Buying and selling second-hand furniture has made the Christy Bird shop a Portobello landmark, writes Rose Doyle
The Christy Bird shop is more than a landmark on South Richmond Street. As antique/second-hand furniture shops go it's been a way of life to large sections of the city's dwellers. Happy hunting grounds were ever thus, and Christy Bird has always been one of the best.
And it is, of course, a repository of memories. Time was, and not so long ago either, when self-respecting flat dwellers and/or first-time house buyers went to Christy Bird for their starter furniture.
"We've always been in the recycling business," Annette (Ladybird) Bird-Flanagan says with a righteous pride. "You could refill Dublin Bay with the amount of furniture we've recycled," agrees her son, the third generation and second Christy to run the business.
It's 60 years since the first Christy Bird, Annette's father, opened his shop at 32 South Richmond Street, Portobello, Dublin 2. Telling his story, she hardly notices when it becomes her own and, inter alia, that of the street and shop.
"My father, Christy Bird, was manager of a pawnshop around the corner from here on Charlemont Mall," she begins, "at a time when it was Georgian houses in tenements. The pawnshop was in the middle, on the ground floor. He'd come to Dublin as an apprentice from Co Meath when he was 14."
The stage thus set, she explains how she and her brother, Terry, grew up on Ranelagh Road, her mother Julia having married Christy Bird after the death of her first husband.
"Mother had three children by her first marriage, then myself and Terry with Christy. She died in 1943, when I was five years old."
Christy Bird, at 45, became a widower with two small children to rear on his own. "He was a man of particular integrity," his daughter says, "and sincerely interested in social justice. He was very involved in the pawnbrokers strike of 1943 and, when it ended, he determined to get out of pawnbroking and set himself up in business."
This he did, in South Richmond Street in 1945 as Christy Bird.
"He really started the business to educate us," Annette explains. "He felt very strongly that an education would give us a chance in life. The people around here knew him from the pawnbrokers shop and were his customers. When he started he'd pay them for their furniture; he was in ways still running a pawnbrokers. He wanted to help the underdog; he'd no great desire to accumulate wealth for himself. He was a charitable and good man."
In the beginning he sold a lot of second-hand jewellery, second-hand bicycles and furniture.
"He stopped doing jewellery in the 1960s and sold bikes until the 1970s. He was on his own but he always had a great staff. Jimmy Kavanagh was 40 years here and everyone called him Christy - which suited my father fine because he was a retiring person and liked having Jimmy as his front man. Jack Skeleton was a Jewish cabinet-maker and was with him for 40 years, and there was Ned Kenna too. This street was very vibrant and, oh, the people who've passed through here."
Still do, filled with nostalgia many of them, reminded by talk of Christy Bird's at dinner tables from LA to Brisbane and looking, Annette reckons, "for a sign that some things don't change".
Well, some things don't. The skeletons are gone, however. Christy tells this bit.
"The College of Surgeons' students used sell us their skeletons at the end of the year. New students would buy them back the following term. We'd skeletons in the basement for years," he laughs and so does his mother. "And skeletons in the cupboards too," she adds.
Her father, Christy Bird, was killed crossing Leeson Street in 1975. He was 83 and still spending several hours a day in the shop.
His grandson, who studied furniture design and craftsmanship in High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, talks about how furniture buying trends have changed.
"When the shop started a lot of Victorian furniture was sold as second-hand, now we're selling it as antique."
He talks with a learned passion about the post second World War advent of utilitarian furniture, the later arrival of chrome and steel, about how people could "buy a house then, which you can't now, and furnish it from top to bottom out of here".
Annette says Portobello is "still a great flat area", that landlords still get furniture in Christy Bird's. Treasure hunting is another unchangeable.
"There are always those looking for collectables," Christy says, "treasures! A customer bought a Norah McGuinness here for £20. He wasn't a dealer, just an art lover. He still has his picture and loves it, and good luck to him. There's scope here, too, for dealers who come and buy our furniture, then refurbish and sell in Adams or in England."
Annette fills in the historical gaps, telling how sadness in her own life led to her eventual involvement in the business.
Christy Bird did indeed educate his children: Terence Bird became a dentist, Annette studied radiography. In London, Annette married Louis Flanagan who died, sadly young, at 33. Returning to Ireland she found herself interested in the business, started working in the shop. She married a second time, to James Mulkearn, and was widowed a second time too.
By then she had taken over the business. "I'm here since the 1970s," she smiles. "It's time for me to go now. Christy is running the shop the same as it always was. My other son, Stephen, runs the Architectural Salvage Shop next door. His interest in stained glass brought him into it. He specialises, too, in clerical vestments and church and convent furniture."
Her daughter, Grainne, is a teacher of English. South Richmond Street has changed a lot, mother and son agree.
"There used be three butchers, a bakery, hardware, paint shop, chemist, a general grocery with the most beautiful own-smoked bacon in Dublin," says Christy. "We're the only ones left apart from the pubs. The supermarkets have taken out all of the trades - that's the changing face of Dublin. That and the building developments of office and apartment blocks with small coffee shops at street level."
Annette is angry about "the buildings that have been bought up and are just left decaying along the street here for years. Property values are going up all the time and so are overheads; rates, insurance, waste, water, parking. It's putting small people out of business."
Christy is wry: "The Government don't give us any money for the recycling we do either," he says.
Mother and son pay warm tribute to Paul Boland, "a great and smart guy" who's been with them in the shop for 20 years.
Cachet doesn't die, nor even fade away. Theatre and film folk come to the shop for props. The Abbey and Gate visit and films like Cal, Out of Africa and Angela's Ashes were furnished from Christy Bird's. They do office furniture, too, and make furniture measure.
But their main emphasis, Christy says, "is on buying and selling. There's so much furniture out there with all the flat pack stuff coming in. That stuff is disposable. We deal in older furniture because it can be recycled, several times. Used furniture has a better life, it'll last the pace. We used to sell to people who loved to restore but that that's gone as well. An awful shame."
The reality is that antiques today sell for half the price of 10 years ago.
Christy, still in his mid-30s, has seen great changes. "The hurdles are getting bigger for small businesses, bus lanes, no parking, they're pushing us to the outer suburbs. But the shop's not for sale!"
"We own the building," Annette says, "which puts us in a good position. We've three floors over basement here and two floors next door."
Christy says they will have to maintain their difference to survive. "We'll do it. I plan to be here in another 60 years."
© The Irish Times 2006