Press...Irish Times

A clockmaker and watchmaker have seen many changes during their time on Wicklow Street, writes Rose Doyle

Time may be of the essence to most of us but it's about making a living in a small, low ceilinged room at the top of a narrow old house at 21 Wicklow Street, Dublin 2. Clocks , all of them old and many of them beautiful, fill more than half of its space. Watches of every kind, though none as old as the clocks, fill a work counter inside the windows. Great numbers of both kinds of timepiece arrive daily, all with their time-keeping and ticking functions in sad disrepair. Paul Lawlor, watchmaker, fixes the watches. William (Bill) Lawless, clockmaker, does what has to be done with the clocks. They're known across the land, customers referred from near and far. Bill Lawless has the added, weekly, responsibility of winding up the main clock (it dates from the 1780s) in the House of Lords (Bank of Ireland) building in College Street. He services and repairs it, too, along with the many other old clocks owned by the bank. He loves the main clock, likes to think of 'all of the lords looking at it until they called it quits in 1800'. He loves old clocks in general, especially the history attaching to them. Paul loves older watches. Much more to them, in every way, than latter day versions.

Dubliners,both of them,of gentle and gentlemanly dispositions,their paths crossed early in life. Paul Lawlor was the one who found the Wicklow Street room and set himself up there in 1976. He grew up in Crumlin,one of a family of five boys and a girl. His father and mother worked for Wills,the cigarette company on the SCR. 'They came over from England with the factory,' he says. 'My mother was English and my dad a Dubliner and they met in Wales. Wills built houses for their workers,in Raleigh Square in Crumlin.' He studied in the now defunct but then flourishing Capel Street Tech. He did metalwork and maths and,when he finished at Capel Street Tech,got a job with Henry Spring,a watchmaker in Pearse Street. 'It's all changed there now,' he says. 'Trinity owns the whole block. By the 1970s,I was working for Indur,in Chatham Street fixing watches. I got married and Rita,my wife,pushed me to go out on my own. So I came down here and opened in 1976.' Bill Lawless was brought up in North Great George's Street,went to school in Ballyfermot and in Mount Street Tech. He worked first with Henry Spring - and met Paul. Then he spent 20 years in the motor industry,repairing speedometers and gauges - 'neither of them in cars any more,as far as I know.' He came to clocks when he was made redundant; 'I was working for a man in South William Street who was taken over by GKN; he went to the wall when they closed in England.'

He moved to work alongside Paul Lawlor in the Wicklow Street room in 1984. 'Clocks I know,' he says,'other things I don't know so well. It's worked out. I won't have anything to do with clocks made today. The Chinese make clocks and I couldn't fault them but...' He doesn't finish. 'Older clocks I like. People are prepared to pay for older clocks and any clock I do is time consuming. I did one in Dublin Castle,a very nice French one. I've done clocks in the Dail and in the Department of Foreign Affairs too.' Watches were different when Paul began repairing them. He produces an example:an Omega from the 1950s in brass and steel with jewel bearings. Beside it he places the movement (inner workings) of a latter-day quartz,battery operated watch. The comparison is odious; one a piece of quite beautiful craftsmanship,the other insignificant. He shows another,an automatic watch 'that wound itself on your wrist. Invented by an Irishman. I get a lot of them in; people have them for years and years and get attached to them,want to keep them.' In the old days,he says,'people had one watch. Now they come in with a handful,wanting batteries fitted,or repaired. If it's a cheap movement I'll replace it but if it's decent I'll repair it. Widows often wear their husband's watch,keep it repaired. In the 1950s there was a fashion for little cocktail watches,' he produces one,all gold bracelet and tiny face. 'You could hardly see the time of them.' He's working on a lady's Swiss watch,heavy with diamond chips,gold case and bracelet,in for repair from one of the nearby jewellery shops for whom he does repair work. He's wearing an old quartz watch himself,nothing special. 'I'm not that pushed about watches,' he admits,'even though I'm looking at them all day long. Does he give much thought to time? 'Just that it flies; goes by in a flash as you get older.' He'd recommend a Jaeger Le Coulter to anyone looking for something special. The cheapest costs about Euro 50,000 for a watch,no problem or Euro 100,000 for one with jewels and what not.' He's clearly unimpressed himself.

For Bill Lawless there's diversity in the job. 'There's a lot of variety in the older clocks especially. I usually have to make what's required to fix them. For longcase clocks I can get certain pieces - pulleys and suspensions and bells. After that,as far as the works of the clock are concerned,you either know what you're doing or not.' His customers are both 'older and younger people who want to keep clocks going because of their great granddaddy or whatever. I only do older clocks - the modern stuff I don't deal with at all.' He's adamant: 'I'm not going to learn about quartz at this stage of my life.' He likes longcase clocks best,'they're handy to work on and I like the history involved'. History's the thing for him,with all clocks. 'I'll see repair markings on a longcase clock that are 200 years old. The last longcase I worked on was repaired in 1864 so I'd assume it was made about 1800'. He does,of course ,put his own name and mark on all his work,making him part of the clock's ongoing history. He's got carriage and longcase clocks in for repair,a gilded 19th Century French model and slate/marble surround mantle clocks from the 1950s. He's got a French clock at home. It's enough,he says. Wicklow Street,they agree,has changed beyond recognition since the 1970s. ' Every single shop's changed since I came here,' Paul says. 'Weirs in the only one left. When I came it was a very quiet street off Grafton Street but in the last 15 years,it's changed - and for the better. There are lovely cafes and shops and it's all much brighter and cheerier.' Bill says 'half a dozen people was a crowd in Wicklow Street when I came here. But that day's well gone.' They think,occasionally but without enthusiasm,of retiring. 'I've got it in mind,' Bill says,vaguely. 'My wife wants me to retire and for us to travel a bit,' Paul admits. 'But,if I even take a week off,the work builds up. People come in and say 'don't retire!' but I probably will,in the next few years,when I'm 65. I wouldn't miss the job. I'm fed up with it. It's a great strain on the eyes. There's no shortage of work,it's extraordinary really. People come from all over.' They get on well,they agree,even after all the years and daily hours together in what is a tiny,eyrie,three floors and a winding stairs removed from the street life below. 'We have to,' Paul grins. It keeps them fit ,too,up and down those stairs half a dozen times a day. For now. But time,relentlessly,ticks towards retirement for both. Hard to imagine the room without them,or the clocks.