LAST DANCE BEFORE LENT – 100 YEARS OF LAWLOR’S OF NAAS

by jdurney on August 31, 2013

“Last dance before Lent” – 100 years of Lawlor’s of Naas

An advertisement bearing the text “Last dance before Lent” from an issue of the Leinster Leader in the 1950s was one of the star exhibits at a night presented by the Naas Local History Group in Lawlor’s Hotel to mark the centenary of  the opening of a hotel in Naas in 1913 by Mrs. Brigid Lawlor whose name was to become legendary in the hospitality business.  There were many strands to what was to become the Lawlor empire – hotel, world-class ballroom, catering business known the country over, and the breeding of successful National Hunt chasers were just some of the themese on the night.  There was a strong input from the Lawlor family and Mr. Shane Lawlor contributed some reminiscences which had been gleaned from long-serving staff of a bygone area. Another connection Mr. Anthony Lawlor, TD, was also present.

The evening was opened by Naas History Group Chair Gerry McCarthy who introduced a  speaking panel of accomplished local historians including Paddy Behan, James Durney and Stan Hickey.

Paddy Behan outlined how research established that one James Lawlor from Lacken in Wicklow had made money on supplying the dairy business in Dublin. In the late 1800s he bought a farm at Greenhills Kill and also the impressive old millhouse known as Johnstown House. His son Myles married Brigid Keeley of Bawnogues (beside Punchestown) who was to become the Mrs Brigid Lawlor of catering and hotel fame.

There was evidence that Brigid Keeley had learned her catering skills in the old Naas Technical School which was accommodated in the water tower on the Fair Green. Her flair for catering had come to the attention of Lady Geraldine Mayo of Palmerstown House who was to prove an influential backer when Brigid Lawlor decided to set up in business herself. Although Lawlor’s hotel is also known as the “Nas na Riogh” hotel Paddy Behan’s researches established that there was an existing hostelry of the same name which Brigid Lawlor acquired in Poplar Square. The first public notice of the new hotel business under her management was a sequence of advertisements in the Kildare Observer in May 1913 which announced that the Nas na Riogh hotel would be open for lunches and accommodation. The advertisements directed readers’ attention to the fact that the new establishment was commended by Lady Mayo of Palmerstown. 

Soon Bridget Lawlor’s hard work and ability saw her business flourish and diversify well beyond the hotel in Poplar Square.  Her repute for high-class catering capable of dealing with large numbers soon won her contracts for catering services at prestigious occasions in the Irish social calendar.  These included the RDS Spring Show and Horse Show, Punchestown and the Curragh including the big Derby days, many more racecourses including Galway, glittering hunt balls in many parts of the country, Garda dances and Army dances, and other more local occasions such as social dances in  Naas Town Hall. She also had a good line in to the Catholic church authorities and her large-scale catering resources were advertised in Catholic magazines highlighting her contracts for reunion days at  Clongowes, Knockbeg and Newbridge Colleges and for ordinations at Maynooth College.

Realising the popularity of dances held in local venues such as Naas Town Hall, Brigid Lawlor decided to capitalise on this business by building her own dance hall. She acquired the three-storey house known as Mill House on the eastern side of Naas in the early 1930s and began the work of converting the old carpet factory space adjacent to the mill to become one of the finest purpose-built ballrooms in these islands. The dance floor was all important and here the most advanced construction technology for its time was employed with the floor being made of polished Canadian maple planks mounted on 18-inch springs so that the floor waltzed as the dancers waltzed.

Lawlor’s Ballroom became a venue known throughout Leinster and drew hundreds – travelling by bicycle in the early days — to hear some of the best bands and artistes of the era. In the early days local maestros such as Jimmy Dunny and Ralph Sylvester were popular as well as the incomparable Gallowglass Ceilí band led by the McGarrs of Naas. As musical tastes changed over the following decades Lawlor’s remained at the fore front of the show band circuit and among the legends to have performed there were Paddy Cole, Roly Daniels, Red Hurley and the legendary Joe Dolan. Among those to grace Lawlor’s ballroom  was the man who could reach for the low notes like no other, Longford’s Larry Cunningham (who passed away in late 2011).

An early rock star appearance at Lawlors was Marianne Faithful who in recent times was resident in Leixlip Castle while Lawlor’s also featured in the early bookings of career of another band which was to reach the dizzying heights of the music business was the Boomtown Rats who, according to the latest pop industry news, are to reform after a fashion this year. The drummer of the Rats, Gerry Cott, certainly must have felt at home in Lawlors in that he had family connections in Kilcock, Ballymore Eustace and Baltinglass. Mentioning Baltinglass brings a connection with the Random Inn adjacent to Lawlors once owned by  Ned Timmins whose nephew Godfrey (later a TD for Wicklow) used to travel by train from Baltinglass to Naas and stay with his uncle while attending Naas Christian Brothers.

Meanwhile the Lawlor catering empire went from strength to strength. Naas historian James Durney had personal memories of working as a 12-year old with many other young people from the area for the Lawlor catering operation at the Derby. He recalled the early starts – a Lawlor’s truck would leave Naas at 6 in the morning laden with staff who would work like the clappers for a long day and not get home until 9pm. The pay for the day was £2.50 for younger workers and £3 for more experienced hands.

The core business at the hotel continued at full pace and Lawlor’s became a byword for its hospitality throughout not alone Ireland but Britain. A number of speakers testified to being as far from home as the Isle of Wight and London and once they mentioned they were from Naas being met with an immediate reply of affection for Lawlor’s of Naas. Some celebrities from the worlds of politics and sport were recipients of Lawlor’s hospitality.  Eamon de Valera attended a dinner to honour the Kildare men who had taken part in the independence struggle while one of the biggest names to take tea in the hotel was Ronnie Delaney on his way home from Shannon after winning a gold medal for Ireland in the 1500m at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

The evening of nostalgia  was rounded off by Mr Shane Lawlor who read some of the reminiscences of the staff who were an essential factor in the Lawlor success story. One memory featured Ms. Aggie Cullen who recalled a catering operation for races in Portmarnock which involved setting jelly in a bath tub outdoors.

However such stories will have to await another time and none better than next May when the current Lawlor’s management intend to celebrate the centenary of Bridget Lawlor establishing her hotel in Poplar Square which was to become the hub of a catering empire.   Series no: 318.

Liam Kenny recalls 100 years of Lawlor’s Hotel and catering firm in  no: 318 of his popular Looking Back series

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