Liam Finnegan - A Lifetime in Gents Hairdressing
(In conversation with John Flannery, December 2018.)
JF: Tell us about your background, where you came from, your childhood, etc.
Liam: I was born on the 22nd August 1945. We were living in Eagle House, No. 17 Vincent St in Inchicore. Eagle House was part of the old British Army (Richmond) Barracks, which was renamed Keogh Barracks after the War of Independence, and was later converted to emergency housing, called Keogh Square. It was a three-storey building, housing 6 families, all sharing one toilet and a washing area. At five years of age, I was sent to the Oblates’ School in Tyrconnell Road, and it is true what they say, “your school-days are the happiest days of your life”. Looking back, although life was tougher in those days, they were, never-the-less, happy days. In 1958, I completed my Primary Certificate, and that September, I went to secondary school in the De la Salle in Ballyfermot. During this time, we moved from Vincent St and lived for short periods in Drimnagh (61 Sperrin Road), in 193 Tyrconnell Road, before moving to No.11A Grattan Crescent, Inchicore, next door to my father’s barbershop. In the Summer of 1959, I was diagnosed with Diabetes and spent some time in hospital. By the time they had sorted me out, I had fallen behind in my secondary education, and it was decided that I would become apprenticed to the hairdressing trade. This was no surprise as my father was a barber.
My Entry into the Hairdressing Trade.
Before we moved to Grattan Crescent, my father had a barbershop in the basement of old Mick O’Reilly’s Bicycle & Electrical Goods Shop at No.15. Even when I was still at school, I used to help in the shop, sweeping up, running for messages, and later, lathering-up customers for shaving. In due course, he began to teach me the basics of cutting hair. I used to practice on my uncles and other relatives, and then I was allowed to cut the hair, under supervision, of young customers, boys and early teenagers. After a few months and I had gained some confidence, my father sent me to work in the shops of friends of his, where I could get experience and learn from different teachers. For a few months I worked every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in John Connolly’s shop in Ellis Quay. Then, I was switched to Patsy McLoughlin’s in Finglas. After a year or so, he sent me to Patsy Garry’s shop, in Cahir, Co Tipperary, as an ‘Improver’. I spent 6 months there, ‘living in’ over the shop. Although I enjoyed my time there, I was delighted to get back to Dublin to my friends and family. I had secured a position as a ‘journeyman barber’ in Jim Robinson’s shop, No.2, Meath St. Although I enjoyed working for Jim, I only stayed with him for about 6 months. A friend of mine, Paddy Cassidy, was working in the Savoy Hotel in London, and in 1963, I decided to join him there. I did what a lot of Irishmen did when going to London for the first time, and took a part-time job in a pub. The pub was called “The Coach and Horses”, in Leyton, in East London. The reason for this is, at that time, in most pubs, food and accommodation were included. That meant that you had a roof over your head while you became familiar with the surroundings, and got to know a few people.
In the pub, I got talking to a customer, a man from Dunleer, Co Louth called Joe McConnon, who was a barber. He was a really nice man and he got me my first hairdressing job in London, in a barbershop in nearby Leytonstone, where he worked himself. He also got me ‘digs’ in the house where he lived in Woodford. I stayed there for about 6 months or so, and then I took a job in a barbershop in the ‘City’, London’s financial centre. The shop was at No.2 Angel Court, off Throgmorton St, EC2. The pay was better there, but better again, the shop did not open on Saturdays. That meant you could get a ‘Saturday job’, working for a busy shop on the busiest day of the week, for extra money. I worked every Saturday in a shop in Walthamstow. The owner was a Greek-Cypriot called Giorgio. He was a single man and lived in a room at the rear of the shop. It was from him I learned the golden rule: “The most important customer, is the one who is sitting in your chair”.
The Intercontinental Hotel.
On that occasion, I spent over two years in London before coming back to Dublin to a job in the barbershop in the Intercontinental Hotel, in fashionable Ballsbridge. A man called Gerry O’Neill had the lease and we got on very well together. He used to pick me up in Inchicore every morning and drive us to Ballsbridge. He was ‘a larger than life’ character, but very good with customers. I learned a lot about the business while working beside him. He had an agency for “Manhattan Hair Pieces”, which were ‘all the go’ at the time. He fitted clients with wigs in a private room next to the barbershop. A lot of the celebrities visiting or performing in Dublin stayed at the ‘Intercon’ and most of them used our shop. They were making the film, “The Blue Max” on location near Dublin at the time and the cast were staying at the hotel. Actors George Peppard and James Mason were regulars. I remember on one occasion the Rolling Stones were staying and Mick Jagger came in for a trim. Afterwards Gerry picked up his hair clippings, put them in an envelope, and offered them to me. I told him I wasn’t interested and he gave it to one of the commis-waiters instead. I often wonder if they would be worth a small fortune at auction these days.
While working at the ‘Intercon’, I met Magda, and we started ‘going out together’. My brother John and cousin Brendan were living in London at the time, and in 1967, we decided to go back there for a while. We got married in London in 1968. My son Brian was born there in early 1969. I was working in a barbershop in Notting Hill Gate. One of my regulars was the famous boxer and singer, Jack Doyle, also known as the “The Gorgeous Gael”.
We decided to come home again in 1970. Fashions had changed and men wore their hair longer and longer, and it was getting harder to earn a living in the trade. Luckily, I used to attend hairdressing shows in my spare time and I learned how to deal with the new styles.
My Father’s Barbershop in Inchicore.
My father decided to get out of the business and take up taxi-driving. When we came home, I took out the lease on the shop, spent my savings upgrading the facilities, and started building up the business again. I opened up at 8am every morning, and worked until late in the evening. We didn’t open on Wednesdays, except during December and early January, but I went in most Wednesdays to give the place a deep cleaning, to maintain high standards. It was worth it in the end as, over time, the customers came back and we attracted new custom as well, and business was good. I kept this up for 25 years. I didn’t have much choice as Magda and I went on to have five children, so we had high outgoings.
How I came to acquire the Waldorf.
In 1994, one of my regular customers, Peter Cummiskey, told me that the Waldorf was closing down and they were selling some of their vintage hairdressing equipment. Peter’s father, also called Peter, was one of the six barbers who ran the Waldorf as a co-operative, and it seemed they were thinking of retiring. I went in to have a look at what was on sale when I was approached by Eric Parks, chairman of the co-op and shop manager. He was a friend of my fathers and we got chatting. He asked me if I was interested in taking over the lease, as all six members of the co-op were ready to retire or were retired already. After some discussion, he made me an offer. I thought it had potential, and I wanted to create an employment for those of my family who might want ‘to follow in my footsteps’. Following some consultation with them, we closed the deal with Mr Parks. We tried to run it as a co-op, just as the previous owners had, and I continued to work in the shop in Inchicore.
The Co-op had ‘modernised’ the Waldorf some years earlier. For example, they put in a wooden structure to cover up the split-level floor, and covered the terrazzo floor with hardwood and carpet. They hid the lovely round pillars behind ply-wood casings. They dismantled the handrails and took down other fittings to give the appearance of a modern, 70’s style hair studio. When I came back from London the first time, I had a haircut in the Waldorf and I remembered how smart it looked then, in its original state. Even though I understood why they decided to ‘modernise’, I was determined to restore the salon to its original 1940’s look. At night and on Sundays, we dismantled the wooden floor and pillar coverings, and painstakingly restored the terrazzo floor to its original state. We got a contractor to re-fit the stainless-steel handrails and replaced the contemporary wall pictures with old ‘trade’ adverts and photographs. We also renovated the staff toilet area so that customers could use the facilities on request, and upgraded the old coal-burning water-heating system to a modern electric-powered system. We tried to run the business on a co-operative basis, while I continued to operate the shop in Inchicore. Unfortunately, despite a great effort to develop it into a profitable enterprise, it continued to lose money. After 18 months of loss-making, there was no alternative but to dissolve the co-op and close down. There were outstanding bills left, which I accepted were needed to be settled before handing back the keys of the premises. I was devastated, as I had such an affection for this old iconic establishment. I spoke to a friend of mine the day before I was due to hand back the keys, and he convinced me that I should leave the Inchicore shop and take over the management of the Waldorf myself. “You have done it once already, so there is no reason that you can’t do it again” he told me. That was in 1997, more than twenty years ago. Well, needless to say, I took his advice, and the rest is history….
JF: Looking back, what is your proudest achievement?
Liam: I am almost 60 years in the business, and making a success of my father’s shop in Inchicore is an achievement I am proud of, but, the highlight of my working life was acquiring the Waldorf, restoring it back to its former classical style, and successfully bringing the business and barbershop, back to life.
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