Once as a promotional tool I decided to employ someone to write up “Yarns from the Trade”. This was to be stories about some of our customers and how they came to be in the menswear business.
This was inspired by Logan Knott from Boyle, Co Roscommon, who related the story of his apprenticeship in Messrs Good & Co, Sligo, in the 1930s. To serve an apprenticeship to work behind the counter took a deposit of €40 and then to work for no pay for 3 years. If you didn’t have the deposit you could negotiate to work for 4 years without pay instead - always at this time “living in” above the shop where Mrs Good would be “your mother” during apprenticeship. The arrangement was that you would live in 7 days a week but get permission to go home after church on a Sunday. You were expected to be back for church on Sunday evening (it was a Presbyterian house).
Apprentices were not permitted to serve customers in their first two years, their jobs were keeping the place swept and clean, hanging the clothing outside the shop front (with the long poles) and tying up the underwear packets for the senior sales personnel. Men’s’ underwear, long Johns and long sleeved vests, were tied with string in parcels and placed on shelves behind the sales people. All these parcels were tied and folded to fall open as the salesman presented the garments to the customer. They had to be repacked and replaced in exactly the same manner by style and size, ready for the next customer. When the shop got very busy, perhaps late on Saturday night when all the farmers were in town, an apprentice might be asked to “come forward” to serve a customer. This was considered a major challenge.
At night after a day’s toil on the shop floor Mr Good would slap the young bums as they filed upstairs, Logan said “to see if there was a rattle of money”. Mr Good would tell them “you men need only 2 pence every week, one for the plate every Sunday morning and one for the plate every Sunday evening”. The only money an apprentice would get was when a commercial traveller came by train. Logan would meet him with the handcart and bring his sample cases to the shop. The traveller would normally give the young assistant a threepenny bit.
Tommy Warner served his time in similar circumstances in JV Kelly’s of Newry. Although Tommy was now “out of his time” (i.e. apprenticeship) he was still only 19. The ultimate crime for a salesman was “to take a swop” (i.e. let a customer out without buying). There was a market day in Newry and a customer came to Tommy for a Crombie coat, priced 22/6 (22 shillings and 6d). Although Tommy tried he failed to sell the coat and the customer left the shop. Mr Kelly watched this from his high desk with the glass screen. He at once came to “Mr Warner” to see why the customer had walked out and Tommy had to explain that the customer didn’t like the coat. “But Mr Warner, you are employed here to sell the coats” said Mr Kelly. Some time later that day Mr Kelly sent “Mr Warner” down into the market to find the customer and tell him Mr Kelly would like to see him back in the shop. Tommy found the customer and brought him back where Mr Kelly proceeded to sell the customer the coat. When the customer had left Mr Kelly said to Mr Warner “if that should ever happen again there would be no position for you here”.
There was a man working in Geoghegan’s of Navan and he said he got into the trade because his father was a farmer. As a lad he had to bring the sheep to the market in Athlone, 9 miles away. He had to set out at 2 a.m. to be in a good position in Athlone Market Square by 6 a.m. He stood there all day in the rain, never saw a customer, his only sustenance a bottle of minerals. At 5 p.m. he set off home with his flock. Near his house the sheep took off over the ditch into a wood and it took him 3 hours to round them up again. That was why he got into the menswear business.
In the 1960s the shop assistants in Clery’s were paid about £7 a week but they also had commission of 2d in the pound (i.e. less than 1%, there were 240 pence to a pound). They only started to earn commission after their sales reached £120. A shirt at that time sold for between 7 shillings (7/0) and 22 shillings and 6 pence (22/6) hence £120 could mean 150/200 customers.
Clery’s had 17 senior salesmen in the shirt department and Guiney’s in Talbot St had 10 in theirs. They “sharked” for customers (i.e. grabbed as many customers as they could, serving perhaps 5 or 6 at one time when the salesman beside them had none). There was one old man, Jackie Dooge, in the prime spot in the long counter in Clery’s who could shark and sell more than all the other salesmen in the store. He was hated and abused by his fellow salesmen. He was reputed to be on performance enhancing stimulants during sale time.
The most interesting part of the shirt manufacturing career was the relationship with the Solo Shirt Co. This was run by a big thick farmer, Leonard McGuckan. Leonard had had a heart attack in 1959 and was confined to bed for life. After a year the doctor allowed him get out and sit beside the bed and after another year allowed him walk as far as the kitchen. After a further year Leonard told the doctor to fuck off, he was going back to work on Monday.
Leonard went back and was his own manager thereafter, aided and abetted by Aggie Bonnar, a decidedly undainty lady from half way up a mountain. Leonard was his own cutter, mechanic, van man, accountant etc. His language was equalled only by Aggie’s, his factory wooden and machinery decrepit. He was never connected to the ESB preferring to generate his own electricity, sometimes by connecting his tractor (large blue Ferguson) to his generator to his factory.
Leonard had a Volkswagen van and had 8 wheels for it, 4 bald as eggs for driving about Ballybofey and 4 with treads that he would change into on a Tuesday for the run to Dublin with delivery of the week’s production. Leonard never changed to decimal currency and always increased prices by the same amount (2 shillings a dozen) regardless of the percentage rise in wages. His only obsession in life was paying no tax. The factory inspector would call occasionally and complain that the wage rates were too low. Leonard would answer “they are not doing enough fucking work”. The factory inspector gave up calling after Aggie told him to go and fuck himself.