could make it over but then we had a three-week honeymoon back in Ireland in Cork and Tipperary.

"When the honeymoon was over we got back to England and I went back to work the following Monday and here they come along with my notice of resignation for me. I never knew beforehand but once you got married you lost your job if you were a woman.

"This was the same in England and Ireland at that time. So they let me work for another six months, which was something I suppose. And, by the time that six months was up, I was expecting my first baby."

The Marriage Bar

In England, the Marriage Bar was repealed for teachers in the 1930s, the BBC in the 1940s, and the civil service, local government and post offices in the 1950s but remained in some workplaces, like Josephine's, until the early 1970s.

It was removed in Ireland in 1973. The Bar meant that  many women were forced to end their careers in their early twenties and often did not return to work again.

"I suppose I would have given up my job anyway once I'd my baby because in those days we didn't have creches and anything like that," she said. "After that, I ended up being the housewife and the mother so. This was in 1961, still in England; I finished work and I went on to have 3 boys and 1 girl.

"In 1973, when the oldest was 11 and the youngest was 7, we decided we’d come back to Ireland. So we are here now 44 years. I was still a housewife back in Ireland. I did a bit of voluntary work but I've never actually worked again here."

Jason congratulating Josephine on completing her Getting Started course
Jason congratulating Josephine on completing her Getting Started course

Back learning again

But back to the beginning of this story when Shane, Josephine's grandson, was shocked that she didn't know what a tablet was.

"My daughter Helen said, 'I'll have to get you a tablet but, Mum, I'm not teaching you! So, I've booked you in for a course by Age Action.' It was in the local library in Ferrybank just outside Waterford.

"The chap that taught me was lovely, Jason, he was very good. And he said to me, 'oh, imagine you are back in class again after 70 years, that's something to think about!' It was a 5-week course, two hours each Wednesday.

"I had to miss one Wednesday because we were already booked to go down to Cork so Jason said to me, 'you're going to have to do a little bit of homework.'

"He wanted to know my reasons for wanting to do the course and, really, it was to keep in touch with the family in Australia and also to keep an eye on the ones here in Ireland to see what they're up to on social media - watching their photos on Facebook, in particular.

"My daughter Helen said, 'don't be putting comments off on Facebook, Mam.' So then Jason told me about Messenger. I find that's great for sending messages.

Write to Australia? Forget it!

"It takes three weeks to get a postcard from here to Australia. It's gone crazy. Two years ago it only took about a week. The eldest grandchild, it was her 30th birthday on the 9th of November, so I sent her a card on the 28th of October and she didn't get it until the 21st of November.

"She's great, though, now I'm on Messenger she would send me a message nearly every day and put up videos.  She has a two-year-old girl now - our first great-grandchild - so I get to see the videos. Things like that are marvellous, I think.

"I haven't done a Skype yet. Jason was on at me to do one but any time I was down there at the library they would be in bed in Australia. I would be down there see at 12 o'clock and that would be 11 o'clock at night in Australia but I'll get to that. I know how to do it it's just the timing, basically.

"What I do now with the two boys in Australia is I send them a message in the morning which is their evening time and to think they get it instantaneously across the world is marvelous. The contact now is unreal compared to years ago.

"And then there’s the friends we had in England, because we were in England for 17 years, a lot of them have taken up the internet. It's great to be able to keep in touch. I mean back then they’d have a wake if you were going abroad because they never expected to see you again."



Well done Josephine,

I'm delighted that you can share your wonderful story here on the Age Action website.

It was an honour and a privilege to work with you.

Best wishes,


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