Leonard Fagan has pristine skin, a smart haircut flecked with grey, and a certain, straight-backed manner that puts you in mind of classic movie stars. Standing in his shop in Thomas Street, he wears a wine coloured shirt that looks expensive, the top button undone, and a small gold crucifix around his neck.
The crucifix seems important, or at least fitting, given that Fagan owns and runs Jas Fagan’s Communion Shop, a fixture on Thomas Street in Dublin for the last forty years, where he tailor-makes suits for boys for their First Holy Communion. The shop is a small space, the walls hanging suits in shades of greys, browns, creams, and some occasional flashes of colour. There’s a small counter that holds a till and not far behind it the workings of the business – a computer, old Singer sewing machine and an ironing board – can be seen just beyond it. Overhead, a rail of suits and shirts hang in sheaths of clear plastic. The first of these is an all-white suit with the words “Joe Dolan” written across the tie in black script lettering.
“He [Jas] made all Joe’s suits”, says Fagan. “Yeah that’s his last suit there.”
Having been orphaned young, and taught how to tailor in school in Artane, Leonard’s father later rented a space above the current shop and eventually came to own the whole building. He started making suits for the show bands (including Johnny Logan and some Eurovision contestants), who would come to him with any special requests.
When the show bands started to die down, they were getting commissions for Communion suits so much so that it became the focus of the business around twenty-five years ago, and remains so today. With most Communions taking place in May, Fagans busy time kicks off in January with customers coming in to pick out what they’d like or start putting deposits down. Fagan staggers making the suits according to the date of the Communion and the process usually involves a lot of back and forth with customers, either over the phone or in person to get the fit and all of the details right. It usually takes two fittings but if customers have come from outside Dublin, Fagan can do one fitting and have the suit ready in as little as two hours.
The longevity of the business speaks to the level of service provided by the Fagans, who have seen generations of the same families pass through their doors, the most recent being a boy who is the eighth in his family to have his Communion suit made by Fagan. “I would’ve had fellas coming back in that got their suits off me twenty years ago, y’know, back in with their own sons, loads of that. A lot of grandmothers in with grandsons y’know, you’ve got one grandson and then they’re back in to cover the sixth or seventh.” And the customers travel from further afield too, with Limerick customers particularly making the trip (there’s three orders currently on the books) and a few from England. When I express surprise at this, Fagan replies “Yeah well if they want to get a white suit made, or a cream suit made, or something a bit different, I’ll do it”, and cites a white three-piece velvet suit made last year that included a velvet covered cane and fedora. A more extravagant request from Celtic Tiger days was a suit jacket covered entirely in diamante crystals, a task which involved a day and a half of painstaking work with a glue gun and the small stones.
A clutch of thank-you cards that are taped to a pillar testify to how much it means to families to have their suits made and Fagan mentions that people call in to tell him how the day went or to drop in a bottle of wine. Alongside the cards, in fact, on much of the available space between the rows of suits are photos of very sharply dressed Communion-makers, many flashing that trademark awkward smile that can be found in Communion photographs across the land. “Everyone gets their photo taken and two euro in his pocket.” That tradition started over ten years ago when a woman called Theresa who ran a fish stall right outside the shop, suggested it. “It was her idea, she’d walk in here every Saturday morning, she used to bless the place.”
Thomas Street, like anywhere else, has inevitably changed hugely in forty years time and Fagan's shop has witnessed it all, seeing it go from a busy shopping district packed with stalls to something else now, a place with less pedestrian traffic and where NCAD students occasionally call in to pick up a shirt or blag a mannequin “I don’t know what they do with it, they must put them in their apartments or something”.
Fagan thinks that the street isn’t as good as it used to be, and maybe that's true, but walking back out into a dull, blustery February day having listened to the story ofhow Fagan's shop came to and continues to be, it seems like a different place.
Written by Sinead Fox ©2015
Photos by Adam O'Keeffe ©2015