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”
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
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)
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
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.
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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