Friday, April 2, 1993

Master Tailors of Athy

In the early years of the 19th century the average man wore a shirt, breeches, stockings, a hat or a cap, a waistcoat and a great coat or frock coat. The breeches were fastened below the knee with buttons or a tape. Fashion trends long dormant were about to change largely influenced by the British Royal Family and when in 1807 the Prince of Wales wore a pair of sailors long trousers, breeches were destined soon to be a thing of the past. By the middle of the last century breeches were worn only by old men who shunned the fashionable long trousers.

The advent of the new middle class in the 19th century and the availability of imported material created a demand for fashionable clothes during the latter half of that century. The long frock coat of the earlier years was replaced by a shorter jacket coat. In the market towns such as Athy the dictates of the London fashion scene were followed no less assidiously than elsewhere. Master tailors and dressmakers were two occupations much in demand in the days before factory production became prevalent.

The principal tailoring business in Athy was carried on by Thomas G. Lumley at Duke Street. On the 2nd of August, 1884 in an advertisement in The Nationalist and Leinster Times Lumley announced that he had received "a very beautiful assortment of English, Irish and Scottish goods for the present season well worth attention." The advertisements quoted "tweed suits from 50 shillings, tweed trousers from 12/6, all made to order with Liveries made on the shortest notice." Lumleys gave employment to many Athy men and women over the years, some of whom were eventually to set up their own businesses.

Tom Moran of St. Patrick's Avenue and his father Thomas, Mick Egan of Leinster Street and Paddy Bracken of Barrack Street were some of those skilful craftsmen who worked for Lumleys in their Duke Street premises. Master tailors tended to hand on the skill and expertise of their craft to their family members and the Morans were one of the many families where the tradition was handed on. Thomas Moran and his son Tom were master tailors while Tom's sister, Catherine, was a seamstress in Lumleys.

Dressmaking was another branch of the trade which of necessity utilised skills of the womenfolk. Miss Johnson, dressmaker, is remembered as occupying one of the small houses in Convent Lane with the sign over her front door “E. Johnson Dressmaker”.

The work of master tailors in provincial towns was under threat even as early as 1886 as evidenced by a letter to the Kildare Observer by an Athy correspondent on the 17th of November of that year. The writer enquired as to what had happened the movement to promote Irish manufacture when
"you may see in most of the draper shops in Athy made up suits of English shoddy ...... while tailors have not enough to do ....... no wonder indeed that this and other towns should be decaying swiftly while artisans and labourers are just ignored". He alerted the readers to another problem caused by "grocers and others beginning to patronise the houses in Dublin for their clothing".

The problem was again highlighted in a letter to the Leinster Leader from Cootes, Market Square, Athy, on the 5th of April, 1902. Mr. Coote, who operated a "fitting establishment" bemoaned the destruction of the tailoring trade by
"greedy drapers who supply suits to measure made in London or in Dublin ...... when a customer goes into a house that supplies the suits to buy a piece of material which he wants to bring to one of the tailors in Athy he is persuaded by the drapers assistant that ..... he would get a better fit if he gets them made in Dublin or London according to the measurement taken by the draper's assistant ...... there are tailors in Athy who can compete with any first class house in the Kingdom at making stylish, perfect fitting suits."

The letter writer no doubt expressed the fears and views of the Master tailors of Athy and elsewhere for whom the future was one of uncertainty. Tailoring establishments such as Lumleys and Cootes continued on for several more years but in time the tailoring skills passed on from generation to generation were no longer of use in a small provincial town. Individual tailors working on their own account continued in business until the 1950's and John Connell of Prusselstown, Tom Moran of St. Patrick's Avenue and Mick Egan of Leinster Street were the last of a long line of tailors who worked in Athy. The days of the large master tailoring firms are now long gone. Progress had sidelined yet another craft and added to the long list of defunct crafts which once flourished in the town.

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