For the 1916 Easter Rising Centenary Celebrations husband and wife Tom and Trisha Duffy were assigned an outpost at the craft village in St. Stephen's Green. Tom wore braces and a shirt with a grandfather collar, while Trisha donned a full length skirt, blouse and shawl for their period costumes. They were there to showcase their trade of bookbinding, a tradition the Duffy family first entered through Tom's grandfather, Patrick Duffy, who was also a volunteer fighter in St. Stephen's Green during the Rising.
Patrick had been training with Dollards on Wellington Quay since 1913 until his apprenticeship was interrupted by his involvement in the Rising and subsequent imprisonment in Frongoch, the internment camp in Wales.
Today, his grandson Tom runs Duffy Bookbinders alongside his younger brother Pat, Tom’s wife Trisha, and their son Tommy on Seville Terrace in Dublin 1, beside the infamous Five Lamps landmark. Tom starts to tell us about his grandfather, "When he came back [from Frongoch], in late August, he was in bad health." He continues, "[Dr. Kathleen Lynn] assigned nurses to look after the prisoners coming back, and she assigned Brigid Davis to him, and they fell in love and were married."
After an unfortunately unsuccessful stint of striking out on his own as a printer, Patrick returned to bookbinding, working with Alex Thoms of Glasnevin where he would become the bindery overseer. His son Tommy (Tom’s father), took to the trade too and in 1970, when Smurfits took over the business, he founded Duffy Bookbinders. He also met his wife Kathleen through Thoms, and she worked in the new business alongside him.
Just a few minutes into the conversation and already there is a family history entwined with the formation of the state, a romance borne from revolution, and another marriage with the bookbinding business at its centre. Tom knows his story well and is self-assured in recounting the family craft that has survived through the decades.
Today, after 5 o'clock on a Thursday, the bindery is still whirring with the sounds of machines and activity. It's a long, low-ceilinged room, much larger than the outside of the building would suggest, tucked in at the end of a cul-de-sac mostly comprised of terraced cottages.
When I ask him to describe a typical day, he looks to Trisha and jokes:
"Well, wake up in the morning, make sure she's still alive - she looks okay, she'll be in today…", amidst much laughter. While from Trisha, who is preparing things for the paper sewing machine across the table, I can hear something about "chaos". They're in the bindery at about 7.30 am in the morning and they both agree that there’s no such thing as a routine day.
Ledgers and registers for organisations like hospitals and cemeteries make up a large part of their business today, but not to the extent that they used to in the early days, Tom tells us. The majority of business in his father's time was trade orders for stationery books which would've been used in offices of every kind to keep records, accounts, invoices and everything else which now handily fits onto a computer. This, Tom says, has been the biggest shift in the last 30 years - how technology has impacted the work they do. The vast majority of published books in the shops now are also printed overseas, mainly in China, but at one time many would've been printed and bound in Ireland.
Duffy's also specialize in high-end aspects of the craft such as leather binding, and carry out special projects for Irish publishers. A recent example of this would be the limited edition Yeats 150 Collection they bound for The Lilliput Press to celebrate the author’s 150th birthday. Thesis binding is also a fundamental aspect of their work, and out of necessity they offer an express service. This means scheduled jobs are often interrupted, and the family team regularly put in late working days as a result.
Art books and portfolio books for NCAD, IADT and other art colleges are part of their services and, when pushed, Tom says he probably enjoys that work the most.
"There's great satisfaction as well when you see a young person come in and they just go - ‘That is fabulous, I love that, I just love it.’ Because to us it's a job you did in a few hours, but to them it's a year's work, and we're giving it to them and they pay us and that's the end of it. But to them that can be whether they're gonna get a job - it can depend on what direction their life is gonna go in."
It has also led to some unusual requests, which Duffy’s always take on if they think they're feasible. Tom mentions one project in particular - a photography book, which documented all the couchsurfers that stayed on a photographer’s coach over a certain period of time. She wanted the book to be covered in fabric from the sofa, which Duffy's were able to achieve.
Working with the art students has also led to an entirely new aspect of bookbinding - making their own notebooks.
"We just noticed, every student came in and started asking you things, took out a notebook and started scribbling things. You know, there's things you can put in a notebook [that] you cannot put onto a computer. You're not going to sit there and try and do rough drawings where you can scribble something out [and] you can list quickly the colors, all that type of thing - so we felt there was a market for very high quality notebooks. "
And with that thought, they set out and made exactly that. The hardback notebooks come in a range of sizes and colors and are all made in the bindery on Seville Terrace. The plain paper is heavy and unlike cheaper notebooks where the pages are glued together, the Duffy notebooks are hand-sewn which means they open out flat on every page. They're covered in genuine book cloth and feature a logo of the five lamps on the bottom right corner. They feel heavy and substantial in your hand.
After the idea came to them, they decided to test it out by speaking to retailers and gauge reaction to the product.
"The Pen Corner, that was the first shop we went into because we said right, we're going to have to get specialized shops, shops that sell high-end stationery. We went in there and said we have an idea, what do you think - and they just went, we'd stock them tomorrow."
Once they knew the idea was viable, they pressed on to get more samples made up, committed to the idea, and success quickly followed. Last year, Brown Thomas approached them about participating in CREATE, an event they run every year which celebrates Irish design and craft products. Tom is full of praise for what a rewarding opportunity it turned out to be for Duffy's new notebooks. Alongside the other participants of CREATE, Duffy’s were invited to meet the buying, marketing and creative teams in Brown Thomas, who were happy to share their knowledge, give advice, or answer questions. Tom maintains this gave them invaluable insight into the new arena of marketing and protecting their own products. "The backup we got from them was fabulous.” Alongside that, the exposure of being in the department store has brought its own rewards.
Duffy’s also made customized notebooks for Brown Thomas with their logo foil stamped onto the outside and they’re also personalizing notebooks for Hodges Figgis, the Irish Georgian Society and Teeling's Whiskey amongst several others. They’ve even collaborated on an art project for Jam Art Factory, who wanted a stamp of the Poolbeg Chimneys on their notebooks.
Tom describes how they've added a whole other dimension to the business, and given them a lift. He concedes that they were only able to do the notebooks due to a lull in some of the more traditional facets of their work, but he seems to relish the opportunity to diversify what they do and to expand on the family legacy through the notebooks. Tom is also quick to point out that the success they’ve had with them so far is due to how they've been embraced by customers.
"Irish people are fantastic for supporting Irish products, there is no doubt about it. The amount of people who said, ‘I haven't seen anything like this made in Ireland, that's why I want it’, and that is just brilliant."
As well as getting support from home, he mentions emails from people as far away as Hong Kong to say they've received a notebook as a gift or to express thanks. But you can tell from Tom that it's the home praise that he holds the dearest.
We get on to talking about Ireland, the size of the country and why so much of the manufacturing of goods and of aspects related to his own business - the paper mills, the printers - have simply died off. Tom puts it down to the fact that the population here isn't big enough to sustain those small industries when they have to compete with cheaper, bigger industries in other countries.
But Tom never focuses on that and is instead effortlessly adamant that such changes are just part of the story. He never expresses any discontentment or resentment of how those things impacted his own work, but instead uses it to talk about Ireland, about Dublin and some of the good things that exist.
"Ireland, Dublin, it's incredible what is turned out in every way - whether it be sport, whether it be the arts, whether it be everything - for such a small population, and unfortunately as I say it doesn't reflect when it comes to manufacturing because the population is too small - but people are very gifted. People put in an awful lot of effort to get things right, and as I say, those notebooks, they would've meant nothing if Irish people didn't get out and say, I want an Irish product, and if tourists didn't say I want to bring something Irish back."
The decision to make the notebooks was linked to those feelings too.
"I've always wanted to be part of what was Dublin itself. I used to say to Trisha, I'd love to have stuff that would be in the shops."
At the premises on Seville Terrace there’s a small lobby when you enter the building, before you walk into the bindery itself. There's a counter that runs along three walls and has examples of the type of binding they do, mostly of thesis books. There's a framed photo of the family on the wall, of everyone pictured in the bindery. In it, Tom is wearing a Dublin jersey. The first time I meet him, he's wearing a Dublin polo T-shirt and the second time I meet him for the interview, he's wearing not a Dublin top specifically, but a striped blue polo T-shirt.
There’s a sense that Dublin, the family history, the heritage, and now the very modern iteration of that legacy which the notebooks are undoubtedly expanding, are all motivating factors for Duffy’s and their work.
It all probably goes some way in explaining why Tom has no plans to retire any time soon. Currently, it takes four of them to run the business at full speed. (They close for two weeks in June/July every year so everyone can have a holiday.) As it is, they often work until six or seven in the evening to ensure everything is delivered on time, so there is a question over whether he could actually feasible retire. He talks briefly about the difficulties with that, and how with no formal training in Ireland for bookbinders anymore it would be very hard to get someone or train someone new. He says he’d like to get to a stage where he could cut back. For most people, only being able to cut back on work when in your sixties, could be a source of immense pressure and obligation. But he has a different mindset.
"I'd be honest with you, I'm probably very, very lucky in that if I retired, I would still bind a book as a hobby." He’s confident that there is always a living to be made in it too. “People will always want books.”
Earlier in the conversation, Trisha told us how she used to work in the library before she met Tom. She was "always with books" but prefers the bookbinding, saying there's greater satisfaction in it. "I love to see the end product."
It reminds you that very few people now have something concrete to hold at the end of their working day. In an era where so much of our daily work is computer-based, what we have to show for it is often so ethereal and abstract as a result. But at the end of the day in Duffy Bookbinders, they have pallets of books and notebooks, all made or bound by their own hands, heading out to find a place in Dublin or beyond.
Written by Sinead Fox © 2016
Photographs by Adam O'Keeffe © 2016