Famous last haircut – An Irishman’s Diary about the Pearse Brothers’ favourite barbershop

 

An acquaintance of The Irish Times was in the process of trying to buy a house recently when an item of furniture – the chair pictured – came up in the conversation. It wasn’t part of the sale, for reasons that may become obvious. But pending imminent relocation, it added to the property’s ambience.

If chairs could talk, this one would recall that it was once sat on by both Patrick and Willie Pearse.

In its continuing silence, however, that event has been recorded by others, because the chair was located in a barbershop at the time.

When the Pearses occupied it on Easter Thursday 1916, it was for their last ever haircuts, as at least one of the brothers must have foreseen.

They had been regular customers at the shop, Doran’s of Rathmines, although it wasn’t long open then. Realising the significance of this visit later, John Doran (a brother of James, who founded the business) would recall they hadn’t spoken much. But then again, he said, they never did.

In any case, they were newly coiffured as they headed for their appointment with history. And the fame of subsequent events explains why, after a retirement spent in the family home, the chair will most likely end up in a museum.

As for the barbershop, it still stands on Castlewood Avenue and, although no longer in the original ownership, it’s still called Doran’s.

Indeed, by surviving this long, the business has made history of its own.

It was launched, four months before the Titanic, on January 2nd, 1912. And although 105 years seems relatively youthful by Dublin standards, those chroniclers of the city’s social history, comeheretome.com, have declared it the oldest barbershop in town.

Speaking of towns, for much of its earlier life, Doran’s town would have been Rathmines. The shop is still in Rathmines now, of course, but that’s a mere suburb these days, whereas back then it would have a near-Catalonian sense of its own sovereignty.

When Doran’s previously featured in this newspaper, in 2002, the then-recently retired Jimmy, a son of the founder, made this point forcefully. He had been born above the shop in the same year the Pearses made their poignant visit. And nearly nine decades later, he was still declaring his independence from the municipal superpower.

“I’m not a Dubliner,” he insisted. “I’m a Rathmines man [...] Dublin didn’t come in here, to Rathmines, until 1930. Rathmines Urban District Council used make its own electricity until then.”

In like vein, Jimmy Doran differentiated between his mother (“a Rathmines woman“) and his father (“a city man”). He also mentioned the Pearse chair in passing (“My grandchildren sit on it to use their computers”). But having spent 68 years barbering, from 1930 to 1998, he was especially insightful about the ups and downs of that trade.

The Troubles of 1916-23 were not a major challenge, clearly: people still have to get their hair cut during revolutions. But 1960s pop culture was a disaster. “When the Beatles came in all the fellas kept their hair long,” he recalled. Hundreds of hairdressers went out of business as a result, but Doran’s were lucky: “We kept going and we came up again, by God.”

Speaking of God, but moving to a different part of Rathmines, readers may recall a recent column here on the subject of a mysterious message, written in stone, on its domed Catholic Church. As mentioned then, it’s the number “77”, formed by blocks in an arched lintel.

But it had escaped the attention of local historians until some years ago when a visitor from US claimed it to be the work of her emigrant father, an anti-Treaty Republican who, when renovating the church in 1923, left it as a reminder of the number of his colleagues executed by the Free State government.

But it seems there may be at least one counter-claimant. For my former Irish Times colleague Seamus Martin has since told me that, according to a family tradition, it was his maternal uncle, Matthew Mullen, who did it. “Uncle Matt” was a bricklayer and stonemason. And not only was he anti-Treaty, he was arrested while working on the church and jailed in Kilmainham.

Whether the true authorship of the “77” can ever be proven now is not clear.

The one thing Seamus knows for certain is that Mullen was arrested the same day as two other republican notables. One was Seán McEntee. The second, another stonemason who may also have been working on the church, was Stephen Behan, father of the playwright.

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