THE ROAD LEADING up the hill to Desmond Wisley’s warehouse is fringed by the usual detritus of the recession. There are scrubby construction lots, and a cluster of unoccupied apartment complexes. The centre of the development is a big new supermarket with a cavernous underground car park, from which gleaming escalators hum emptily up to the store: at eleven o’clock on a Monday morning, there isn’t a single car.
But for Desmond, known to most as Dessie, business is good. He runs Wisley Ecclesiastical Supplies, a business that sells religious essentials to churches. Their biggest movers are prayer candles: the ones you light as you wish a trouble away. Sales of these have soared in the recession, he says, as money worries bite men and women across the country. The numbers tell a story: Wisley Ecclesiastical Supplies sold somewhere in the region of 17 million prayer candles last year.
“A lot of the priests would be saying that they were up” in financial terms since the recession began, says Dessie. “And it would be candle sales bringing them up.” One priest in Dublin was recently quoted as saying his ‘candle money’ was up €300 a week in the recession – candle sales are an important part of a church’s finances. “There was one church I was in, down in the south. They had a print-out of their accounts, and they were €2,500 in the black after all the bills were paid. But the candles had brought in €23,000.”
Where are you in Waterford exactly, Father?
So people really are turning to prayer? “They must be. There’s no other reason for it,” he says. “They must be worried. It could be people worried about other people. It could be a mother worried about her son getting a job.” Seventeen million candles makes for a lot of prayers.
Dessie grew up in the candle business. “We’ve been in it all our lives,” he says. His father Brendan, who founded the company, is past retirement age but still works for Wisley, taking the candles out on the road. (“I bought him an automatic van though”, says Dessie. “His hip was getting a bit, you know.”) Dessie’s wife Aileen cuts the deals with suppliers. Aunt Bernadette does the accounts, at the age of 84. “You’d be surprised at the age I went to do a computer course,” she says. “It’s the only thing nowadays.”
Brendan Wisley ran the business through the last economic slump. “We went through a recession in the ’80s,” he says. “Now, it’s only chicken feed compared with what it was back years ago. But people didn’t realise it, hardly.” And there was no corresponding spike in prayer candle sales back then, Dessie points out. Brendan agrees. “There wasn’t a boom. People didn’t get down the same, like they are now.”
The small office in the Wisley’s warehouse in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim is busy. Dessie’s phone rings constantly. (“And where are you in Waterford exactly, Father?”) Shelves are stacked with church directories and samples, and the Wisleys share an encyclopaedic knowledge of Ireland’s clergy. “Who’s the priest in Muff?” asks Bernadette at one stage. “Is it Father Porter?” “Father Farren,” replies Dessie, without blinking.
Dessie’s three-year-old truck – painted on either side with the names of his two sons – has 200,000 miles on the clock. He takes it around to his priests every eight or nine weeks without fail. “On the same routes my father did before me,” he says. “The runs I’m doing today would be the same ones he was doing when I was a kid.”
At the busiest times of the year – like Christmas and Easter – he might sleep in his truck during the week, only coming home at weekends. “I could be finished at half past eight at night in Dublin, and the next call in the morning is down in Kerry,” he says. “So I’d drive till about one, pull over, sleep. Eight o’clock I’d get up in the truck, half eight in Castletownbere, then up through Tralee and all that.”
The rounds can be a little monotonous. “If you went round with me in the van I’d say I’m like a parrot, because I’m saying the same stuff to every priest,” Dessie says. “I used to think Daddy was hard rude. I remember the priests would ask if he wanted a cup of coffee, and he’d say ‘Go on’, and then fill it up with milk. Because you can drink it faster – if you’ve got a hot cup of coffee, you’ll be there for 10 minutes drinking it. Now I can see myself doing the same thing.”
The German quality’s absolutely amazing
He shows me around his warehouse. The truck is being loaded, ready for the week’s rounds, from pallets of candles that are stacked high to the corrugated-iron roof. There are also cases and cases of altar wine, especially imported and approved for sacramental use by a bishop. Ceramic figures of Jesus and followers, for church dramas at Christmas and Easter, lie on racks – “We’re thinking of new ideas the whole time”, says Dessie. But candles are the main business.
What does he look for in a candle? “It depends on the candle,” he says. “An altar candle, you’re looking for something that burns cleanly, no soot, it doesn’t drip down the sides.” Almost all his supplies come from Europe, he says. “The German quality’s absolutely amazing. It’s brilliant. It doesn’t drip or anything – not like Irish candles.”
The Germans, it seems, are on the cutting edge of prayer-candle technology. Their latest development is the recyclable candle cup. “In churches where they burn so many candles,” says Dessie, “they can have wheelie bins full of empty shells. And the priests were starting to feel guilty. Asking me, ‘Is there anything we can do?’” The recyclable candles burn away so cleanly that their plastic cups can be shipped back to Germany, where they are refilled. Dessie proudly shows me the boxes of empty cups awaiting pick-up in his warehouse. “It’s taking off now in this country”, he says.
But you still don’t see many ads for recyclable prayer candles in the middle of Coronation Street. So how do Wisley’s promote their business? “We advertise in Intercom, a magazine for priests,” says Dessie. “Only priests would get it,” explains Brendan. “They give them tips for sermons and things like that.”
They’ve also tried other promotional devices. “We gave out free jackets to priests,” says Dessie. “They’d get a free jacket if they bought so much. We thought it was a good idea. But there was war when we gave out the jackets. If one priest got one, and another saw it then he wanted a jacket. They’re like children.”
Dessie’s priests tell him mass attendances are also going up since the boom ended. “Where was everybody going on Sunday?” he says. “They were going shopping. To all these outlet malls and this kind of craic. But there’s no one going there now. It’s going back to what it used to be. Sundays are supposed to be a time of relaxation. Going to Mass, meeting people after mass for coffee.”
Religious goods had a harder time under the Celtic Tiger, too. “We had a lot of hassle a couple of years ago,” says Dessie. “An awful lot of places weren’t burning candles. So actually in the boom time things were getting tighter.” This trend has since gone into reverse. “Now places actually need the candle money, they’re taking the electric candelabras out – the push-button jobs – and bringing back in the candles.” Happy days for Wisley’s.
Towards the end of the visit, Dessie disappears into the warehouse and emerges with a small, unassuming-looking white candle. “This is the one we’re getting into next now,” he says. “A specially designed candle from Germany. See that bit of soot there?” He points to an almost invisible black smudge on the candleholder. “That’s all the waste there is when this candle is left.” He smiles proudly. “They’re burning that now in the cathedral in Cologne. You’ve got to be one step ahead.”
Brendan agrees. “There’s an old saying”, he says. “that it’s better to light a candle than curse the dark.” He grins. “And that’s true.”
First published in the Sunday Tribune. Photo by clementchene on Flickr.