Surviving 1916: The families still in business a century on
Our reporter talks to five family firms that were swept up in the destruction during Rising and how they rebuilt afterwards
Easter Monday 1916 began as a peaceful, sunny day in Dublin, and for the shopkeepers, hoteliers and other city traders, it was very much business as usual.
Even when customers in the GPO were asked to leave the premises shortly after rebels seized the building at 12.20pm, their initial response was reported to have been more of bemusement than shock.
Few knew what lay ahead as the calm of the morning hurtled towards a storm that turned the bustling city into a battle zone. Like soldiers holding the fort, many businessmen and property owners tried all they could to save their premises, but fled when they realised their lives were in danger, while hotel guests were ushered away from the thick of the action.
But before buildings were bombarded by fire and shelling from both artillery and the British gunboat the Helga steaming up the Liffey, shops throughout the city were looted, starting famously with women and children helping themselves to Noblett's sweets.
Businesses lost fortunes in looted stock, which took some time to reclaim in compensation from His Majesty's Government. Confectioners, jewellers, furriers, shoe shops, tobacco emporium... all of these businesses were considered fair game to the desperately poor people of Dublin, and they scoured the rubble for firewood. Many businesses never recovered.
Meanwhile, other savvy entrepreneurs saw the opportunity of a city in ruins to nab a bargain and became part of the rebuilding of Dublin. We look at five Dublin businesses caught up in the destruction of the city in 1916 who are still trading today.
McDowells, The Happy Ring House
Originally founded in Mary Street in 1870, McDowell's jewellers, more popularly known as the 'Happy Ring House,' moved to 3 Sackville Street in 1902, making it the longest standing business in one family ownership in O'Connell Street today.
"When the rebellion began, my late grandfather William tried to hold the shop as long as he could, for fear of looting," says manager Peter McDowell. "Eventually, though, it was too dangerous to stay, and he and the porter made a run for it from the premises to Cathedral Street, 50 yards away. In that short distance, the porter was shot dead and William received a leg wound and eventually made it home to Sutton from what was then Amiens Street station.
"After all that, the shop was looted and completely destroyed when a British gunboat, the Helga, sailed up the Liffey and bombarded the city. Eventually, William was reimbursed for looted stock and the premises was rebuilt. My uncle Jack McDowell succeeded William on his death in 1939, though he's perhaps best remembered for gaining notoriety in 1947 when his horse 'Caughoo' won the Aintree Grand National at odds of 200 to one. This was a highly controversial victory as it was reputed the horse completed only one circuit of the Aintree course instead of two, as it was a very foggy day. Now that my daughter Nicola has joined the family business to form the fifth generation, I'm confident that the 'Happy Ring House' will continue to serve future generations of couples choosing their perfect ring."
John Brereton Jewellers
John Brereton is the third generation of his family to run the eponymous jewellery shop in Capel Street.
"My grandfather John Brereton bought the shop in Easter Week 1916. It was closed almost immediately as a result of the Rising, but opened again the following week. It was a pawnbroker's business then. There was a lot of poverty in Dublin and no government lending facilities, so people regularly pawned their personal belongings in return for cash to pay for living expenses. It was the social security of the generation, so to speak.
"In the 1930s my father Jack brought the jewellery business to the fore and now it's a real family enterprise.
Specialising in both new and antique jewellery, the business has grown with the city. My brother Liam manages the shop in O'Connell Street, his son Derek and my son Paul run the Grafton Street store, and I'm here in the original building in Capel Street. Unlike other buildings in the city, it escaped damage during the rebellion and the shop front looks pretty much as it did a 100 years ago. There's a preservation order on it now, because it's such an important part of the history of Dublin."
Wynn's Hotel in Lower Abbey Street was the scene for some of the most important events in the nation's history.
This is where Cumann na mBan was formed in April 1914, and the first meeting of the Irish Volunteer Force was held.
For decades Abbey actors, artists and literary giants hung out in its grand halls, and today's Relatives Association regularly meet here to remember family members who fought in 1916. On Thursday, April 27 that year, under bombardment from British artillery, the hotel was destroyed by fire (pictured right).
"A rebel volunteer on the roof of the GPO later recalled how he saw 'men and women sitting in the windows of Wynn's Hotel watching the battle as from a theatre seat,'" says sales and marketing manager Julie Loftus.
"When the lives of guests and staff were threatened, they made their way under the protection of a makeshift white flag across Butt Bridge to the safety of its sister hotel, the Clarence.
"Wynn's was rebuilt in 1926, the first building in Dublin at the time to use mass concrete for its construction. Two plaques in the Saints and Scholars lounge mark the historic meetings that took place here."
Today Wynn's Hotel is popular with tourists and locals alike, many of whom say the ghosts of its past can still be felt today.
"Brendan O'Carroll filmed here recently and said it still has a haunted feeling," says Julie. "That's what makes it special - the place is full of character."
Joseph Mullen ran a successful business making bespoke leather shoes when the Easter Rising raged, causing devastation to business premises throughout the city. Soon after the Rebellion had ended, he bought a large site at the corner of Capel Street and Mary Street for the knockdown price of £3,000, and started trading in leather goods.
Even in 1916, it was a bargain for a site of its size and location.
Born the same year, his eldest son, Joseph Jr grew up to become a keen footballer. When he was invited to play for Huddersfield in the early 30s, his father gave him the choice to follow his sporting dream - "but know that we might never see you again", he added - or take over the shop. Joseph Jr looked at his mother, crying, and said later, "I couldn't do it".
Instead, he combined both interests by turning Mullens into a sports shop. However, when Joseph Sr died in 1947, the family was hit with a bill of £30,000 in death duties. Joseph Jr had to take out a mortgage and spent most of his life paying it off. When he finally handed over the business to his son Alan, the current proprietor, he did so with the caveat, "Never take a mortgage on this place, son."
Alan heeded his father's advice, even during the boom years of the Celtic Tiger when credit was easy and it seemed everywhere he looked, people were investing in bank shares and property.
"Not taking a mortgage meant we were able to survive the crash," says Alan (pictured above). "Dublin rents are tough for retailers, so to own the building is a great advantage. Mind you, we've had to change with the times. At one time Elverys and ourselves were the only sports shops in town, but in the early 90s, the big chains arrived and I needed to find a niche. I decided to specialise in martial arts and now I like to think Mullen Sports is the go-to place for boxing, judo and the other fighting arts.
"I may not be a millionaire, but thanks to my father and grandfather, I have a business, a career and a livelihood that's passed down through the generations for the last century, and hopefully it will still be here if my son Serge, now seven, chooses to join the family firm when he grows up."
John Michael Barnardo opened his fur business in 1812, beside Dublin Castle, and later moved to Grafton Street where in 1916, it branded the royal crest as furriers to the British court. Today, Barnardo holds the proud boast of being the oldest furriers in the world.
John had 19 children, 13 with his first wife Eilis O'Brien, and five with his second, Eilis's sister Abigail. His most famous son, Thomas Barnardo founded the children's charity Barnardos, 150 years ago. Having been refused a place at Dublin's College of Surgeons on the grounds that he was the son of a tradesman, Thomas studied medicine in London, where he was so moved by the plight of orphans after an outbreak of cholera in 1866, he set up his first children's home.
Meanwhile, his brother Henry took over the furrier business, which today sees the fifth generation, Elizabeth, and her mother Caroline manage the Grafton Street store. Caroline was married to Harry Barnardo for only seven years when he died from bone cancer, leaving her and their only child with nothing but loving memories and a thriving business to run.
"A family business like this is a bit like farming; you pass it on to the next generation," says Caroline (above). "Elizabeth was only six when Harry died and I tell her she was lucky to have had a father who loved her dearly and was really present in her life, even if for only a short time. Wherever we went, Elizabeth came too. He used to call her his angel. He died 38 years ago, and I'm blessed to have Elizabeth and her two beautiful children, Harry Jr (15), and Elizabeth (13)."