Milltown's King of Cashmere is still going Strong
Tom Monaghan is one of Ireland's oldest Retailers, but he still works Tuesday to Saturday
When Patrick Monaghan was helping to load a prehistoric boat on to the train at Milltown Station, to be brought to the National Museum, he could not have dreamt that his grandson would end up selling luxury clothing a few hundred yards from that museum.
The boat was the famous Lurgan Canoe, still the biggest single object in the museum, and the man selling the clothes an ass’s roar (or a hen race) from it is Tom Monaghan.
The rural metaphor would not be lost on Tom. Despite being a constant in Dublin’s Grafton Street Dawson Street area for 56 years, he is very close to his rural roots.
“You can take a man out of the bog, but you can’t take the bog out of the man,” laughs this draper who has clothed film stars, celebrities and politicians but who also ran a farm in Kildare for many years, raising cattle sent up from Tuam by his brothers.
Milltown and Tuam will always be home to him, and when he meets old friends from the area the question is always is “Have you been down home lately?”
Tom is the kind of man for whom the word draper was invented. Beautifully turned out in an elegant mid-blue pinstripe, with shirt to match, spotted red silk tie and shinning black shoes, he is the epitome of classical elegance.
You could not imagine a better front-of-house man for a shop like Monaghan’s, and the 56 years of meeting and greeting have not diminished the genuine warmth that emanates from the man.
While Tom began to learn the art of customer relations in Fahy & Co of Tuam (now Easons) where he served his apprenticeship to the drapery trade, his courtesy goes back to the manners he learned from his parents, Patrick and Ellen.
Born on a small farm in Lurgan, Milltown, beside the bog where the canoe was found in 1901, Tom Monaghan came from a poor background, “But we didn’t know we were poor, because everyone around us was the same.”
Poor or not, they knew their table manners and the importance of a firm handshake, a direct gaze and an honest approach.
Tom and his six siblings went to Dalgin National School, a three mile walk each way, and later his parents managed to send him to the Christian Brothers secondary school in Tuam.
He was a good scholar, and he enjoyed football. He rubbed shoulders with Frank Stockwell, Sean Purcell and Jackie Mangan, but an ankle injury from a kick condemned him to ten months in Cappagh Hospital, which severely limited his education.
To add tragedy to injury, his father had died aged only 51 a mere week before the accident.
When he came back from Cappagh he was apprenticed in Fahy & Co, living with the other shop boys on the top floor. The town food did not appeal to him, but every Thursday was a half-day and he was off to Lurgan to stock up on his mother’s home cooking.
Tuam was a prosperous place at that time in the 1940s, and the month of October was second only to Christmas in terms of sales. Farmers, cattle jobbers and business people all benefited from the great October fairs, which lasted a full week and brought rolls of cash to the town.
Tom remembers selling overcoats and suits to men from the midlands who had waited for the October fairs in Tuam to renew their wardrobes.
He loved the town, and made many friends there, but it was time to move on and when he had served his time he applied for a job with the big Dublin firm Todd Burns, which at one time had 11 acres under cover around the Mary Street area. (Much of it is now the site of the Jervis shopping centre.)
Todd Burns had clothes manufacturing wholesale and retail operations, and Tom’s job was to cover the country in a big ford V8 van, showing samples and taking orders.
Among his calls were Ryan’s in Galway and Fahy’s and O’Malley’s in Tuam, and he remembers making an unannounced visit to the homestead in Lurgan where his mother and some neighbour women had great fun trying on the overcoats. But they didn’t buy – these clothes were judged too expensive.
A few years after joining Todd Burns Tom moved to another firm, but by this time he had met the love of his life, Teresa (Tess), and wanted to be his own boss.
And so, on his birthday, October 1, 1960, he opened the first version of Monaghan’s cashmere shop in the Grafton Arcade, off Grafton Street, selling jumpers, cardigans, shirts, socks and all that goes with them.
It wasn’t easy to get a start in business then, particularly in such a prestige location – Grafton Street was regarded as Ireland’s Bond Street in these days
Tom’s three brothers, Sean, Paddy and Michael, had to go guarantors that he would pay the rent for the first ten years. Another Milltown man, Senator Frank J Hugh O Donnell, who had a shirt factory, gave him generous credit terms.
Right from the start the Monaghan byword was quality, and he insisted on then as now on the highest standards. Cashmere sweaters were sourced from the leading Scottish manufacturers and Tom went to every small town in Western Donegal in search of the best Aran hand-knits.
Having grown up among honest people, he expected the same from his customers.
One man who always paid cash claimed to have a bakery on Thomas Street. On the first Christmas Eve for the new business, he came to Tom saying he had been working late the night before fulfilling Christmas orders, and had missed the bank. Would Tom cash a cheque for him?
Of course, Tom would, for a considerable amount – and the cheque bounced as high as the ceiling when the banks re-opened after Christmas. He, and many others, had been conned by a man who fled the country and was never caught.
“That nearly put me out of business,” he recalls. He needed £300 to pay off his creditors, and went to his Ulster Bank branch for a loan. “Sorry Mr Monaghan,” was the answer.
Very dejected, and dreading having to tell Tess, who knew nothing of the affair, he confided in a friend. This friend had another friend who was about to open a new branch of the Munster and Leinster Bank in Santry. Tom got on the bus to Santry, gave his life insurance policy as collateral, and got a new chequebook.
Thus, began a long friendship with Jock McCarthy, which saw the Monaghan account follow him from branch to branch until he retired.
“I was the only outsider at his retirement party,” says Tom, adding that the day he got the dig out business began to improve and he never had to use the £300 loan.
There is more to life then business, of course, and Tom was extremely fortunate in his life partner. Tess is a member of the Fields family of Kilcock, and her brother Tommy opened one of the first supermarkets in Ireland.
A bachelor, he invited Tom, Tess and their four children to spend Christmas, Easter, and summer holidays with him every year, and while the family enjoyed the country Tom took the bus every day into town.
Country blood will out, and it wasn’t long before Tom acquired a farm near Kilcock where he reared the cattle his brothers selected for him in Tuam, and also bred horses.
One of his best sporting memories was when a horse he bread, Ezzoud, won the Group One Juddmonte International Stakes at York.
The farm is now run by his son Paul. His other children are Jim, Karen and Suzanne and it is Suzanne who now works with her dad in the shop, which relocated to the Royal Hibernian Way about 20 years ago.
She worked as an interior designer until she gave up to rear her two sons, but four years ago she came into Monaghan’s to co-operate with long-time staff member John Reilly in buying, especially for ladies’ wear. And now the first Monaghan Cashmere own label is about to come on the market. Six pieces designed by Suzanne, “classics with an edge” will be launched in November.
She is working with a long established Scottish firm which supplies the highest quality, and judging by response to the prototypes, the new line will be very successful.
So while his daughter moves Monaghan’s into the 21st century, Tom is a fixture in the shop from Tuesday to Saturday, meeting and greeting as he has always done.
Celebrities who have bought cashmere from Monaghan’s include Maureen O’Hara, Dana Wynter, Val Doonican, Mickey Rooney, Lynn Redgrave and Jamie Lee Curtis. He has sold to customers from every state in the USA and from many countries, but whether you are famous or obscure the greeting is always the same, and there is always time for a chat.
Old Patrick Monaghan could never have dreamt it – and neither could he have imagined that another neighbour’s child, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, would one day be cabinet minister, even closer to the Lurgan Canoe.
For Tom Monaghan, it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry, woven in bright and rich shades of soft cashmere, but with a tinge of bog cotton in there too.
Article published in The Tuam Herald on Wednesday October 26th 2016