Angela Collins O’Mahony, Ireland’s very first female steeplejack was recently awarded a mayoral reception in Limerick City by former Mayor Michael Sheahan for her outstanding career as an innovator, businesswoman and for her unwavering commitment to the needs of rural Ireland.
Born and raised in Kilkishen, Angela’s life tells the story of how disadvantage can be turned to advantage, that success is possible even if you come from absolutely nothing and that an open mindJ, open heart and a tinkering smile is all you need to set you on the right trail in life. Angela speaks to The Clare Echo about escaping a traditional dowry fated future to become a female leader in a mans world, how an appearance on Gay Byrne’s The Late Late Show set her business alight as well as the special secrets that help make any successful business shine.
Born to a time when most women’s careers never extended far beyond the domestic space, Angela refused to accept any sense of complacency. The youngest of six children born on a farm, Angela knew hardship right from the beginning, when her parents lost a daughter at seven years of age and her father became an alcoholic, meaning money was in short supply. Unperturbed, and unsatisfied in subscribing to a traditional gender role, Angela set out to Limerick City, enrolling in a yearlong college course to learn shorthand, typing, and basic bookkeeping, all at the age of 15.
Her dream, at the time, was to work as a secretary and the lessons that she had learned in rural Ireland were never far behind her. “I remember my father used to cut and put shoes on horses. We had to cut carrots and other vegetables and bring them to Limerick, to sell door to door. You learned everything, simply because there was no money. All the time you were learning a trade”, she admits. These teachings stood testament to Angela, when she landed her very first role as a secretary at a Steeplejack’s Office across the road from the college, at the age of 16.
“My oldest memory was when I was told to go up to Mullingar with a lightning conductor. When I arrived, the male workers were all on top of the chimneys while I was waiting in the car and I wondered, how did they get up there, because I’m not going to sit here all day. I saw a ladder leading up to the big chimney stack and I decided I was going to go up. If they can do it, then so can I. That was my job at 17 years of age. Now at 77, I am sixty years climbing. I was very lucky until my business partner decided to extend the business to Dublin and soon after died. We were all devastated and had lost our jobs. I was 23 years old. I decided that, because I knew everything that was going on in the business with regards to bookkeeping, wage slips and day to day runnings, I might as well start up my own business.”
“I had two employees and low and behold, I got a call from the Late Late Show with Gay Byrne, on the 10th of March 1968, to go on. That was such a big break for anyone. Everyone watched it. Overnight, I was a household name. I didn’t actually know how to deal with all the enquiries, but I did and then one day an American man rang me up. I was well known by then. I was on all the papers, every other programme, it was just unbelievable in 1968”.
More than half a century, a cover of The Irish Times, a Bowmakers Award and an Honorary Doctorate later, Angela now feels that her Mayoral Reception in Limerick this year, is undoubtedly her proudest achievement to date. “This award meant the most, more than anything I have ever received, as it was a sign of local acceptance amongst my people”, she concedes.
Angela employed more than 110 people over the last 50 years of business and contends that although a challenge in bridging the gender divide, no men ever stood in her way, they only ever encouraged her. Of all the successes she shared in life and in business, Angela pins one of the most important pieces of the puzzle, as a warm and inviting smile. “People who don’t smile in the service and business industries aren’t going about it the right way”, she warns. “Your smile is what makes you money,” she added.
Retirement looks nothing like putting the legs up on the coffee table for Angela, who after surviving cancer and two heart attacks, in 2009 and 2015, continues to find herself on her feet and sometimes, up in the air. Her final abseiling venture for charity saw her comb the walls of Thomond Park in 2019, completing her last climb at the age of 76. The 100ft high affair helped raise funds for a children’s charity effecting individuals that have suffered with the divorce, death or separation of a parent. €26,000 was collected in 6 hours. Angela leaves with a lesson she learned on the most important aspect of operating a business successfully, something she learned whilst leaning on the cusp of retirement.
“I built a golf course in Clonlara, when it was unheard of. I made so much money that I was able to retire. I built it up and then sold it to an English company. Just as a lesson, we were selling it for £420,000 at the time. Nobody was coming. We were going to make a package out of the money and once I lost interest in the place, I decided to sell. I wasn’t cut out for the bar and meeting all the committees and people. So, I offloaded immediately once it was going well. When there was nobody interested in buying, I was awfully disappointed. It was advertised in all the papers.
“There was this man, that I had met on a trade mission with the Irish government. He was the head of an Irish sugar company. He said to me, ‘I want to go down there and see what you are selling for £420,000. You said a gold course, but you wouldn’t get a house for that price’. He arrived one day, and said, ‘you know why you are getting no one? There’s suspicion. People are thinking there must be something wrong. Up that to £750,000 immediately’. I then got £680,000 for it. Can you imagine. They were landing in helicopters as soon as I put the price up. It’s was a sign that it’s not really about value, it is all about image. It was an important lesson”.