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The Celtic Barber

I’m having flashbacks to 1994 and the birth of the term ‘metrosexual’. The portmanteau of metropolitan and heterosexual describes a man who has discovered moisturiser and manicures. The marketing world had suddenly woken up to the fact that men had money and liked to spend that money on looking good. Real men were now looking after their skin, their nails, and their hair.

Fast forward a couple of decades and add social media to the mix. Men today compete with women when it comes to posing for selfies, checking hair and profiles. And with beards very much in fashion, barbershops are trending.

In 2018, 813 barbershops opened in the UK, up on 624 in 2017, pretty much the same time as they took off in Budapest. Ireland had reached its barbershop peak in 2016. Note: A barber is not the same as a men’s hairdresser. Both cut hair but your barber will give you a shave, shape your beard, and trim your moustache, too. Men are preening for the pampering.

Curious to see what the madness was about, I ventured up Kiraly utca to No. 90, home of The Celtic Barber in search of the Irish connection.

During Tom Hyziak’s 15-year hiatus in Dublin, he popped over to Budapest for a Formula 1 weekend and then ventured down to Siófok for a few days R&R. That same week in 2014, Mezőkövesd-born Eliza Baranyi was home on holiday from Paris. The two met in a bar and liked the look of each other. In a matter of months Eliza had left the snootiness of the French capital for the more laid-back vibe Dublin had to offer. There, this Polish man and Hungarian woman set up home. Tom was working as a quality controller while building up his online business selling racing-car parts and Eliza needed something to keep her busy.

She’d worked beach bars and restaurants for five years in the Caribbean Islands and then spent seven more working as a personal stylist in Paris. She wanted something different. A friend of hers had started barbering and drafted Tom’s head for practice. Eliza went along to see and figured why not. She did a course, then practised a little at a Romanian’s barbershop in Dublin before going to work for The Grafton Barber. The family-owned company first hung up its pole in 1961 and is now the largest chain in both Ireland and the UK. Eliza learned from the best. Her colleague, a Ukrainian named  Dimitry, shared with her his passion for beards. I suspect she’d already mastered the banter, but her time in Ireland honed her skills even further.

‘I can jump on anyone’s mood’, she told me. ‘I can find something to talk about with just about everyone.’

In October 2018, the pair were ready to move on. Eliza wanted her summers back. Tom wanted to be nearer his native Wrocław. They headed for Budapest with the notion of opening their own barbershop. The Celtic Barber was born.

I’d passed at least five other places advertising haircuts and such for men on my walk from the Körút and wondered at the level of competition in the city. Tom quickly pointed out that there are barbers and there are barbers.

‘Many of them have no idea of the history behind the barber pole,’ he said.

Count me with them, I thought to myself, but I know better now.

Up until Pope Alexander III stopped the practice in the 1100s, monks and priests were the go-to people if you wanted some bloodletting done. Back in the day, bloodletting was seen as a cure for everything from epilepsy to the plague. Imagine having a vein cut open so that the bad blood causing whatever ailed you could escape. Some monks and priests used leeches rather than lancets – equally vile. Anyway, when the job was going abegging, barbers stepped up and became known as barber-surgeons. They’d give their patients a pole to clench to encourage the blood to flow faster, hence the pole; the red-and-white stripes came from the bloody bandages. All rather gruesome. Today’s iconic barber poles show that there’s a real barber in residence, someone who’s skilled with a razor, has mastered the skinfade, and knows their way around a beard. Cue Eliza.

Walking into their shop on Kiraly utca is like stepping into a little corner of Ireland. There’s beer in the fridge, whiskey in the press, and coffee on the table. The walls are full of Irish memorabilia. Sure anyone could do that, you might say. And yes, you can have kits of Irishness shipped anywhere in the world. But what’s harder to transport is the craic, the banter, the easy-going commentary that suggests we’ve been friends for years.

They’ve poured their hearts into the place and it shows. Between them, they speak Hungarian, English, French, and Polish. Over half of their clients are foreigners, a nod to the changing face of the capital. Many are Irish students, perhaps upping their game for the Budapest scene.

Eliza’s professionalism and her streak of perfectionism mean that they don’t need to advertise – their clients do it for them. That they’ve gone from zero clients to a client base that keeps Eliza and their other barber, Ben, busy for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week says it all. Walk-ins are welcome but to avoid disappointment, make an appointment. They’re so busy that they’ve work for three full-time barbers but with so many other shops in Budapest, the pickings are thin. And they need someone who knows their trade and can speak English, too.

Both of them speak with a certain wistfulness about Ireland and their lives there. They think of it as a second home. Indian author Anita Desai reckons that ‘wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow’ and Tom and Eliza are living proof that this is true.

I never thought I’d regret being a woman and not having a beard. I made an appointment for himself instead.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 February 2020