Beards are back, but not on me

Facial fur is trendier than at any time since the 1970s. So it’s time for the REALLY cool guys to shave theirs off haircut and hot towel shave at the Waldorf Barbershop

Patrick Freyne has a beard shave and hair cut by Liam Finnegan, at The Waldorf Barbershop, Westmoreland Street, Dublin 2. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

Patrick Freyne has a beard shave and hair cut by Liam Finnegan, at The Waldorf Barbershop, Westmoreland Street, Dublin 2. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill


Beards are back. Well, so a hundred columnists suggested after an Oscar ceremony filled with A-list actors covered in facial fur. This startling announcement wouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone with eyes. The streets are filled with young men sporting untamed, sea-captain beards, presumably on shore leave.

I have long had a beard – a furry comfort blanket that is acceptable to stroke in public. A beard has the additional advantage of adding gravitas, wisdom and virility to my otherwise confused-looking face. On the downside, my wife believes that I have come to resemble the Gnasher badge given free to members of the Dennis the Menace Fan Club, friends say I look like a 1930s hobo, and now Ben Affleck has a beard.

So I go to the Waldorf Barbershop on Westmorland Street, where Mr H, a resident barbershop enthusiast, tells me about the shop’s illustrious history and follicular philosophy. “You know when people say ‘retro with a modern twist’? Well, we do that without the modern twist.” Nowadays the Waldorf is, says Mr H, a barber shop, social club and museum. “It’s a saloon with two ‘o’s.”

Vintage equipment
Established by a chap called Tommy “Two Guns” O’Byrne back in 1946 and based on barbershops he’d seen in the US, the Waldorf Barbershop hasn’t changed that much since. In the late 1990s the shop was taken over by Liam Finnegan and his daughter Linda, and its friendly barbers pride themselves on using only vintage chairs and equipment.

Fashions have a big impact on the barbering trade and are often influenced by contemporary barbering technology. The prevalence of moustaches in times gone by, Mr H tells me, was largely because of how difficult it is to shave your own lip with a straight razor. And Finnegan later explains how the 1960s and 70s were tough years for barbers, when men let their hair and beards grow wild and untamed. “I was lucky I knew how to trim long hair,” he says.

Recently, barbers have benefitted from a trend for more styled haircuts. “The most fashionable look at the moment is a very full old-school mariner’s beard with a tight military 1930s haircut,” says Mr H. “They often leave the big beard grow for a few months or so and then they come in here again a few months later for a shave. They figure they can justify the expense by all the money they’re saving on disposable razors.”

Liam Finnegan guides me to a chair once sat in by Frank Sinatra on a visit to Dublin. Did he have his hair done? I ask. “Maybe just the neck. He wore a toupee.”

Sheep shear
Finnegan starts by giving me a bit of a “sheep shear” with the clippers. Then he lathers me up and places a hot towel on my face to “open up the pores”. It’s very pleasant. Once upon a time, hot towel shaves were a more common thing than they are now. Finnegan recalls apprenticing with a barber in Cahir, Co Tipperary, in the 1950s. “Every Saturday the sheep farmers would come down off the mountain and have their weekly shave,” he says. “You’d have to scrub them first to get the dirt off their face. You’d be shaving until 12 at night.”

All the male barbers at the Waldorf shave themselves with open razors. Finnegan tests the newly sharpened blades on himself. “It was the makers of disposable blades who decided to call the old-fashioned straight razor a cutthroat razor as a kind of marketing ploy when they launched the safety razor,” says Mr H. “But that sounds kind of cool now.” These days there’s a new wave of young dandies purchasing cutthroats in lieu of the new-fangled plastic variety. “The young fellas get them but haven’t a clue how to use them or the leather strop,” sighs Finnegan. “A young fella brought one in Saturday and there were chips knocked out of it.”

At this point I’ve been lathered up for a second time and Finnegan is shaving my face with a razor “made from Sheffield steel in the early ’30s” (he says this with professional pride). Being shaved is a strangely intimate experience. The bond between man and barber was once so strong, says Finnegan, that “when my father’s old shaves died, they’d leave word they wanted him to shave them for the coffin. I did that once or twice. I didn’t like it,” he adds.

I am floppy, relaxed and only a little corpse-like as Finnegan places another hot towel (lovely) then a dripping cold towel (strange) on my face. My reflection is distracting me. It’s turned into a hall-of-mirrors version of my younger brother. I haven’t seen my totally clean-shaven face in a long time. It’s existentially disturbing to me (“At least you’re on the other side of it!” says a helpful friend).

Attention to detail
So when Finnegan suggests that he might as well do the hair as well, it’s such a minor afterthought I just nod. His attention to detail is impressive. He performs acrobatic manoeuvres with old scissors and blades and barbershop instruments. “This is the Waldorf French Razor technique,” he says as he primps my barnet in an authoritative manner. I am a special project. I am thoroughly barbered, lathered, toniced and brushed. It’s “pampering”, but significantly more manly and testosterone-filled than that sounds. And at the end of it all I’m a new man – a sleeker, more stylish man. “Some transformation, eh?” says Finnegan warmly.

But out in the street my face feels cold. Back at the office, it’s like I’m wearing a disguise. Colleagues do not recognise me and blank me in the corridors (I mean, more than usual). I feel like a ghost forced to walk the earth to make reparations for the evil things I’ve done. When people finally realise it’s me they cry, “OH MY GOD, IT’S YOU!” It’s disconcerting. I consider buying a fake beard.

A hot towel shave at the Waldorf Barbershop costs €35
A basic haircut costs €29 and a restyle costs €35 to €45