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50 Years On: How Ardee Chair Factory helped make a Trinity treasure

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Patsy Gray and Austin Nevin in the Berkeley Library.
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This article originally appeared on ThisIsArdee.ie

2017 marks the 50th anniversary since the opening of one of the most stunning spaces in what is undoubtedly the most iconic educational institution in Ireland. Not only is the Berkeley Library at Dublin’s Trinity College renowned within the environs of the campus itself, it’s also considered one of the country’s finest modernist buildings.

Over the last half a century, scores of graduates from secondary level in Ardee and across Mid-Louth have gone on to study at Trinity and use the library during their years at college. It has provided a most magnificent backdrop to 50 years of students coming and going through it’s doors.

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Looking as fresh and modern now as it did when then 84-year-old president Eamon De Valera declared it officially open in 1967, it’s difficult not be inspired by the most extraordinary structure, as designed by British-Austrian architect Paul Koralek. But, we wonder, how many of the local students who have gone on to use the Berkeley Library know that the chrome and leather desks they have sat it over the last five decades were made in Ardee – first built and then installed on site by the team from the Ardee Chair Factory?

Not many, we’d guess which is why it was so heartening to see that the very men who made and fitted the desks in Berkeley Library – which remain in pristine condition to this day – were invited to Trinity College earlier this year to admire their work 50 years on and speak to the current library staff about the process of making and installing the desks took place.

After seeing an item about the Berkeley 50 celebrations on the news, Austin Nevin phoned his friend and former Ardee Chair Factory colleague Patsy Grey. They were two of the team who travelled to and from Dublin five times a week for at least six months installing their desks, which had been made on site at the factory.

“It was on the news, on the TV,” Austin recalls. “I rang Patsy and said we should get in touch with them. Because we’d nearly be the only two who’d be left. I rang them and they were very, very interested straight away. They invited us up see it.” The duo made the trip and while there were treated – in their own words – “like royalty” by library staff, so enthused to meet the men who contributed so much to aesthetic and feel of an Irish design treasure.

The desks in Berkeley Library at Trinity College which were designed, constructed and installed by staff at the Ardee Chair Factory.

The visit didn’t mark the first time the duo had paid a visit to the scene where some of their finest work is still exhibited and used in a practical sense, even to this day. Back in 2005, they also popped into the Berkeley on a summer visit to Dublin. Then, it was a much more casual affair.

Speaking to ThisIsArdee.ie last week, the pair say that the desks looked as good as new 12 years ago – and the same could be said now, in 2017. In retrospect, they can look back at their work and marvel at the design, the craftsmanship and the durability. Back then, it wasn’t something that stuck out.

“At the time, we were all young. It was a job and money! The uniqueness didn’t strike at all back then,” Patsy admits. “It strikes you now. You know now that’s different,” Austin adds, referring not only to their own work but the library building itself.

“We were surprised at the condition they were in,” Patsy tells us. “I couldn’t believe it. They still looked exactly the same. They looked brand new. You’d think it was only three or four months – not 50 years.”

Austin and Patsy have seen some of the more modern library spaces built at Trinity since Berkeley and doubt they have they will see a half century without becoming outdated, unkempt and needing refurbishment. “There is no comparison in the finish and the quality,” Patsy adds. Remember, the Berkeley desks like everything from Ardee Chair Factory were made by hand.

The pair can look back now and marvel at how their work has endured for such a long period. But back then, such longevity wasn’t anticipated. After a 2005 visit, Austin recalls a conversation with owner John Thorne.

“John Thorne told me after the first time we went (Austin and Patsy visited Trinity for the first time since 1967 twelve years ago) that they didn’t pay him. The reason they wouldn’t pay him in full was because he wouldn’t give them a 10-year guarantee. They wanted a 10-year guarantee. He didn’t know to give it to them – but he does now.

“He could easily have given them the guarantee but they had been working in timber all their lives. Steel doesn’t rot and twist like timber. He didn’t think like that.”

Remarkably, their visits to Trinity College continues to see Austin and Patsy forge connections. On their 2017 trip, they were shown around by assistant librarian Sean Hughes. Even in an institute known around the globe, it’s a small world. “His father and mother lived in Moorehall,” Austin says. “The two of them lived there and they lived in Drogheda for a long time. I knew them well.”

It was another chance meeting in the halls of Trinity that in particular helped them immeasurably during the build of Berkeley Library. “We had a fair good run of the place,” Patsy says. “They weren’t restrictive. We went over a couple of times to see The Book of Kells.”

“A fella called Crampton built it and the foreman worked in Tallanstown,”Austin mentions. “He knew Patsy’s mother. We’d be back home if only for him. He was so helpful.”

“If we needed anything done like a window taken out to get things in, he’d see it done. And all because he knew us. It definitely was an advantage to know someone back then. No matter what we wanted, he made sure it was done,” Patsy adds.

So important was his assistance for the two men from Ardee Chair Factory, the lads – through Harry Thorne – arranged for a three-piece-suite to be given to him as a parting gift at the end of the work. “It was a big gift at the time,” Austin says. Both literally and figuratively.

“At the time, he was half the battle up there,” Patsy says. “Only for him.”

The desks at the Berkeley Library have provided a sturdy and stunning study setting for decades.

The desks themselves were a major job to produce. The small team from Ardee spent around seven months on site in central Dublin installing the desks but work started on their construction the year before, in 1966.

“There was an awful lot of work in it,” Austin told us.We assembled all the benches but then there was tops for writing and they were all separate. It was Jim Thorne who fitted them in. We didn’t fit them. We just assembled everything.”

Thorne joined Austin and Patsy on site at Trinity while workers such as John Hoey and Seamie Walsh took care of the upholstery.

“The tables had to be assembled with little screws, little bolts to hold it all in place. Everything was made it bits – because it had to be chromed. They all had to be buffed off and polished off because of the chrome,” he continued. To help with that, Patsy had to produce the tools to tighten the chrome bolts from scratch. This was meticulous hand-craft.

The tool was needed as once all of the parts had been chromed, using pliers to tighten the circular bolt-heads would leave marks. The tiny protuberances (seen below) fit into a hole in the bolt-head to enable it to be turned.

Image: Greg Sheaf, Trinity College.

Both Austin and Patsy have great memories of Ardee Chair Factory, a big company at a time when large scale industry thrived in towns the size of Ardee and it’s like across the country. Ardee also had Castleguard Textiles decades ago, remember.

“A lot of people today don’t realise how big the chair factory was and how many people worked in it,” Patsy says. “Every family in Ardee had somebody that sometime or other had worked in the factory. It’s sad too – there’s an awful lot of people in Ardee now who if you said the chair factory to them, they’d never have heard of it.

“There’s great history to it. They owned the cinema aswell, the Thornes. They were lovely people to work for, he continued. “It was a huge factory and there was over 100 people working in it in the early 60s and 90% of them were skilled people. It wasn’t a factory were you had many labourers. They had to be skilled. Everything made in there was hand made.”

The duo mention co-workers – the likes of Tony Burke and Paddy Kelly. They call Burke a “genius” and Austin refers to James Callaghan as “a father figure to me.” They made all sorts there at the factory including countless variations on tables and chairs, of which they were famed for their bentwoods. A subsidiary of the company even concentrated solely on producing wooden clothes pegs, made from what was previous waste wood on site.

The factory opened in 1922 and closed it’s doors in 1972. It isn’t lost on either of our interviewees that from 50 years of manufacturing in Ardee, perhaps it’s most iconic production celebrates it’s own 50th anniversary this year. It won’t be long now until we mark five decades since the factory’s closure. Austin was there for 20. “I was the last man standing,” he says.

Whilst the factory itself may be long gone – consigned to history – memories from those who remember it’s pomp aren’t fading yet. So much has changed in the 50 years since Austin and Patsy made daily pilgrimages to work at Trinity College. The desks however, haven’t changed a bit.

“They look exactly like the day we left. They’ve never changed,” Patsy says. That’s a mark of the finest craftsmanship.

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