Polly Donnellan, Coded Welder
Beta Bajgart Photography
When I came to Ireland from England in 1979, I was 23. I had just finished training t be a secondary school teacher. I never really wanted to be a teacher. At the time I just didn’t know what else I wanted to work as. I was always a bit of a rebel, and when I arrived in Ireland with a motorbike and £74 in my pocket, I wanted to do something a bit different. It was time to find out what.
The first job I applied for was for a Mechanics Apprenticeship with Johnson and Perrot in Cork City. They were really kind, but told me that I wouldn’t be able to afford to rent a bed-sit and live on the £19 a week wage. They offered me a job in a petrol station instead or as a car valet. I didn’t take either. I was dying to be a mechanic. Having just re-built my 1960 BSA motorbike, I wanted more…
So I decided that if I couldn’t be a mechanic I would try welding and metalwork. Initially, I took a six week Industrial Induction Course with AnCo (Fás) to see if I liked the work. It was a great course
When I finished the AnCo courses I was job-ready and got a job with Digital Machines Ireland, Little Island, Cork. This company made huge machines, 120 feet long – Shearlines and Shearbenders- for cutting and bending metal in bulk automatically. It was an American company just setting up, and I was the only woman on the shop floor. I spent my first weeks welding, operating lathes and milling machines and detailing the hydraulics on the finished machines. Later, I was put in charge of the machine shop, where I worked off drawings to high tolerances on milling machines, profile burners and lathes. It was interesting work. I had been totally useless at maths in school but now I could see their practical application. I worked with a group of men who treated me like one of them, they were great!
After three years in Digital Machines I became tired of the machine shop so I left. I took a Coded Pipe Welding Course in AnCo. It was hard work and dirty.
We learned about cutting pipes with a gas profile burner so the edges matched up at the correct angle, ready to weld. We worked upside down and over the top of the work just as if the pipe were in situ. And we practiced, practiced, practiced.They trained us in the basics of wrought iron work and a bit of welding and hacksawing, filing and cutting metal and I loved it. I then went on to take a Machine Operators Course-working on the lathes and milling machines. I made sets of stainless steel darts for all my friends while learning all about working to fine tolerances. This was long before the days of digital programming. Everything was worked by hand on both the mill and lathe. Vernier callipers and micrometers were the order of the day, and I learned how to use these tools to measure to within thousands of an inch. I followed this with a basic welding course, learning electric arc and gas welding, soldering and brazing, as well as grinding edges and chipping welds.
In 1981 I passed the Asme9, X-Ray standard pipe welding exam, and became the first woman in Ireland to succeed in the test.
Now I had gained the qualifications to apply for a job at Moneypoint Power station. It was under construction at the time in County Clare.
I went on to weld and construct galvanised five bar gates for a farm shop for a while. From there I moved into the artistic side of metal work. I made chalices and wrought iron work pieces under the tuition of a great metal worker from Birmingham. This was creative work and took me on a whole new tack. The first piece I made was highly commended in the RDS Craft competition!