Ireland’s longest running pen speciality shop, The Pen Corner, one of Dublin’s most loved institutions in a landmark building at the junction of College Green and Trinity Street is to close its doors at the end of May, marking the end of an era.
Famous for pens, pencils and stationery, it has been a family business since 1927 when it was founded by Florence Fitzgerald and her husband Paddy O Brien, a couple who met when they worked together in Helys stationery suppliers in Dame Street. Loss of business due to Covid, a rent of €75,000 a year, not to speak of the effects of modern technology on handwriting have forced the closure of the shop.
Florence’s great nephew, John, is the third generation Fitzgerald to own the business, which he has run with great passion for nearly 40 years. He remembers his great aunt Florrie as a “grand dame”, a resourceful Dubliner from Drumcondra, who, after the war years in order to get gold nibs for Parker pens, took off on the Queen Mary for the US (where gold was available) and came back with around 20 or 30 Sheaffer pens smuggled under her skirts. She later secured the distribution of those pens in Ireland.
Located in the corner of a distinctive late 19th-century six-storey building – occupants on another floor include the acclaimed Grafton Architects – the shop was originally owned by life insurance companies.
Its interior, with original wooden drawers and display cases, has hardly changed over the decades. Among the many famous names who bought pens there were movie stars Grace Kelly, James Cagney and Cary Grant, and more recently Irish writers and poets, Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel and John Banville.
Man Booker prize winning author Banville, known for writing in longhand using a Parker Penfold and Japanese propelling pencils, declared the Pen Corner his favourite shop in Dublin while other high-profile fans over the years have included Pierce Brosnan, Elvis Costello and the late Kurt Cobain.
John Fitzgerald, who took over the business after graduating from TCD with a degree in art history and archaeology, once pointed out how in the 1920s fountain pens were very much the new technology. “Now I suppose we would call them a lifestyle accessory. A pen is a high-value token to give though there are those who just love using them.”
Cross, Parker, Watermans and Montblanc have had a traditional customer base of professionals, doctors, legal and banking people, the most expensive items being limited-edition Montblanc pens, selling for several thousand euro.
Aileen Morin, shop manager, who has worked in The Pen Corner for more than 20 years, says that “pens are very sentimental and very tactile and associated with family and friends. Coming in and trying on pens is what the Pen Corner is about – it’s like trying on shoes in a shop, and pens allow for a different way of writing and improve writing.
“We see children come in and the effect on them of trying out a pen for the first time. We have been on limited opening hours for some time, and it is hard to come to terms with its closure for all of us who work here. We will try to trade online, but it is still such an adjustment.”
The whole building, whose present owners bought it for €1.45 million in 1996 was offered for sale in October 2018 with an asking price of €6.5 million but remained unsold. John Fitzgerald was unavailable for comment until after Easter.