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Brendan O’Brien


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In 1988 I found myself at a career crossroads. I put a small ad in the Irish Times seeking editorial work, hoping to learn on the job.

One of the (very few) responses was from a man I’ll call John, who was running a free newspaper in South Central Dublin (Ireland). He suggested that I might take charge of a new sister publication aimed at North Central Dublin. It seemed like an exciting opportunity, especially as we were to split the profits 50–50.

So, I started work in John’s office on Baggot Street, and began to compile material for the first edition. I went to the National Library to research an article on traditional Dublin signs (my girlfriend and I had been doing signwriting, so signs were on my mind). I went to the new James Joyce Cultural Centre on North Great George’s Street, interviewed its director and took photos. I got a testimonial from a prominent local politician who would do anything for votes. I wrote ad copy and edited press releases. I even devised a crossword: Fred Hanna, a famous Dublin bookseller, gave me a book token for a prize.

And I trudged the streets. The promised sales backup did not materialize; soon nearly all my time was spent in trying to sell ads. I covered every inch of the north inner city (a good walk from Baggot Street) on foot, many times. I sold quite a few ads but, as it turned out, not enough. The first edition came out and covered its costs, but my share of the profits was 50 per cent of nothing.

John was an ideas person: having had an idea, his mind moved on to other things. His office was in the South City business area, and he filled his paper with press releases and photos of smiling people at some launch or other: nothing too deep. The North City, across the Liffey, was grim and down-at-heel in comparison. There was a recession; times were tough and emigration was high. The odds were against me.

We brought out a second edition of the paper; again, there were no profits to speak of. At this stage I’d been working for a couple of months for little or no reward. John and I agreed to abandon the project.

One thing I did gain was a pair of inscribed wedding rings: I made a contra deal with a friendly jeweller whereby he received an ad in exchange. My girlfriend and I got married in July and moved to England in November.

During a job interview at the Institute of Metals, I produced copies of the two editions of the free newspaper. The interviewers were impressed (unduly, I thought). I got the job. That was where my editing career really started.

And I’m still wearing the wedding ring.


Did your editing career have a rocky beginning? Share your stories below.


Previous post from Brendan O’Brien: The Perils of Blabbing.

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About the author

Brendan O'Brien

Brendan O’Brien lives in a rural area near Virginia, Co. Cavan, Ireland, with his wife, Pauline; their 25-year-old daughter, Susanna (some of the time); and two terriers.


8 Comments on “Beginnings”

  • great article.
    I’m interested by “contra deal”. Is this an Irishism?

    • Brendan O'Brien


      Thank you, Katherine! It occurs to me that my boss at the time was the only person I ever heard use the term. He did ‘contra deals’ all the time. (I think I had it in quote marks in the original version of the piece.)

      An online search suggests that it’s quite well established, and not an Irishism.

  • Nice story. I had some good fortune with some very nice people looking past my lack of experience at the start of my career. I wonder if young people nowadays have much of a chance of serendipity smiling on them, or if tight margins and the need for profit is just too much the deciding factor. Unless one wants to take a chance on a one-sided internship that amounts to full-time employee status for little or no money?

    • Brendan O'Brien


      Thanks, Stephen. Yes, I think it’s harder for young people now in many ways. I was lucky to get a very good editorial/production grounding in my in-house jobs which served me well when I went freelance.

  • Nice story, and really appreciated the wedding ring anecdote.

    • Brendan O'Brien


      Thanks, Robert!

  • Frances Peck


    What a story, Brendan, and what an intriguing path into editing.

    After an uninspiring couple of years as a real estate agent, I thought I’d try to make a living from writing and editing. That was my background, after all: I’d always written stories, I had a master’s in English literature, and I had taught grammar and composition. A friend of a friend said that the federal agency where he was a manager needed full-time editors, so I applied.

    I would definitely be hired, the manager told me. It was just a matter of time. Weeks passed, then months. Bills piled up. Just a bit longer, he reassured me. Bureaucracy, you know. By the time my bank balance was near zero, I knew I had to do something, so I scared up a freelance contract. And that was that. The job never materialized, but I didn’t care. Being my own boss turned out to be the best gig of all.

    • Brendan O'Brien


      Thanks, Frances: yours is a good story too. It’s lucky that you didn’t lapse back into real estate!

      Bank balance can certainly be a great motivator for us freelancers, throughout our careers.

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