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real life-changers

Many of us would admit to harbouring fantasies of following a different career path in life, particularly as we scowl at our overbearing boss's retreating back, or pick up the phone to answer the same questions for the 15th time that day. However, most people know that for every Mary Byrne, who checked herself out of Tesco and into X Factor success at 51, a million talented wannabe singers are only heard after a bottle of pinot grigio in their local pub.

The decision to change career path gets harder as the years pass, as you may be trading in accrued pension and other benefits, hard-won promotions and a wealth of experience, for a potentially risky venture that may not succeed. And in these days of recession and uncertainty, giving up a fairly secure job is doubly fraught.

As someone who only learned to drive at 28 and left home at 32, I was not what you might call an early achiever. Having failed to apply in time to the only college course in journalism that was available back in 1986, I did a degree in psychology and English, and spent the next 14 years working in a variety of jobs. I was a trainee supermarket manager, cinema manager, record company receptionist, abstract writer, youth information officer and PR consultant.

I still dreamed of writing, so when my last company closed down, I felt I had nothing to lose by pursuing it. I nervously sent an article suggestion into the editor of a Sunday newspaper, and he liked it and commissioned it. I was 35 and very, very lucky! Eight years later, I adore my job as a freelance journalist and couldn't imagine doing anything else.

I decided to talk to five other people who also changed career direction, and I think we have all come to the same conclusion. It's definitely never too late to follow your dream.

Sheila O'Flanagan

Best-selling author of 20 books

Former chief dealer in a commercial bank

I originally worked as a dealer, trading different financial instruments, like foreign currencies, sovereign or corporate bonds, and mortgage-backed securities.

Eventually I was made head of our trading department, which was a big deal for me as no other woman had headed up a bank dealing room before. Professionally it was satisfying, but on a personal level I can't say that I loved it. I always struggled with the idea that profit was the only thing that mattered.

Ever since my mum first read books to me as a child, I have always loved creating characters and making up stories about them. I started to write while I was working in the bank, and while I made no money out of the first books, I wrote anyway, because it was what I desperately wanted and needed to do. And eventually Headline, who still publish my books, offered me an advance for a novel, and I realised that writing could pay the bills as well as being creatively satisfying.

Giving up my job in finance was difficult, because I'd worked really hard to get to where I was, but it was also a dream come true. And as it's turned out, given the state of the banks now, I probably would have been made redundant by now like lots of my ex-colleagues. Perhaps I would have started writing at that point? But I feel that there was an inevitability about what I did.

Sheila's latest novel, Better Together, is out now, see www.sheilaoflanagan.com.

Shay Byrne

Presenter of Risin' Time, 5.30-7am weekdays, RTE Radio One

Former painter/ decorator

When I left school in 1990, I drifted between a few different jobs, mostly in sales. In 1996, my dad Shay invited me to work in his painting/decorating business, with a view to taking over when he retired. So every morning, I would put on my white overalls, tie the ladders to the roof of the van, and head off to paint houses, factories, shops -- whatever came our way.

My dad sadly died in 2000 aged 63 and I took over the business. I enjoyed it initially, but you needed to be tough to be a success and that wasn't me. As wages increased, I saw productivity go down. People could walk out on you in the morning, make a phone call and be working for someone else by lunchtime.

In 2006, I hit the wall with the business. I wasn't making money, didn't enjoy getting up to go to work, and was working very long hours. I did amateur dramatics in my spare time, and I loved that, so I applied to work part-time in RTE Radio as a continuity announcer. I got the job, which opened a new world of possibilities for me, and I decided to sell the business.

Today I'm presenting Risin' Time and I love it. Being a radio presenter has given me the freedom to use my creative side, meet extraordinary and interesting people and have a more positive outlook on life. Shay Byrne will present A Night at the Oscars with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall on February 1.

Jenny McCarthy (inset)

Celebrity, wedding and portrait photographer

Previously worked in promotions and reception

I worked at 98FM, driving the jeeps and promoting the station from the streets. It was so much fun, and the buzz was just fantastic. I was the voice from the street linking into the station several times per day, and I met my lovely husband Martin (TV3's Martin King) while working at the station.

I left 98FM to have my second child, and when then I went back to work it was as a part-time receptionist with Irish International in Sandymount.

My love for photography has always been there, and even as a child I was the one who'd take my dad's camera and snap away. At 98FM, I used to take most of the promotional photos from our events, and I suppose, with practice, I got better and better. Martin's sister Christina got married and she asked me to take her wedding photographs. I was extremely nervous because it's such an important job to take on, but I did a really good job and I loved it. The feeling I got from the reaction to my photographs was overwhelming. Demand began to grow, and I found myself in a position where there were too many weddings and portrait shoots coming up, so I had to give up my receptionist job.

My family and friends were really supportive, especially Martin. He would buy me a piece of photography equipment for every special occasion. I always say to people who would like to change careers but think they can't do it, to just take the 't' off the end of it. Do whatever it takes, but never give up.

See www.photosbyjen.ie.

Niall Trainor

Founder of Prints4Gifts

Former telecommunications engineer

I worked for 17 years as a team leader and site supervisor in the telecommunications industry. I was spending increasingly more time on the road, and was unhappy as I felt I was missing out on my child growing up. Leaving the industry in 2009 was a hard decision, as I had gained extensive knowledge, contacts and experience in my line of work. I was now going to have to start over with something totally new, and everyone thought I was crazy -- my wife Linda was pregnant again and the country was in recession.

The idea for Prints4Gifts came about a year and a half ago, after I did a FAS course in graphic design. While trying to come up with an unusual present for my brother's new baby, I purchased a frame and designed a fun, underwater scene containing her name, date and time of birth, weight and a message from myself and Linda. People loved it so much that I bought frames and equipment, came up with new designs and products, and completed some business development programmes. We now do personalised gifts for babies and family members, including celebratory frames, CDs with songs containing the child's name, funky soother clips and handcrafted jewellery.

See www.prints4gifts.com.

Miriam Smithers

Full-time artist

Former merchandising manager at A wear

I began my career as store manager with the fashion chain A wear, and was promoted to senior group merchandising manager. The long hours weren't sustainable when my husband Paul and I had four children, so I left.

I had always loved to paint and draw as a child, so, at 35, I took a course in oil painting to revisit my old love, but very quickly realised that I wanted to paint every day if I possibly could. I entered a few pieces in a local exhibition and, to my amazement, they all sold.

Then I had my first sell-out show in Dublin Castle -- I knew then that this was serious. I have a studio at my home now.

Changing career is not easy, but I truly believe that if you're passionate about something, you will excel at it. It has been said that starting a new business in a recession is probably a good time, because as the economy improves your business will grow.

You have to be serious about what you want to do, and, above all, believe in yourself and what you are doing. You're not just pursuing a career; you are achieving the ultimate goal -- happiness.

See www.miriamsmithersartist.com.