Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyage is a work in progress, commissioned by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and due to be completed in the autumn of 2008. The following tale represents research I have undertaken for the project which may or may not be used in the final book.

Rathborne Candles

In 1488, four years before Columbus found America, an English candlemaker called Joseph Rathborne arrived in the old city of Dublin and established his business on Wynetavern Street by Christchurch Cathedral. Born in Chester, Rathborne had been obliged to relocate when that town’s River Dee unexpectedly silted up, destroying his trade links with Ireland, Scotland and the ports of Europe. Today, Rathborne Candles is Ireland’s oldest company and the world’s oldest candlemaker. For most of the 20th century, the company was headquartered on the East Wall Road.

Before the days of electricity and paraffin lamps, Rathborne’s handmade wax candles lit everything from the streets of Dublin to the lighthouses along the coast. The Candlelight Law of 1616 decreed that every fifth home should display a light for passers-by. Four years later, Joseph Rathborne’s great-grandson relocated to bigger and better premises north of the river at St. Mary's Abbey.

In the 1860's, the company boss John G Rathborne purchased a site on Dublin's North Lotts. The site had been earmarked for a Cattle Market but, when that was subsequently relocated to Prussia Street, Rathborne constructed an extensive storage facility on the East Wall Road. The building was called "the Dublin Petroleum Stores" and would later become the Rathborne headquarters. He also registered the name John G. Rathborne Limited with the Companies Office.

The last member of the Rathborne dynasty to run the factory was Henry Burnley Rathborne. In 1914, he sold the factory to John Barrington & Sons of Parnell Street, a subsidiary of Lever Bros, aka Unilever. Henry left Dublin and settled in County Fermanagh. In 1923, the company was sold to a consortium of oil companies, Shell & BP Ltd, now Irish Shell. In 1925 the firm re-located to the Merchant’s Yard site on the East Wall Road, where a new factory was completed in March of that year. Seven years later, the company made sure it had the very latest equipment in order to meet the immense demands of a once divided nation praying together at the 31st Eucharistic Congress in 1932. However the company went into decline during the war years and, by 1945, consisted of 12 office staff and eight factory workers.

Despite the recession of the 1950s and the risk of rural electrification making candles irrelevant, the company expanded against all the odds with the enigmatic Eimar ‘High Explosive’ McCormick (1918 – 2003) at the helm. By the early 1960s there were 125 people employed at the East Wall Road factory, making household, church and festive candles. McCormick travelled extensively throughout Europe, the US and Canada, building up invaluable contacts with the Irish diaspora and foreign clients, enabling Rathborne's to expand during the more optimistic 1960s when novelty candles shaped as rugby balls and Irish coffees became increasingly popular. In 1966, Rathbornes acquired the respected Lalor Church Candles of Ormond Quay, establishing both companies at East Wall Road. Irish Shell took full control of the business in 1984.

One of the last jobs of the East Wall candle makers was the manufacture of the millennium candles given by the government to 1.5m households at the turn of the century. By the time the company was moved to new premises in Blanchardstown in 2002, it was selling approximately 10 million candles a year. Nearly half of these were sold to churches around the country in the form of shrine and votive tea-lights, Pascal candles, altar candles, Advent, Easter, and Candlemas Day candles. However, like all Irish candle manufacturers, the company came under serious pricing pressure with imports from lower cost manufacturers in eastern Europe and parts of Asia.

Two top candle tips for the road.

1) If you have room, keep them in a fridge. Wax contracts when it gets cold, so the colder they're kept, the longer they'll last.

2) You can tell a handmade candle by looking at the bottom; it should have rings, one for each time it was dipped, just like the rings of a tree.

See: www.lalor.ie; The Candle Factory: Five Hundred Years of Rathborne's, Master Chandlers, Bernard Neary (Lilliput Press, 1999).



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