A leading light in a centuries-old craft
Founded in Dublin in 1488, Rathbornes is the oldest candle-making company in the world. Now, ahead of their busiest time of the year, Alex Meehan talks to the husband and wife team currently running the business, and asks what is the secret to its flaming success.
Flickering light, the smell of wax and the kind of tangible connection to history not often found outside of a museum. Picture the home of one of the oldest candle-makers in Ireland - if not the world - and the odds are you're not seeing an industrial estate in Blanchardstown.
But the wheel of time turns and any company that's been in existence for more than 500 years - since 1488 to be exact - has to move with the times or risk being extinguished. And that's exactly what the Dublin candle-maker Rathbornes has done. Since being founded in Wynetavern Street near Christchurch Cathedral in the 15th century, Rathbornes has done just one thing, and done it so well that it's survived the kind of changes that most businesses never have to worry about.
With Christmas coming up, Rathbornes is gearing up for its busiest time of the year. From yule logs to welcome candles in windows, Christmas is when the general public are most likely to use candles around the house. That wasn't always the case however.
When Joseph Rathborne first set up shop, Dublin was a very different place. The city wasn't even the capital of Ireland - that didn't happen until 1541 - and Trinity College wasn't founded until 1592. Dublin Corporation wasn't incorporated until 1661 and St Stephen's Green wasn't walled off until 1664. Once night fell in Dublin, darkness was the rule unless you were wealthy or important enough to have a steady supply of candles to keep the dark at bay. As a result, candles played a role in society that was so important it's hard to overestimate it.
Before candles, the only sources of light were plain old firelight and oil lamps, fiddly and smelly devices that had to be operated by hand and which had the alarming tendency to fall over and set fire to buildings. Most early candles were made with animal fats left over from cooking as well as various tallows and waxes, and they burned with a dirty and smoky flame that smelled strongly. Beeswax was the gold standard, but these candles were expensive and only used by the rich and in religious ceremonies.
Originally made in monasteries or at home, candle-making became a full craft of its own in the middle ages, and the first recorded guild of chandlers appeared in Paris in the 13th century. From the 1400s on, it was common to find streets lit by candlelight until oil and gas replaced them in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Candles were used to give light but also as devices for keeping time. Timekeeping candles had 12 divisions marked into them and were made to burn for 24 hours. These were widely used in industry to mark the length of work shifts, including down coal mines where they were used up until around 50 years ago. It was only with the invention of machines which could turn out moulded candles, and mass production techniques, that clean burning candles became something that could be used widely.
Today Rathbornes is run by Vincent Brady and his wife Siobhan Keogh, general manager and business development director respectively, and together they feel the weight of history upon them. "It's the oldest candle-making company in the world, and probably amongst the oldest companies of any kind in Ireland although it's hard to be sure. Certainly in terms of manufacturing, it's the oldest in continuous operation. There are a couple of bars that are probably older but no companies that we know of that make things, and we've been making products continuously since 1488," says Brady.
"On a day-to-day basis you just get on with it, but when you stop and think what all the previous managers had to go through, it's awe-inspiring. They dealt with the discovery of gas lighting and then electricity, the famine, world wars, the Easter Rising - through all of that this company endured. It's our job to hand it on to the next generation."
While candle light is no longer a staple of daily life, that doesn't mean the significance of the candle has diminished. "In religious terms, candles still play an enormously important role as a symbol. When you get christened there's a baptismal candle and when you get married there's a marriage candle - there's always a candle around big occasions in the church," says Brady.
"People still want candles today but for different reasons. They've become a luxury item and people want them to provide atmosphere and to carry scents. We don't light as many fires in our homes as we used to, and yet there's something in the human psyche that is drawn towards an open flame. We think that will always be the case. The Irish have always gathered to tell stories and talk by candle light and we still do that. At social occasions and on dinner tables we like to light candles instead of gathering around an open fire."
Staying in business is challenging for any company, but Brady believes that while the recession of recent years has been difficult, it's no different to any of the other periods of upheaval Rathbornes has seen come and go in its time.
"It's always difficult if you have one core area and you're completely focused on that, and in the past we only made candles for the ecclesiastical market. The church market is diminished but not by as much as you might think," he says. A division of Rathbornes, Lalor Church Candles, produces altar candles and votives.
"Orders are slightly down but only slightly. We've been able to open up an export market into Britain and that's helped a lot. We produce 15,000 votive tealights an hour, and in total we sell around 22 million a year - that's a lot of prayers. There's still a strong tradition of people going into churches and lighting candles."
One development that has hit the company is that many churches are no longer open during the day. In the past they were often open 24 hours a day, making it easy for people to pop in and light a candle during their working day.
In order to protect the company and keep it viable into the future, three years ago Rathbornes diversified with a new manufacturing line - luxury scented candles. Hand poured and made on site in Blanchardstown, each candle takes three days to make.
"We launched these in 2015 and initially only sold in Brown Thomas for 12 months. That gave us time to really research the market and get to know what we were doing properly. We secured a place on the shelves of upmarket British stores like Fortnum and Mason and we got a foothold in the market," says Siobhan Keogh.
Today the luxury candles are available in the Kilkenny Shop on Nassau Street in Dublin, Arnotts, Brown Thomas, Meadows and Byrne, and other high-end stores around the country.
"Our scents are a little bit different to other manufacturers - we focus on natural aromas that are based on premium essential oils. We sometimes find that people who are annoyed by cloying strong scents actually like ours because they're subtler," she says.
"They're an Irish product but they're a modern Irish product. They're not marketed on the back of some idea of ye olde Irelande - they're 21st century modern and sophisticated products. Each candle has some Irish element to it too; at least one part of each one's scent is rooted here."
As well as being a business development expert, Keogh holds a PhD from the Royal College of Surgeons in microbiology and applied her training to the process of developing the new range. Examples of scents in the 1488 collection include white pepper, honeysuckle and vetiver, and mint, watercress and thyme.
"Scents are very special not just because they smell nice but because they activate parts of the brain in a way that nothing else does. They evoke memories and can take you back to other times and places you associate with those smells. Often you don't even realise it, but your mood can be altered by a nice smell," Keogh says.
Photographs by Steve Humphreys