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Mrs Lawlor (1880-1969) of Naas – Caterer Extraordinaire

‘Mrs Lawlor of Naas has a familiar sound to most of us. Whether we be at the Show, the Racecourse, or just dancing the light fantastic, her name stands for that welcome cup of tea or something far more substantial should we need it; these functions may be amusing, but they are undoubtedly thirst-making and exhausting. No oasis in any desert has been more appreciated than Mrs Lawlor’s refreshment room after a long day at the Show.’ Model Housekeeping, February 1936.

From ‘The Centenary of Naas Racecourse (1924-2024) – Nursery of Champions’ by Turtle Bunbury.

 

Click here for contents of Naas Races 100 book.

 

‘Mrs Lawlor is famous as a caterer, and deservedly so, because she supplies the very best food and the best accommodation.’
Judge Comyn
Naas Circuit Court, 1938.

 

*****

 

For close on half a century, Naas’s most famous catering guru was the inimitable Mrs Lawlor. A daughter of Thomas and Catherine Keely, she was christened Bridget Mary Keely (1880-1969) and grew up in a thatched cottage on the family farm next to Punchestown racecourse.[1] As a teenager, she studied in the Naas Technical School before going on to Palmerstown House where she initially worked as a domestic maid and seamstress for the Countess of Mayo. [2]

In 1909, she married 6ft-6in-tall Myles ‘Legs’ Lawlor (1881-1951). [3] James Lawlor, his father, ran a successful dairy on Francis Street, Dublin. James originally came from Ballinahown, near Lacken, a townland that has since vanished beneath the manmade Blessington Lakes. (Bridget managed to retain the Lawlor family home, which overlooks the Poulaphouca Reservoir.)

Myles was a boy when his father purchased a farm at Greenhills on the Dublin Road, near Kill, as well as the old mill at Johnstown (now farmed by his great-grandson Anthony, a former TD). Myles and Bridget moved to Greenhills after their marriage. Two sons followed, Jim and Tom, but Mrs Lawlor was unconvinced by agriculture as a viable profession. [4] ‘I could see from the start that the farm wouldn’t pay,’ she later recalled.

In 1913, the Lawlors sold Greenhills and moved to Naas where they rented James Comerford’s house on Poplar Square for £40 a year. Mrs Lawlor then opened it up as a tea room, known simply as The Restaurant, where she offered lunches to travellers, served upon three white deal tables. ‘I knew absolutely nothing about management, but I was a good cook.’ [5] In January 1914, she began hosting the monthly meeting of the Naas branch of the Women’s National Health Association, of which Lady Mayo was chair. [6]

Tom Lawlor

Bridget Lawler aka Lawlor granted licence at Naas Racecourse, Kildare Observer, 30 Aug 1924

With both Lady Mayo and her father-in-law James Lawlor as patrons, she began laying on dinner for the revellers at the annual Kildare Hunt Ball, held at the nearby Town Hall. The happy endorsements meant she was soon being asked to cater to other society and sporting events, although business inevitably quietened as the Great War took its toll. She also experienced tremendous hardship at the end of the war when her parents, her brother Thomas and her sister Margaret Headon all succumbed to the deadly Spanish Flu epidemic. [7]

By November 1920, Mrs Lawlor’s business had increased so much that, aided by funds supplied by her father-in-law, she bought the house adjoining the Comerford property. When the two buildings were connected internally, that gave her 10 bedrooms for guests, as well as two for the family. That same year, the Kildare Gaelic League asked Naas Urban District Council to formally change the town’s name to its Irish form, Nás na Ríogh.[8]

Nás na Ríogh, translated as the ‘assembly place of kings’, was a name that much appealed to Mrs Lawlor. That was the name she gave to her hotel, which she opened on Poplar Square in 1922, and it would also be the name of one of her famous mares.

The enterprising Mrs Lawlor was granted her hotel licence on 25 October 1922, despite the opposition of Mr E. Timmons, an adjoining publican, and the Civic Guards.[9] (The latter maintained that having 31 licensed premises in Naas was plenty enough for its population of 3,842.) Her licence to serve alcohol was one of the last to be granted by a British magistrate. [10]

Management of the Nás na Ríogh Hotel was entrusted to Mrs Lawlor’s sister Nelly, who had trained as a nurse.

Mrs Lawlor’s other sister Catherine married Harry Whiteside, with whom she had three daughters, Marjorie, Dorothy and Nell. Dorothy, known as Bunty, worked at Switzers department store prior to her marriage in 1944 to Patrick Power, son of the Waterford bookmaker Dick Power. Patrick and Bunty’s son David co-founded Paddy Power in 1988.[11] Although it closed 21 betting shops in 2023, Paddy Power – owned by Flutter Entertainment – still has 230 outlets around the Republic of Ireland.

Postcard of Lawlor’s Hotel, Naas

Mrs Lawlor and her husband were shareholders in the Naas Race Company, as well as close friends of committee members Michael Conway and Edward Brophy. It was the latter’s brother Tom Brophy who encouraged her to apply to become the caterer at the races. In late August 1924, the court granted her a licence to provide catering at the ‘standhouse’ for the Naas meeting of 2 September. Loftus Hayden of Poplar Square was simultaneously granted an ‘occasional license’ to erect a marquee on the racecourse. [12]

A fabulously regal woman, 6ft tall, Mrs Lawlor was seemingly unfazed by the challenges of catering. She once served 1500 guests at the British Pharmaceutical Conference without a hiccough. By 1925, she had her own tents in the R.D.S. grounds in Ballsbridge, Dublin, where she was to become an institution during the Spring Show, the Horse Show and the Dog Show over the next 40 years. In time, her tents were also to be found at Punchestown, Fairyhouse, Leopardstown, the Curragh and the Galway races, as well as at the three Grand Prix events held in Phoenix Park between 1929 and 1931. When the 31st International Eucharistic Congress was held in Dublin in June 1932, she set up catering marquees in key locations across the capital city.[13]

She also oversaw catering at reunion days at Clongowes, Knockbeg and Newbridge Colleges, as well as ordinations at Maynooth College. With a second kitchen on Temple Lane in Dublin, her staff also made the first sandwiches that were ever given to children in the inner city schools.[14]

When her teenage son Jim contracted tuberculosis in about 1925, she arranged for him to spend two years recovering at Davos in Switzerland.

A Lawlor-Keely family gathering at the opening day at Naas Racecourse on 19 June 1924.
Standing (l to r): Jim Lawlor (Bridget’s son), Dorothy Whiteside (Bunty Power), Marjorie Whiteside (Byrne) and Tom Lawlor (Bridget’s son).
Front row (l to r): Ellen (Nelly), Bridget (Mrs Lawlor), Ellinor (Nell) Whiteside and Catherine Whiteside.
Nelly, Bridget and Catherine were the Keely sisters.

By 1930, the Lawlors had acquired the three-storey Mill House on the eastern side of Naas, along with an old carpet factory beside it.[15] They then converted the factory floor into a splendid dance hall, complete with ‘polished Canadian maple planks mounted on 18-inch springs so that the floor waltzed as the dancers waltzed.’ [16] Mrs Lawlor’s Hall opened on 8 January 1932. Also known as Lawlor’s Ballroom, it was to become an iconic venue for much of the remainder of the century, drawing stars as varied as Red Hurley, Joe Dolan, Marianne Faithfull and The Boomtown Rats. It also attracted many of the greatest showbands – Dickie Rock and the Miami Showband, Butch Moore and The Capitol, Brendan Bowyer and The Royal Showband, The Dixies, and Eileen Reid and The Cadets.

Business continued to boom and the Lawlors were reckoned to be the largest catering firm in Ireland by 1937. [17] That same year, Mrs Lawlor bought Osberstown House, north of Naas, with its 158-acre farm. This became a popular country house hotel and wedding venue under the management of her eldest son Jim, nicknamed ‘The Squire’. Jim was married in 1943 to Violette Gueret, known as Vi, with whom he had five sons and two daughters. [18]

Jim and his younger brother Tom were both tall men, measuring 6ft 4in. Tom was trained in catering at the Mayfair in London as a young man. Following his return, he went into business with his mother, helping her to run the Nás na Ríogh Hotel and nearby Random Inn, as well as Lawlor’s Ballroom and the largest outdoor catering firm in Ireland. [19] In September 1951, he married Helen Murray, with whom he had three daughters and two sons. [20] Tom was very much involved with the catering at Naas Racecourse during the 1950s and 1960s. He also worked closely with Tom Fortune, Mrs Lawlor’s manager for over 30 years, and with his cousin Honor Conway, who looked after the firm’s outdoor catering. [21]

Myles Lawlor died on 2 February 1951. Among those who attended his funeral were William Norton, An Tánaiste Liam Cosgrave, then the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry and Commerce, and Gerard Sweetman, T.D. [22]

In the wake of her husband’s death, Mrs Lawlor’s health declined, and she became bedridden by the late 1950s. She managed to stay on top of business from her bedroom, which now doubled up as head office, to which all her managers reported in strict fashion either in person or by phone from wherever in Ireland any event was taking place. There was a double blow in March 1958 with the deaths of Tom Fortune and Honor’s husband Michael Conway, the secretary-manager of the Naas Race Company. [23] That same month, Tom purchased Gort na Greine from Dr Ernest Stewart Tweedy.[24]

Nás Na Ríogh being led in by Blobs Hannon, father of the jockey Ben Hannon who was head man to Tom Taaffe and, later, to his son Thos. The jockey is Pat Taaffe. They had just won at Limerick Junction (now Tipperary), August 1954.

 

Happier times followed with the tremendous success of Mill House (see here), named for Mrs Lawlor’s home in Naas, who recorded his first victory at Naas in the Osberstown Hurdle in 1961.[25] Mill House was bred by Mrs Lawlor from Nás Na Ríogh, a beautiful mare, who had won the Grange Hurdle at Naas for her in 1954. Nás Na Ríogh was also the dam of Ronan (winner of the 1964 Sallins Hurdle at Naas, in the colours of Helen Lawlor) and Osberstown House (owned by Jim Lawlor). The family had bought Nás Na Ríogh’s dam, Breviary, from Killarkin Stud in Dunboyne, County Meath. Sourced by Michael Conway, Breviary was also the dam of Vanessa, another successful racing mare owned by the Lawlors.

Most of the Lawlor horses were trained by the Taaffe family of Rathcoole, who were also the horses’ jockeys, while some were with Jack Burke in Eadestown. Aside from the aforementioned champions, their Naas winners included Shaneman (winner of the 1971 Osberstown Hurdle), Gort na Greine and Nassas Last. Other fine horses such as Ten Per Cent and Temple Lane (named for the Dublin lane where Mrs Lawlor’s staff made sandwiches) also ran at Naas.

 

Mrs Lawlor in the Landau outside Bawnogues, probably on the occasion of visiting her cousin Anna Armstrong (née Keely).

 

By the time of Mrs Lawlor’s death in September 1969, the outdoor catering business was becoming difficult to sustain. Her son Tom wound up most of the racecourse contracts before his own premature death six years later. Jim Lawlor died in July 1988.

Following Tom’s passing, his manager Peter O’Brien ran the business for a short time on behalf of Helen Lawlor, Tom’s widow, before setting up his own firm, Peter O’Brien Catering Company. After Lawlor’s catering contract with Naas Racecourse expired at the end of 1979, the contract was taken up by Peter O’Brien’s new company. By the time Peter took over the catering, the racecourse had a new stand, with a long bar underneath it, while a large self-service unit was built where the old bars and office had been.

Tom and Helen’s son Shane Lawlor was 18 years old when his father died in October 1975. He subsequently trained at the acclaimed Shannon College of Hotel Management, returning to Naas in 1979. [25a] The following year, he oversaw an extensive refurbishment of the Nás Na Ríogh property, which he ran as a successful food and beverage operation for almost 20 years.

In September 1998, Shane Lawlor sold the property to the pub magnate Louis Fitzgerald, whose company ran it as a pub. [26] The Louis Fitzgerald Group subsequently sold it to the developer Jack Tierney, a native of County Kildare, who had recently completed a very successful deal with the Aga Khan at the Curragh racecourse. The property was upgraded into a hotel in 2022 and now has 138 bedrooms and first-rate conference facilities. Since 2015, Lawlor’s Hotel has sponsored the Novice Hurdle (Grade 1), the biggest National Hunt race on Naas’s calendar. Given that Mrs Lawlor began catering at the Naas races back in 1924, it is a most fitting sponsor for such an event.

The catering at Naas is now conducted by Lily & Wild.

 

With thanks to Fiona Lawlor-O’Neill, Marie Lawlor and Shane Lawlor.

 

Footnotes

 

In memory of Thomas Keely.

[1] The Keely farm, known as Keelys, with its thatched cottage adjoined her uncle’s farm, known as Bawnogues. Her grandson Ronan Lawlor, son of Tom and Helen, farms these lands today. She was known to her close female relatives as Bridie but most people knew her as Mrs Lawlor. Ronan Lawlor, now farms this land.

[2] At the time of the 1901 census, Bridget Keely, aka Mrs Lawlor, was sharing a house with the Teagan sisters, Mary and Anne, as well as Mary Culshaw, an English woman. Her sister Mary may have been in Carrick-on-Suit at the time, as per here. The Naas Technical School was on the town’s Fair Green.

[3] James Lawlor initially came from Lacken, County Wicklow. James and his wife Honor also lived for a time at Maudlings, Naas. Myles full name was Myles Peter Lawlor.

[4] They had been joined by baby James, aka Jim, by the time of the 1911 census. Also visiting was Bridie’s older sister Mary Elizabeth Keely, known as Polly. Mrs Lawlor’s brother Peter was known as ‘the Boss Keely’.

[5] “She does not look like the boss of one of the biggest businesses … and knives in a rambling old house on the verge of Naas (population 4000). Now the name Lawlor’s of Naas is as familiar as … A great advance on the times when Mrs Lawlor served lunches to travellers on the three white deal tables in her little café. That was in 1913, three years after she married. Her husband, who died in 1950, was a farmer. “I could see from the start that the farm wouldn’t pay,” remembers Mrs. Lawlor. “So I started the café . I knew absolutely nothing about management , but I was a good cook. In those days I used to buy meat by the pound … Mrs Lawlor kept her little hotel going right through the “Troubles” and in 1922 took her first big step when she got a licence to serve drink – one of the last granted by a British magistrate. In 1924 she secured the catering rights for Punchestown and Naas races and a year later she put up her tents in the R.D.S. grounds in Ballsbridge, Dublin. And Mrs Lawlor … Nothing is too big for Lawlor’s of Naas. She even dumbfounded the British Pharmaceutical Conference when she served 1500… within 90 minutes at their Dublin Ball … But she had to work like a slave, washing floors, making beds, buying food, cooking it, and – most important of all – rearing her two sons who now tower four inches over her own six feet.’ Jim King, ‘She runs her business from a Four-Poster,’ The Irish Digest (1959), Volume 65, p. 25-27.

[6] Kildare Observer and Eastern Counties Advertiser, 24 January 1914, p. 8.

[7] In the Autumn of 1918, she lost both parents and her brother Thomas and sister Margaret Headon to the Spanish Flu. Thomas was a drummer with the Wolfe Tone Brass and Reed Band from 1912 until 1918.

[8] Kildare Observer and Eastern Counties Advertiser – Saturday 06 November 1920, p. 6.

[9] Details of the hotel licence being granted are at Kildare Observer and Eastern Counties Advertiser, 28 October 1922, p. 4. It was evidently called the Nas-na-Riogh Hotel before this as ‘Wm. Fisher of Nas-na-Riogh Hotel, Naas” was recorded as a candidate for the County Council University scholarships in June 1922. (Kildare Observer and Eastern Counties Advertiser, 24 June 1922, p. 5). He was perhaps the lodger named ‘Mr Fisher’ who had a lump of concrete thrown at him while entering his lodgings at the Restaurant, Poplar Square,’ in September 1922. (Kildare Observer and Eastern Counties Advertiser, 23 September 1922, p. 5).

[10] In January 1923, ‘Mrs. B. Lawler, Nas na Riogh Hotel, was granted an occasional licence for a dance by the Co. Kildare G.A.A. at Naas.’

[11] The marriage arranged between Patrick, eldest son of Rd. Power and Mrs. Power, Belvedere, Tramore, and Dorothy, daughter of Mrs. Whiteside and the late Harry Whiteside, Churchill Terrace, Ballsbridge, will take place in June. Waterford Standard – Saturday 13 May 1944

[12] Kildare Observer, 30 August 1924.

[13] ‘EUCHARISTIC CONGRESS. MRS. LAWLOR, NAS NA RIOG [sic] HOTLEL, NAAS, is prepared to receive orders for Breakfasts, Luncheons, Dinners, and Teas during Eucharistic Congress Week. Her Marquees will be situated adjacent to the Gough Monument, Phoenix Park.’ Irish Independent, 18 May 1932, p. 6.

[14] Mrs Bridget Lawlor of Lawlors Hotel, Irish Press, 12 January 1955.

[15] I suspect they acquired it from Roscommon-born Edward Kenny of Mill House, Downings, Naas. His wife Mary died on 18 March 1929. An ex-RIX officer, he worked as an inspector with the Department of Agriculture and later lived at Cormackstown House, Maynooth.

[16] Liam Kenny, “Last dance before Lent” – 100 years of Lawlor’s of Naas”, Looking Back, 2013, via here.

[17] Leinster Leader – Saturday 10 December 1938, p. 5.

[18] ‘The engagement is announced and the marriage will take place in February between James M. eldest son of Mr and Mrs. Lawlor, Nas-Na-Riogh Hotel and Osberstown House, Naas and Violette, eldest daughter of Mrs Gueret and the late Captain Gueret, R.D.F., 125 Fortfield Road. Terenure, Dublin.’ Leinster Leader – Saturday 16 January 1943, p. 3. Jim and Violet’s seven children were Peter (deceased), James, Michelle, Tom, Paul, Marie and Mark. They all lived at Osberstown.

[19] The activity of the outdoor catering was focused on many sporting and social events. Racecourse catering was carried out at all the major tracks in the country, excluding the Dublin tracks, as well as the RDS for the Spring Show, Horse Show and the Dog Show.

[20] Tom and Helen Lawlor’s children are Vanessa (Byrne), Ronan, Fiona (O’Neill), Shane and Elaine (aka Legs, born 1958). Details of the wedding, at which Jim was best man, can be found in the Leinster Leader, 15 September 1951, p. 5.

Michael Conway, husband of Honor Lawlor, at the Naas Races with Bill and Pamela Rathdonnell, The Tatler – Wednesday 13 October 1943

[21] Honor Mary Lawlor was a daughter of Michael Lawlor, brother of Myles, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Keely (known as Polly), who was Mrs Lawlor’s older sister, so there was a double marriage. Honor married Michael Nicholas Conway, manager of Naas Racecourse, and she was a manager in the outdoor catering for Lawlor’s.

[22] Leinster Leader, 10 February 1951.

[23] The catering firm was managed for over thirty years by Thomas Fortune, who died aged 72 on 9 March 1958. Thomas Fortune, who was also Tipstaff to the Master of the High Court in Dublin, came from Courtown, county Wexford, and settled in Naas in 1922. He lived latterly at Varadene, Bird Avenue, Clonskeagh, Dublin. He died at St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin. His three sons were Thomas Brendan Fortune (a former Irish champion as a pedal cyclist and later as a motor cyclist, who became manager of the Light Machinery Co. Ltd), Terence Vincent Fortune (Chief Engineer, Caltex (Ireland) Ltd.) and Cyril Fortune, DFC (a well-known cyclist, World War Two veteran and airline captain with K.L.M., see his record here.) His daughter Sister Joseph Cyril was with the Irish Sisters of Charity at Temple Street Children’s Hospital, Dublin.

[24] Conveyance dated 21 March 1958 between Dr Ernest Stewart Tweedy and Thomas J. Lawlor. Indenture of conveyance dated 9th July 1958 made between John Barry Brown and Thomas J Lawlor.

[25] Mill House was raised at Bawnogues Farm. His sire was King Hal.

[25a] Shannon College of Hotel Management is thriving and now affiliated with the University of Galway. Click here to access the website.

[26] The Fitzgerald group ran Lawlor’s for a brief time while seeking planning but, frustrated by the council, closed the premises for several years.