A cut above the rest

Features

Ger Staunton
Occupation: Barber in Castlebar for 52 years since yesterday, January 16.

My father was a part-time barber. I looked at him doing it and I fancied it. So after school, when I was 12, I went to Chris Hingerton to learn how to cut with a clippers, and his brother Larry, who taught me how to cut with the scissors. That was 1962.
In ‘63, Manzie Gray came back to Westport from London. I started with him in ‘63 working full-time. In those days you had to pay the tradesman to teach it but Manzie waived that. He taught me for nothing. He let me keep an odd tip. I didn’t make any money for years; any money I made was only pocket money really because wages were bad, the price of haircuts was nothing. I spent the first six months in Manzie’s cutting paper to build up that [ring] finger to get the strength into it. I was cutting paper for six months, doing work around the place, putting on the fire, cleaning the place, washing heads. That was it. 
I went off to London in ’68 at 18 years old. I met up with a guy on the Kilburn High Road - a fella called Mr Christophis. He was a Greek. He took me under his wing. I was cutting away there for the best part of the year in his shop on the Kilburn High Road and living in Kilburn High Road in a B&B. At nighttime, I was plucking turkeys for Harrods for Christmas to make ends meet. We went underground into the factory. It smelled terrible. Hard work. Cold.
My father rang me and said ‘You might come back here, there could be an opening in Castlebar, I’ll check out a place for you’. He wanted me to start in Westport but I wouldn’t start in Westport because Manzie is there. There’s no way I was going in against my old boss.
There were only three barbers in the town at the time. Hughie McGartland, Kelly’s and Mick Quinn. When I arrived, Hughie retired. He [my father] was searching for months for a premises to get me home. I came home in December ‘69 and he found a place on the Green in Castlebar. Kitty White owned it. So they negotiated a fee which was £8 a week. Some weeks I didn’t make the rent. But in all fairness to her, she was such a lovely lady, every Christmas week was rent free. And every birthday in January, rent free. Two free weeks in the year from Kitty. Then he went searching for a place to buy. He’d done all that kind of work for me. He bought a place. He went and negotiated a place in Market Square, in maybe ‘72.
I got on well because I was kind of trendy. I had long hair. I wasn’t cutting people’s hair too short. This is the ‘70s so I wouldn’t take much off. I was happy with that. I’d take 45, 50 minutes on a head.
In 1972, my father and I were dealing with the Bank of Ireland. Larry Scott was the manager, a gentleman, so we negotiated a price. He was a friend of mine, I cut his hair and he was the only bank manager that would ever take anyone on like me at 20 years of age. He liked me, end of story. Those days, the bank manager was always around. Not now. You don’t even know the bank manager now. 

Working very hard
It was minimum wage, raising a family of six under ten. Working very hard, 12 hour days.
You couldn’t do it nowadays, not a chance.
It’s working against the ordinary small shopkeeper. At the moment he has eff all chance of surviving now with the energy costs, wage increase, rents and rates. We pay rates and we get nothing for them. We still have to pay for water and we still have to pay for refuse after paying for rates. A one-man show has no hope whatsoever with the rent. Yet people are still doing it.
They can go on YouTube and learn to be a barber in three weeks, and then they’re on the floor cutting hair, charging. It’s wrong. My apprenticeship was four years, but now three weeks after looking at YouTube he’s calling himself a barber. You wouldn’t believe the amount of rescue cuts we have to do.
When I started, there were three barbers, now there’s any amount of barbers, 14, in Castlebar. And I’d say every ladies salon will do a man’s head. That brings it up to 27, 28 shops cutting men’s heads.
Do a good job and be courteous. That’s it. You chat, you listen. You don’t give much advice, but you listen.

Compassionate calls
There’s compassionate calls. It’s so important. One guy is out the country and I spend more time drinking tea with him and talking to him than cutting his hair. It’s a bit of a lifeline for him. Another one, again, out of town, loves to chat and a cup of coffee. The cup of coffee takes longer than the haircut. Another one, he probably doesn’t remember me going to his house to cut his hair but I still do it. Another guy, cancer patient still ongoing. He’s just fading away but still around. It’s awful hard. The families really appreciate it. It takes a lot of time to go to Ballintubber, for instance, and back. Two and a half hours of your day.
I’ve done one in the morgue once. Scary. He was home from America and he got killed in a car crash. They were getting him ready to ship him home back to America. So I got a phone call on a Bank Holiday Monday from the mortician. ‘Will you come up and do a job for me?’ I went up, the smell of death was unreal. So the mortician reached out, sat him up, held him, I cut him and I went back down again. The mortician wanted him looking well going back to the States. It took a whiskey before and afterwards to sort it but it was done. He never complained!
Since Agnes [my wife] died three years ago, I needed a reason to get up in the morning and do a few hours. So rather than staying at home watching telly, I just had to go out. Far better for the head.
Nothing will close the shop. I got married on a Bank Holiday Monday and was back to work on Friday.
Now I’ve [eldest sons] Mike and Kie with me. I didn’t encourage them into it. Both of them went to college, got fed up in college and said we’ll come back. They were helping me at the time when they were at school, coming in part-time and do a wash or clean the floor or do the towels, that kind of stuff.
It’s a good trade but I wouldn’t recommend it for my grandchildren. I would prefer them to have the harp on the envelope. A safety net. Pension, gratuity, sick pay, it’s all there. When you’re self-employed, there’s nothing like that. If you’re sick, you’re sick, you can’t work, you won’t get paid.

In conversation with Peter Staunton

Tea Break

Is the customer always right?
Yes, unfortunately.

What’s your motto for success in business?
Hard work. And don’t ignore the tax man!

When do you get your best work done?
Mornings.

What is your guilty pleasure?
A pint of Guinness after work.

Sum up your business in three words?
Hard work works.

Who are your inspirations in business?
I’d say my father.

What makes you nervous?
Looking at a client’s booking who I don’t know.

Most famous person you’ve met in the course of your work?
Too many to mention.

Your most prized possession?
Will I put down Captain’s Prize winner’s watch, engraved? My wedding picture with Mam.

Tell us something about you that we don’t know?
I always wanted to be a professional soccer player. I was a million miles away. I had the looks at the time, but didn’t have the skill.

If money was no object, what would you do all day?
Play golf.

What makes you angry?
Impatient people, especially my age.

What’s your favourite places in the world?
Castlebar, Westport High Street, Mulranny Golf Course.