The Kilkenny Woodworkers



In April 1905 a public meeting was held at the Tholsel for the presentation of prizes to successful pupils from the new Technical School. After the ceremony the School Principal, Mr George T Phillips, congratulated the pupils on the high standards achieved. He went on to make special mention of the wood workers class and praised them for the specimens of woodwork they had turned out. The following November, a meeting was organised by the Gaelic League. Its main purpose was to promote Irish Industries. After much discussion the Mayor, Ald. Potter, moved the resolution that an association to be called the Kilkenny Industrial Development Association be set up for the promotion of Irish Industries which was approved by all present. Mr George Phillips spoke of the new furniture-making industry in Kilkenny. At the same time, after working an eight hour day, the workers were undergoing a course down at the Technical School, learning wood carving. Captain Cuffe was most interested in the project and purchased premises at the rear of no 32 Patrick St to be used as a workshop.
By August 1906 the workforce had increased from four to twelve, and was planning further increases as business prospered. Not only did they take orders for any description of woodwork but were in a position for the restoration of antique furniture. An order had recently been completed for carved oak seating in St Canice’s Cathedral and the workmanship had been pronounced highly satisfactory by the Cathedral authorities.
Later that year the wood workers moved to a much bigger factory located at Talbots Inch, which had the latest and best machinery installed, and was powered by its own electricity. By now, upwards of 70 people were employed of which 64 were Irishmen. Apprentices were taken on at 15 years of age from the Technical School, while it was said an investment of £15,000 was made in the workshops and machinery. From time to time a crafts man was brought over from Ober Ammergau to teach wood carving. Business expanded and a shop was opened in Dublin on Nassau St, later transferring to no 66 Grafton St in 1914.
Early in 1907 a social and recreation hall was built at Talbots Inch for the wood workers. This hall consisted of a billiard room and kitchen on the ground floor. The upper floor had a concert hall with seating room for 200. A visitor to Talbots Inch in 1908 was so impressed with the enterprise he/she wrote to the People describing the little garden city with the group of houses for the married workers while a new Club House had been completed for the single men. Eighteen are accommodated, for 14 shillings per week they are well fed. For breakfast they have eggs and bacon, bread, butter and marmalade, tea and coffee ad lib. For dinner, meat with three vegetables and pudding. For tea/supper they have bread, butter with eggs and salad, or some other substantial dish. In addition to the bedrooms, the building contained a smoking room with a piano, a bathroom with hot and cold water.
It was said Lady Desarts Aut Even home was completely furnished and fitted by the woodworkers.
In 1912 the British Government introduced the Insurance Acts. Lady Desart refused to collect the tax from the wood workers. As a result, a horse of hers was seized and sold to pay legal costs. Eleven of the workers appeared before the Petty Sessions and were fined one penny each by a sympathetic Bench, the magistrates expressing the hope the matter would be settled out of Court.
A strike in August 1920 involving Callaghan & Connollys and Sherins soon extended to Talbots Inch. The union claim was for shorter working hours, 2 shillings per hour for workers and one shilling per hour for women polishers. All firms pleaded inability to pay and asked for 3 months on the present terms and review in November. Early 1921 the management at Talbots Inch decided to all but close the factory but when business did resume it was only for rough timber work. A fire in 1927 destroyed the factory and plant estimated at £10,000. The local papers reported the Civic Guards were early on the scene but owing to a shortage of water could do nothing to save the building.
Among the commissions the Woodworkers were awarded were the City Library furnishings. The beautifully carved front doors, the seating in the entrance hall and waiting room in the original Aut Even Hospital, which can be viewed to day. The book cases in St Kierans College Library bear the woodworkers trademark as do book cases in the reading rooms of the Royal Dublin Society. P T. Murphys (jewellers) on High St. is the only surviving shop front example of their craft.