Irish

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Candlemaker's 500-year journey from flicker to everlasting flame

Published 29/04/2012|05:00

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The oldest continuously trading company in the world is in Blanchardstown, writes Tom Prendeville

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WITH five firms closing down every day in Ireland, you'd be forgiven for getting a bit down. But defying the vagaries of business, Rathborne Candles is still on the go -- after a record 524 years trading.

The oldest continuously trading company in the world, Rathborne Candles has endured everything from plagues to the coming of electricity, gas street lamps to the Second Vatican Council, which decreed that Catholic churches should be stripped of much of their previous ornamentation -- including elaborate candles.

Despite everything, the company is still manufacturing the same age-old product. It's an incredible legacy, when you consider that none of the once-mighty steam engine companies survived the coming of oil.

Founded in 1488, four years before Christopher Columbus set foot in America; master chandler William Rathborne started making candles in Wine Tavern Street, Dublin. The company later moved to East Wall and in more recent years, to Blanchardstown.

Although church candles are still its core business, the company has plans to open a museum and also to expand into the lucrative scented candle market.

Financial director Vincent Brady, who has been with the company for nine years, draws strength from Rathborne Candles' tenacity and unique legacy, which he sees as key to its future prosperity.

"During the 19th Century, Rathborne Candles had the contract for all the street lighting fittings in Dublin. Obviously times are testing now -- but I can only imagine the meetings they had when electricity was discovered, with the financial guys saying 'We are doomed' and the sales guys saying 'It'll never catch on' -- sales guys are usually very positive and don't often see the threat," explained Mr Brady.

In 1910, Rathborne Candles overcame the business catastrophe when it acquired Lalor's, which was in the church candle business.

In the mid-19th Century, they had to overcome a similar crisis with the coming of town gas lighting and the later loss of the lucrative lighthouse business and, in more recent times, the Second Vatican Council.

"Fortunately, the meddling ecclesiastical busybodies relented and the traditional church candle survived.

"We make a lot of church candles. There are some great traditions in Ireland such as the blessing of the throat on February 2 and the Christmas Candle in the west of Ireland, a very popular item that people place in their window. At present we are not making as many scented candles as we would like, so it is not the biggest part of our market."

When the company was based in East Wall, it had a reputation as a job for life and employed chandlers whose families had worked there for generations.

"There were people whose grandfather had worked for the firm. The Rathborne family itself has since died out, but some of the Lalor family are still around, although they are no longer involved in the candle making business. The last direct descendent of the Rathborne clan lives in America and has a standing invite to come over any time."

The raw material in candle making is beeswax and petroleum-based wax. The price of these can be severely impacted by poor summer weather for the bees or political turbulence in the Middle East. At the moment, beeswax costs €2,400 a tonne and petroleum €1,600. That's double what it was 10 years ago.

"Beeswax is an incredibly expensive raw material and petroleum wax, too. When we go and explain why our prices have gone up, the penny drops usually when they see prices go up at the petrol pumps -- then they understand," explained Mr Brady.

Although times are tough in Ireland, the company has big plans for the future and is determined to last another 500 years.

"We would like to set up a museum where we could exhibit all the old machines and demonstrate the ancient candle-making skills, and maybe one day return to East Wall which is our ancestral home," said Mr Brady.

"We have 18 people here and we are hoping to expand this year and take on a few more staff.

"We will keep the flame burning for the next generation who will one day take over Rathborne Candles," he added.

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