Subscriber OnlyYour Money

Ireland's barbershop boom: ‘Men are a lot more savvy now’

Both family businesses and apprentices benefiting from rebirth of red and white poles

The beard is over and all the dedicated followers of fashion who proudly grew out their facial hair in the heady days of 2013 and 2014 know it. That’s not to say all the beards have gone, but the ones that remain, remain because they’ve become part of who the wearers are and not because of a passing trend.

So says Sam Donnelly, a fourth-generation barber who has been in the business of hair for 28 years. He also thinks we're close to reaching "peak barbershop", news which will come as a surprise to anyone who has walked through any town in Ireland recently and marvelled at the explosion of red and white poles advertising establishments with all sorts of hipster names and funky attractions such as pool tables and craft beers in the barber's chair.

Barbering really has been on quite a journey over the last 40 years. Even before the Beatles first dropped acid, grew their hair out and took themselves off to India to meet the Maharishi, the profession – which dates back thousands of years – was facing extinction. "It had become a kind of auld fellas' place," Donnelly says. "The barbers back then couldn't really handle longer hair so men starting gravitating to the unisex hair salons."

It looked like it was game over until the early 1990s when men’s hair started getting shorter and barbers started become more adept at handling whatever came their way. “All barbers are stylists now as well,” Donnelly says.


“There was another upturn about five years ago and that was fuelled by a social culture that made barbering really cool,” he says.

The crash also created a buzz around barbers, he believes. “During the boom we couldn’t get kids to work for us because they had their choice of retail work that paid more than we could. Kids didn’t want to serve apprenticeships but after the crash jobs weren’t available and I was getting five or six emails and CVs a week.”

Many of those who started out barbering in 2008 and 2009 have been striking out on their own in the last couple of years and they have been welcomed with open arms by landlords of small premises delighted to welcome cash businesses without big space requirements.

“How many of them last depends on how good they are and what kind of business they have built up,” Donnelly says. “We have a saying in the business that the longer the beards and the more tattoos on display, the worse the barber, but maybe that is a little unfair.”

Whatever about that, his family-owned chain, Sam's, run by Stanley, James and Sam is flying with locations include Lower Ormond Quay, Dame Court and Prussia Street in the city as well as Blanchardstown and Cabinteely.

Dapper men

The Grooming Rooms on Dublin's South William St is also flying. It opened its centre for dapper men in the spring of 2008. Its timing could scarcely have been worse as within weeks of its doors opening, the Irish economy was in freefall.

But the Grooming Rooms hung on and while it went through a lean few years, as consumers stopped spending, things are good now says manager Joanna James and its therapists and hair-stylists and barbers are always busy. "Men are a lot more savvy now," she says. "And they know exactly what they want. They are coming in to have their beards trimmed as well as having their hair cuts. But they are also more open to facials and manicures and pedicures too."

Facials? Manicures? Pedicures? The barbers of old, the ones who applied leeches to the bulging veins of the sick, extracted teeth without anaesthetic and could do nothing more to hair than cut it really short would fall from their heavenly clouds if they could all see that carry on.

It is worlds away from what barbering used to be. And Ana-Marija Hota is a world away from what barbers used to be. She has been working in the Grooming Rooms since April 2014 after relocating to Ireland from Croatia in 2013.

“I don’t think that being interested in personal grooming is a sign that men are losing their masculinity,” she says. “In fact, I think it is quite the opposite, I think it makes you more of a man when you take care of yourself.”

She doesn't skip a beat when asked what hairstyles men typically come to her for right now. "David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. A lot of people are modelling themselves on the big football stars.

“If someone comes in and asks me to do something I know really won’t work well then I will tell them. I have to, that is what I’m paid to do. I’m the expert and I’m there to give them advice. If they really want to go ahead with something then I will do it, of course. But I think men are more likely to listen to professional advice.”

Her world is about more than just haircuts and she gives a lot of hot towel shaves as well as beard trimming and styling. “Oh that is a must. If I was in charge I would outlaw anybody growing a beard for months on end without getting it trimmed. You want to give your beard shape. you don’t want to look like you have just come out of the cave.”


While the Grooming Rooms is a relatively recently arrival in the world of the Irish male, the Waldorf on Westmoreland Street is very oldschool and it was here before it was cool. It is one of the oldest barber shops in the city dating back to the 1920s. It has seen styles come and go but retains a pleasingly timeless air.

On a morning in the middle of last week, business was ticking over with both barbers kept busy chopping hair to a Glen Miller soundtrack.

A man waiting for a barber to be free identifies himself as David Melrose. He was born in Ireland but his family moved to Sydney when he was just seven years old. He left school at just 15 and almost immediately started an apprenticeship in a local barbershop.

He has owned his own place just outside Sydney for 12 years. And he says the boom in barbering which Ireland has experienced has been replicated down under too. “When I opened my shop 12 years ago there were just three others in the town. Today that number has increased to 12 or 13.

He is not here to have his hair cut but to watch how the Waldorf barbers do their hot towel shaves. “I actually came to Ireland for a wedding but decided to a refresher course in hot towel shaving because it is getting really popular in Australia again. It was outlawed in the late 1980s because of fears over HIV and Hepatitis. Back then the cut throat razor blades were not disposable. They are now.”

As with Donnelly, he has seen “heaps of changes” since he started out in the 1980s. “The real changes have been in the last four years,” he says. “Now it is more about pampering then ever before. I don’t think it means that men are softer now I just think they are more concerned about their appearance.”

The barber on duty in the Waldorf is Martin McDermott. He talks as he applies the delicate finishing touches to a man with gleaming silver hair. There are almost as many barbershops today as there are coffee shops now,” he marvels. But I don’t think you can top the traditional barbers. I don’t think we will ever go out of style. We have people coming in now came in when they were children with their fathers. They’re bringing their sons in now. There is something timeless about that.”