"The sitting room door was always locked because that was the room Dad used to paint signs in” notes Tom Freeney as he tells us how Freeney’s grew from a thriving cottage industry in a quiet cul-de-sac in Walkinstown where “every ad agency knew where to find us" to the purpose built premises in Tallaght.
In late 2013 The Locals and Colin Brady from Taller Stories made a documentary about sign painting in Dublin called ‘Gentlemen of Letters’, which included the Freeney’s amongst others. A follow up visit was on the cards for a long time and when Tom released a book documenting the last 25 years of Freeney's work, we grabbed the camera and headed off to meet them, sitting down for a cuppa to hear their story.
"I was trained by my sign writing father Ned. Ned's two late brothers John & Tom were accomplished sign writers, Ned's father Tom Senior was a sign writer as was Tom’s brother Kevin, who was known as 'The Gentleman of Letters'". Today, Tom who is Freeney’s Graphic’s current MD is a sixth generation sign painter and has taken Freeney’s from a small family business to a thriving company with 12 full time staff.
Tom remembers the early days well, painting signs for Croke Park, railway bridges aswell as large wooden street billboards. In 1990, as business was growing, they moved from the front room in Walkinstown to a shed in Drimnagh which flooded twice a year before finally moving to Tallaght in 2004.
Freeney’s were the first choice amongst advertising agencies for full colour billboards, vans and so on and in 1987 they got a call from one of their clients inviting them to paint a Dublin Bus for the upcoming 1988 Dublin Millennium celebrations. The bus was met with universal praise and 25 years later, Freeneys are painting over 200 buses a year.
At first they were done entirely by hand and with great skill but Ned Freeney could see which way the wind was blowing. “My Father had no interest in computers but he encouraged me having conceded that computers were the future” remembers Tom.
When UK based companies started travelling over with preprinted self adhesive vehicle wraps they knew it was time to evolve and in 1990 they bought their first digital plotter. “Digital equipment enabled me to grow the business, as some skills were replaced by machines it was easy to find and train young people to operate the equipment. There is no doubt that the traditional skills have ebbed away but I strongly believe the traditional apprenticeship helped me shape what we do”.
Despite the benefits of digital, Tom does admit to missing the old days. "Those of us, Frank and myself, who remember the old craft miss it and the job satisfaction that it brought. The job was a lot more physical. Today its plastic and aluminium. Before digital we painted endless sheets of birch plywood. Four coats of paint just to prepare the background!"
At the end of 2014 and after 18 months of compiling, Tom Freeney produced a book called 'The Art of Painting Buses'. With the help of enthusiastic Dublin “bus nuts” he was able to put together photographs and stories behind some of the their most iconic designs that have dominated the Dublin streetscape for the last 25 years.
“I’m very proud of the work on the buses, many of the photo quality hand painted ads were works of art” believes Tom, also saying how it was "important for me to document the works while my father is still alive and well. He deserves great credit and with this book his work will live on”.
We were amazed at just how many buses from Tom’s book that we remembered from growing up in Dublin. We probably didn’t really give them a second thought back then but they clearly lodged themselves in our memories and after spending the day at Freeney’s, watching the attention to detail that still goes into painting buses, we believe that the unassuming Freeney family can genuinely claim their stake in modern Dublin history.
Buy The Art Of Painting Buses here