Chapter Five

Garnetts and Keegans

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In the spring of 1959, six young lads from Capel Street Technical College were given leave from their regular studies to seek work as the end of term was approaching. They meandered down Capel Street, crossed the bridge at the Liffey and stopped outside the address they were given by their tutor, 31 Parliament Street. Pausing outside for a moment, they gazed through the window display wondering what it was all about.

On entering one of the lads approached the first counter proclaiming “we are here to see Captain Smith” before being chaperoned up the stairs to wait outside his office. The first boy went in and was asked “do you know how to use a lathe? To which he replied “of course I do”. Captain Smith left the office, and told his lead gunsmith Jack Joyce in full earshot of the other waiting lads “we have our man”. When he returned he asked the successful candidate “what is your name?” at which he replied “Tony Curran”. “Well Tony Curran, welcome to Garnett and Keegans, tell the others they can go on your way out”

Colleagues: Pat Clere & Tony Curran
Colleagues: Pat Clere & Tony Curran

In 2010 I paid a visit to Tony at his home in Raheny in a quest to learn more about my estranged Great Uncle Tom. Admittedly, I knew nothing about Garnett and Keegans and will be forever grateful to him for opening the doors of this world to me. During the subsequent years I followed his leads, met wonderful, interesting people and listened to some amazing stories. Memories to cherish that will live with me forever.

When walking down Dublin’s Parliament Street in the 1950’s and 60’s, if you were not a fishing or shooting enthusiast and your eyes were firmly fixed on the beauty of City Hall, you might have failed to notice the famous fishing tackle and gun shop, Garnett and Keegans at number 31.

This old and highly reputable firm was an institution in Irish sporting circles with its red and white façade, gold colour sign and beautiful oak windows, reminiscent of the old Victorian gun shops of London. Still today its name evokes nostalgic memories of golden youth and careless hours spent with rod and gun for generations of sportsmen from all corners of Ireland. The sporting enthusiast would gaze in awe at the wonderland within, the guns and rods all gleaming in lovely old mahogany racks with all sorts of magic to view in the windows.

Joe Barrett’s 1983 Angling Times - “Part of Ireland’s Sporting Heritage

Captain Smith

By all accounts Tom Smith is portrayed as a haughty, almost condescending individual, a man of principle who would rarely let his guard down. For those who got to know him better, he is described as a highly regarded, kind and generous man and a father figure. One could argue a Captain is of insufficient rank to call yourself such on Civvy Street, but that’s how he was addressed. Even on the rare occasion his wife Evelyn called him at work she asked to speak to “Captain Smith”. Olive Strickland (nee O’Leary) was a young girl when working for Tom in Accounts between 1953 -1962 she said of him:

Tom was made for this time and in many respects he was away head, specifically with his knowledge and forward thinking about ballistics. He never held a grudge and apologised if he was out of line, typically saying “don’t mind me”. It was obvious to all he had a tough life and had his own daemons; in fact sometimes he could be his own worst enemy. Customers always wanted to talk to him. They would bring there gilly’s and stewards from all over the country to do so. He was not selective who he talked to and was always happy to share his knowledge with those who asked for it.

He also had a sense of humour. I rode my bike into work every day and on an occasion I was late he would look at the clock or tap his watch and say “you might as well go home now, there’s no point in staying now you’re late!” To my surprise he actually meant it and I would return home, although he never docked my pay. It was his principle I think, as he had to be seen in control.

Olive Strickland (nee O’Leary)
Garnett and Keegans Shop Front
Garnett and Keegans Shop Front

If you were a visitor to the Clarence or Dolphin Hotel in Dublin on a Friday afternoon in the 1950s it is likely that Tom and Éamon McEnery were there having an urbane conversation about the topic of the day over a drink and a sandwich. Éamon listened in awe at Tom’s recollections and experiences of the Western front in France, Spain, India, Syria and the Lebanon, as well as discussing life, politics and religion. Their favourite topic of conversation was their “interest in common”, the sport of shooting.

As well as reminiscing, the two would often plan their weekend sometimes spent at Éamon’s land at Ballycroy, Westport Co Mayo where they shot snipe, grouse and woodcock by the Owenduff and Bellaveeny rivers on the estate. Éamon stated that “Tom didn’t spend much of time shooting but when he did he was an excellent shot.”

In 2011, I had the privilege of spending 2 days in Éamon’s company at his estate in Shannon Hill near Portumna, County Galway. He was enthusiastic and animated talking about his old friend Tom Smith who he described as a tremendous character, excellent company and quite different from anyone he ever knew.

Éamon’s father William was an investment banker in Wall Street. When the Irish Civil War started his family were concerned about his allegiance and sent him to Cornell University to study agriculture and get him out of the way. His aptitude was more on the financial and economical side of agriculture and eventually he served in the exchange commission in Washington before becoming a partner in the Investment Banking house.

It was his passion for breeding horses that influenced William to return to Kilkenny in Ireland in the late 1920’s where Éamon was born. Éamon, once engaged to British actress Vanessa Redgrave, became a professional live pigeon shooter and spent most of his time in Monte Carlo, Deauville and Viche applying his trade. In common with Tom, Éamon’s father had disinherited him.

After World War 2, Tom had acquired the position of Director at Keegans, a firearms establishment owned by Larry Keegan, who was an old man with no children when the war ended. The shop located next door to the Dublin Four Courts had recently been purchased by Paddy Garnett. In 1949 John Hanlon, a qualified accountant who had married into a wealthy family, folded his unsuccessful clothing company Polykofts. He bought Garnett and Keegans moved it to Parliament Street. Hanlon quickly made it the “Mecca for sportsmen from all 4 corners of Ireland”. This is where Éamon McEnery, a Trinity College student at the time, met Tom who he considered a “father” figure.

The History of Garnetts and Keegans

cartridges

It is known that the beginnings of Garnetts and Keegan’s lie in the 19th century but it is difficult to be accurate about a date. In 1960 the directors of the company were confident enough to state that the firm was in business ” for over a Century “, and in folk memory it is held that Garnett’s was trading as a fishing and shooting shop in Bishop Street in 1860. This shop later moved to Crampton Court, off Dame Street.

Larry Keegan, meanwhile, established his shop in the early 1900’s at 3 Inns Quay, next door to the Dublin Four Courts, It would appear that the respected Mr, Keegan made a name for his firm in the shooting area, as witnessed by his membership of the exclusive gun makers’ Association. A composite photograph exists of the one hundred or so members where Larry is included alongside such legendary gun makers as H. W. Holland, C. E. Greener and Athol Purdey.

At the turn of the 20th century, Ireland, especially the west, was a veritable field sportsman’s paradise. The vast runs of salmon, the huge flocks of grouse and herds of red deer were commonplace, This really was a halcyon period for shooting and game fishing through the patronage of Edward VII and other royals, who made frequent trips from England, accompanied by a multitudinous entourage. Garnett’s came to the forefront to provide the very best in fishing rods, greenhearts from Castleconnell on the Shannon at Limerick and split cane from Haynes of Cork and Hardy Brothers of Alnwick as well as their own brands. Mrs. Garnett, mother of the last Garnett in the firm, Paddy, tied the flies on big irons (hooks) which today would be completely unthinkable but which to those who were accustomed to big fish were normal everyday size . Her flies were renowned throughout the length and breadth of Ireland wherever there was a wild ferox or gillaroo or trout to be landed, in full visibility people could watch Mrs. Garnett sitting at the window of the shop in Crampton Court tying those flies, She would do this of course, to have the best light by which to tie her creations of feather, floss and shiny wire.

Though both firms deal in fishing and shooting goods, to Keegan’s fell the job of fulfilling the needs of the shooting gentleman, As the other gun making firms of Trulock and Harris (which operated from 13 Parliament Street) and Rigby’s at Dame Street and Suffolk Street closed up and followed the English officers back to London, Keegan’s on Inns Quay became the premier shooting emporium. Still extant is the very first ammunition sales record book introduced by the Free State government in 1925. It is interesting that generations of the same families that frequented Keegans remained loyal customers in the 1980s, like the grandsons of Lords Holmpatrick and Ardee who were regulars at the beginning.

By 1944, Paddy Garnett owned both shops but continued to operate them separately, Shortly, they were sold to Frank Gordon who obviously found trading extremely difficult in those war and post-war years as he sold out to John Hanlon ( whose family gave us Hanlon’s Corner on the North Circular Road in 1949). By 1951, rationalisation had occurred and the two firms had been combined to form Garnetts & Keegan’s Limited in a beautifully refurbished building at 31 Parliament Street.

It was a magnificent shop, and Garnetts & Keegan’s fame spread far and wide. Incidentally, it was at this stage that the apostrophe was dropped from “Garnetts”. The first entry in the telephone directory erroneously dropped the mark. In spite of repeated representations to the telephone authorities, the default remained and became firmly established.

In the 1950’s Garnetts and Keegan’s was a hive of activity, in the basement, Captain Tom Smith spent countless hours on the scientific analysis of the mysteries of ballistics, firing guns down a long corridor at a steel plate target. On the ground floor, Dick Harris, who retired in 1984 was the renowned author of the seminal work on the study of river and lake insects “An Angler’s Entomology” , held forth on his favourite subject.

The next floor was Dougie Cotter’s domain. Dougie was the crotchety chief Gunsmith whose advice to young shooters is still remembered fondly by many of those privileged to receive it. All the guns .and shooting goods were displayed on this floor accompanied by the stuffed tiger and brown bear, frightening and mysterious to all those children who are now grown men. Up to ten ladies worked on the second floor, tying flies in their thousands from some of the most exotic feathers and materials in the world. Some of these flies were once-offs, tied to the secret specifications of, perhaps, a retired colonel in the Midlands, but most were destined for other shops in the small lakeside villages around the country and the fly trays downstairs. On the third and fourth floors were the workshops where guns and rods were repaired by the most skilled craftsmen available.Hanlon was forward when it came to influencing the kind of clientele he was willing to attract, if someone he did not like the look of appeared in the shop he would often put his hand in his pocket give them a shilling and tell them not to come back. One could suggest that Garnett and Keegans was not a model commercial venture, it was more a club where people would drive to from the country, meet and have a chat. On one occasion TC Martin a successful builder who had fallen upon hard times came into the shop and had argument with John over credit. After protesting “If you’re going to treat me like this I’ll not come back to the shop” John put his hand in his pocket handed him five pounds and said “is that a promise”?

Éamon de Buitléar

Two years before his death, I had the pleasure of meeting Éamon de Buitléar at his home in Delgany, County Wicklow who began his career at Garnett and Keegan’s in the 1950’s.

He was Ireland’s best known independent wildlife film-maker, a former Senator and author of many books including his own memoirs, “A Life in the Wild”. His appearance to promote his memoirs on RTE’s “Late Late Show” some years ago turned out to be a hilarious interview as he told the story of a man who came into the shop to borrow a rod to rescue his hat from the Liffey, after the wind had taken it from his head.

About Tom Smith, he spoke of a pompous and arrogant character, a very kind but a distant type of man who knew his stuff (firearms and ballistics). “Yogurt! I never heard of the stuff until I met Tom Smith who ate it every day. It must have been good for you though for he took those stairs 3 at a time when he came in each morning”.

Tom was no great salesman especially if a customer asked for a specific rifle, Tom would abruptly enquire “what do you want that for?” He had no time for the quick sale. His style was to share his expertise and influence the customer’s final decision by talking to them for an hour over tea or coffee. He had his favourites and of course they were taken down to ballistic laboratory in the basement or taken out to lunch.

At the Top of his Game

Described in this Irish Times article entitled New Irish Rifle will be kinder to Animals on 29th November 1952. Tom Smith demonstrates his expertise.

In an old-established Dublin firm of gunsmiths, Garnetts and Keegans Ltd of Parliament Street, Technical Director Capt. Tom Smith has perfected a hunting rifle which will be kinder to animals, because it will kill them as soon as the bullet strikes instead of, as is with other of lesser velocity, merely maiming them, leaving them to die slowly and painfully in lairs far from the hunter. The high velocity rifle, two of which are being handmade for clients is used for deer, seal and general game shooting and has a zero range of approximately 300 yards.

“A big advantage of the weapon” Capt Smith told our reporter, “there is no need to fiddle about with a back sight to set the range. The trajectory, the path of the bullet from the rifle to target is almost flat, not as curved as with other weapons of lesser velocity. Also, instead of pulling the bolt back to cock the firing mechanism, all that is needed is a flick of the bolt. Our trigger too, has only one pressure. All these things add up to speed in aiming and firing as well as more humane weapon. Garnett and Keegans Ltd use imported “actions” which are adapted in the Dublin firm to make the new weapon. The stock is finished and fitted by hand.

Two kinds of actions are suitable says Capt Smith, “the P.14 or P.17. The P.14 is the British Enfield .303 pattern of 1914. The P.17 is the British Enfield used by the Americans when they entered World War 1. The P.14 is identical to the American P.17, but the chambered and rifled for 3.0 calibre of the 1906 model. We use the military action only.

“Conversion” he explained, “is made my milling off the high military type back-sight wings by altering the trigger mechanism from double to single pull; by converting the firing mechanism so as to cock on the uplift of the bolt; and by shortening the firing pin travel by half, thus speeding up ignition”.

“We also convert the magazine and the magazine platform” he said, “to accommodate the cartridge which we are making in Dublin. This cartridge is based on the .300 Holland and Holland type belted case, as this is the strongest cartridge case known, and it makes the head space more easily controllable”

“Thus” he continued “the pressure can be increased with safety to enable greater velocity”.

Two Years Work

Another import for the Irish rifle is a rifle-barrel blank, a length of barrel already rifled. “On the outside we contour the barrel, thread it on our machines and chamber it to our own special cartridge.”

Accuracy of the chambering and head-spacing is the most important part of the work. When the barrel is finished it is screwed into the action and the extractor slot accurately located. Then the barrel is removed the extractor slot milled and the barrel blued.”

The action at this time is ready for assembly, likewise the stock. Then the entire weapon is assembled and proof tested.

Work on the new rifle known as .277 GK Magnum began in Dublin two years ago. The work ended when the trial model was perfected last September (1951). Cost has not been fixed, but will vary between £55 and £60. Calibre is .277 and the muzzle velocity is approximately 3,500 ft. seconds with a 130 grain bullet “higher than any other commercial cartridge on the market in this calibre with such bullet weight”

Mass Production

“We are putting in new machinery when available, probably in the next 6 months” said the Technical Director. “It is possible that we may mass produce the weapon in which case the price would be £42 each, which compares favourably with the price of lower powered weapons from abroad.”

When asked how long does it take to build the hand-tailored Dublin rifle? Capt Smith replied “The stock alone, made from walnut takes a week, the entire job takes about three weeks”.

Irish Times article entitled New Irish Rifle will be kinder to Animals on 29th November 1952

The Kennedy Assassination

In 1963, John F Kennedy’s assassination was a source of great debate amongst Garnett and Keegan’s employees as it was argued that Lee-Harvey Oswald could not have killed Kennedy with the rifle used. Working only on the details that had been reported on the news, Tom took the same gun used in the murder to the basement to test the theory. (Garnetts and Keegans had the 6.5mm Carcano, an Italian bolt action infantry rifle used by Oswald in stock).

Being excellent marksmen, Éamon McEnery and Tom set about trying to re-enact the fatal shooting which stirred the interest of the customers who were invited down to see the proof for themselves. This was long before the Wallace Report and the Infantry Weapons Evaluation Branch of the U.S. Army’s ballistic research laboratory carried out their comprehensive tests.

Unusual Friends

Tom kept some unusual but interesting company. Norman Bailey-Stewart for one was highly educated, went to Sandhurst and came from a grand Scottish family. He was sympathetic to the Germans during World War 2 and even sought German citizenship before the war. He was captured in Germany and was famously jailed in England as last prisoner in the Tower of London. When released from prison in 1950 he settled in Artane near Dublin and began an import/export business just a few doors away from Garnetts and Keegans on Parliament Street. Bailey-Stewart looked Tom up and they became good friends.

Another was Hermann Müller a German paratrooper who was involved in the Conquest of Crete during the war. He was captured by the British and became their Prisoner of War in England. When the war ended he too decided to settle in Ireland when his property in East Germany was confiscated by the Russians.

Near Powerscourt in Wicklow there was a hole in the wall were the deer came out at dawn everyday to feed on the better grass. Müller would sit at the road side in his Volkswagen Beetle and wait till they came out to shoot them. Tom had never seen anything like this as he would shoot 3 or 4 deer at one time to sell them.

Müller was a crafty individual who began to import cheap shirts from the far-east and made a reasonable living at it. He built up enough trust with his suppliers that enabled him to order a plane load. Somehow he managed to persuade Customs to question the validity of these shirts and during the investigation the plane was quarantined with a hefty daily charge. Müller’s suppliers panicked and he ended up buying the shirts for a nominal 2 shillings a unit which he sold on for 3 pounds each. Muller disappeared before Tom died in 1964 and was never heard of again.

The end of an Era

Most who served their apprenticeships with Garnetts & Keegan’s ensured that the secrets of their trade remained secrets. However, times changed. In 1981 John Hanlon died leaving seven daughters. Barry Mason, one of his son-in-laws, took over the management of the firm in 1984, by the summer of 1989, the effects of a long retailing recession and two seasons of protest by objectors to the Fishing Rod Licence took effect and the old firm eventually went into voluntary liquidation.


In some corner of your life, you know more about something than anyone else on earth. The true measure of your education is not what you know, but how you share what you know with others.Ken Nerburn

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