Family-run undertakers now into its seventh generation


TradeNames:The Nichols name is synonymous with the undertaking business in Dublin, writes Rose Doyle

J & C Nichols is a definite, if unobtrusive, presence on Lombard Street East, an area forever Dublin - inside the canals, in the heartland between Merrion Square and the river, next to the day long traffic jam that is Pearse Street.

Since the Nichols family established a presence there in 1814 seven generations have been in the business of undertaking and funeral directing, a core part of the community and a landmark in Ulysses as Joyce's hero rambles through the city in the Lotus Eaters's chapter: "He crossed Townsend Street, passed the frowning face of Bethel. El, yes; house of; Aleph, Beth. And past Nichols' the undertakers."

The latter-day custodian of Nichols' place in the city's business history is the sophisticated, wryly humorous and, at a mere 37 years old, young Gus Nichols. (It's Augustus, since you're wondering; his father, justifying the name, told him a bank manager would never refuse an Augustus.)

Energetically in charge, Gus Nichols takes an unabashed pride in the company, says they're "the oldest funeral directors in Dublin".

In the beginning there was the romance of a star-crossed love affair. When Charles Nichols was forbidden to marry his cousin Anne at the end of the 18th century he left Warwickshire for a new life at 3 Lombard Street. Anne, when her husband died a few years later, hot-footed it to Dublin and Charles. They'd married and had a family by the time, in 1814, Charles Nichols went into the business of hiring out horse-drawn carriages.

"The notion of an undertaker, a middleman who would make funeral arrangements, didn't exist at the time," Gus explains. "Someone died, a coffin was bought from the coffin-making families in Cook Street and a carriage company hired for transport to the graveyard. Funerals took place quickly, because of fear of disease and the smell, and usually went straight to the cemetery."

Times changed and the city's coffin-making families, the Byrnes and Kennys, began selling directly to the carriage companies.

"It was the beginning of the end for Cook Street," says Gus. "By the end of the 1890s, when my great-grandfather Charles Nichols was in charge, there was a mini-factory here in Lombard Street with offices, stables, yard and coffin factory in the loft."

Charles Nichols, born 1854, is a story in himself. Widowed, he married again and, between his two marriages, had 17 children, mostly daughters, many of whom didn't marry and for whom he bought houses throughout the city.

"He was the funeral director of the day in Dublin," says Gus, "probably involved in Parnell's funeral and certainly involved in providing carriages and finery for the Parnell commemoration in 1941, fifty years later."

When Charles Nichols died in 1930 the business went to his younger brother, James. James died, suddenly and soon after, and things went to Charles's son, Richard Joseph Nichols. Richard, according to his grandson Gus, lived the full life.

"He rebuilt St Michan's church vaults for the state, in particular the vault of the Sheares brothers, rebels executed in 1798 whose coffins were in a dreadful state. It was the philanthropic thing to do. There's a room in the Pierrot snooker club in Dún Laoghaire called the Richard J Nichols room too. He hit his head on the roof of a car and died in 1953."

Richard and his wife Ena (nee Klinger) had five children: Rhona,Edward, Richard, Gretchen and Michael. The family lived in Palmerston Park, Dublin 6, before moving back to Lombard Street. Ena disliked this and soon moved the family to Greystones.

Edward Nichols, known as Eddie, married Sarah Gilbertson and they became parents to Gus, his sister Anna and brother Ben. "My father was just 21 when his father died. He took over everything, including a car hire business with a fleet of Morris Minors. He'd wanted to do other things but taking over the family business was expected. He was great craic, couldn't wait to leave Greystones which he called Headstones! There was a staff of 15, we were still making coffins by hand in the Coffin Loft. Hearses were by then motorised; it had been a bloody tough business in the horse drawn days, men having to be with and feed the horses at all hours."

Nichols was "traditionally thought of as Protestant undertakers - though we of course buried Catholics too. We were seen as 'knowing the ways' of the smaller communities so Methodists, Bahai, Church of Ireland, Quakers, Baptists, Brethren, all the smaller communities came to us. Times were tough when my father took over. As part of the deal when my grandfather died Jameson's Florists were bought as a job/living for dad's brother Richard. It closed in the 1980s."

Richard Nichols married Patricia May and they still run Opus 11, one of Dublin's older music stores. Rhona Nichols married Harold Booker, Gretchen Nichols married Robin Thornton and Michael Nichols married Olive and made a career in finance. Everyone still lives in Greystones.

"My father kept the family flag flying here," says Gus, "but business gradually declined. He didn't move to the growing suburbs when others did, the population between the canals dropped, local wards and parishes all declining. As business declined he found union negotiations very tiring; the union hand had strengthened hugely after a strike in the 1970s and he took it personally that his men wanted to strike on him. He was tired and made a deal with Fanagans, who bought Nichols, in 1988. The Coffin Loft closed, the drivers moved to Aungier Street and became part of Fanagans there. There were no lay-offs, my father insisted on that. Office staff stayed here. Richard Kingston and Tom McCoy, who'd been principle staff here for years, stayed on until 2001 when they retired. As far as the public was concerned Nichols continued as it had been - all that changed was that Fanagans serviced Nichols' funerals with, effectively, the two yards combined in Aungier Street."

And so things have continued, with offices and two chapels still in Lombard Street. "It means the company has a wider spread around the city," says Gus.

Edward Nichols died, suddenly, in 1996. "I wasn't committed to coming into the business at the time," says Gus, who'd had other things on his mind in the years following his degree (economics and geography from TCD) spent in Hong Kong working for an Irish pub company, treading the boards in the musical South Pacific in the same city and time with a mass fatality management company which was "very involved with the tsunami disaster and had a world wide network of funeral embalmers, forensic dentists, etc."

It being "very hard to ignore the name over the door, the family's history with the company" Gus Nichols took over his father's role in 1996. "This is not a job you can do 90 per cent," he says, "it has to be 110 per cent. It's more than a pay cheque and what we do does matter.Richard (Kingston) and Tom (McCoy) were a great help to me. It's a very particular job and you need a particular vocation. I'm amazed at the strength people show in the worst of circumstances, at funerals with their worlds' collapsed."

His involvement's complete - he was president of the Irish Association of Funeral Directors in 2005 and in 2110 will become vice-president of FIAT/IFTA, the worldwide association of funeral directors. He runs the Nichols' part of the business and is part of the Fanagan management team. "Busy times," he agrees. Things are changing.

"Cremation rates are now over 30 per cent - they were 10 per cent. Catholic funerals are less inclined to go to the church in the evenings because people can't face what amounts to two funerals. And, despite what people think, the funeral directing business is not immune to market forces! People calling us a closed shop is entirely unfair. The market is entirely open."

He's married to Susan (nee Rossney) and they've a baby son, Samuel, whom he hopes will be a professional golfer or member of a boy band. "But who knows what'll happen? I don't . . ."