Shopping for Memories

Miss Clerke

In my post Going for the Messages I told you about rediscovering the shops of my childhood here in West Cork. Since then, Miss Clerke’s shop, lightly photoshopped but totally recognisable, graced the front page of the Irish Times Magazine as their illustration for their Ireland’s Best Shops competition. So it’s not just me, then. I’m not the only one with a nostalgia for the old-time shopping experience.

Evans of Bantry

In that spirit, I am revisiting a few of my favourites traditional shops. I have discovered two more shops like Miss Clerkes. First, there’s Evans, In Bantry. Proudly run by Miss Evans, it has the same look and feel of a place unchanged since the 50’s, although perhaps the pinkness of it all might be more modern. It has a lovely atmosphere – when I was in there a couple of kids were trying to decide how to spend their pocket money on sweets from the big glass jars.

MIss Murphy in her traditional shop

MIss Murphy in her traditional shop, Eyeries


Lunch is served outside

Lunch is served outside

On the Beara Peninsula we stopped for lunch at Miss Murphy’s store in Eyries and chatted with her about my Great Uncle who had married an Eyries woman. Since I couldn’t remember her name Miss Murphy was unable to help, but she tried, and she made us a delicious basket of sandwiches.

Some shops are a little puzzling – for example, P. Cronin Carpenter in Skibbereen. I’ve never seen it open and I’m not sure what it would sell if it did open its doors. The photo of the interior was taken through the window.

In Bantry one of the Undertaking establishments has a shop. At first I found this idea a little startling, but it makes a lot of sense once you come to appreciate Irish graveyard traditions, including how often people visit graves and leave tokens at them.

half holiday

Shops in Irish country towns follow traditional opening hours. They invariably close for lunch (1PM to 2PM) and generally follow a five-day-a-week opening schedule. This can mean they are closed, besides on Sundays, on Mondays – but other days are possibilities too. None nowadays follows the old tradition of the half day. Remember that? 

messenger bike

And remember how the groceries would be delivered – by a young lad on a messenger boy bike? You can still get delivery but now the messages come in a van.

Levis's Pub in Ballydehob: the traditional grocery section is still intact

Levis’s Pub in Ballydehob: the traditional grocery section is still intact

Of course, one of the traditions we remember about country towns was that of pubs also selling groceries or dry goods – whatever people needed. You went in for a pair of wellies and a dozen eggs, and took your ease with a pint on the bar stool, or a whiskey in the snug, before you left. Levis’s Corner House in Ballydehob has preserved the grocery counter. You can hear Joseph talking about it, and about the great history of this historic pub in the excellent radio documentary “Keeping the Door Open.” It’s about far more than just this one pub – it’s about a whole way of life in rural Ireland. A way of life that still lingers in West Cork…so far.


Going for the Messages

Inside Miss Clerke's, Skibbereen

Inside Miss Clerke’s, Skibbereen

When we were growing up in Ireland our mothers would send us up to the shops for messages. Clutching the coins she entrusted to us we would give the note to the shopkeeper, or recite what she wanted and he would duly hand over the message wrapped up in brown paper and tied with string.

Messages I remember: 10 Craven A, a yard of knickers elastic, 2oz of cheddar, 5 codeine, 1lb of broken biscuits, a packet of Bisto, a pair of brown shoelaces, a bottle of paraffin, a nice fresh piece of plaice.

Need a chamber pot?

Need a chamber pot?

Found it!

   Found it!

Nowadays we go off to the brilliant local supermarket (ultra efficient but with a wonderful variety of local produce) or the well-organized hardware store with its stocked and gleaming shelves, where the shopping experience is similar to that in Canada. But the shops of my childhood are still here too, in the small towns and villages. You can find hardware stores stuffed to the ceiling with everything you might need heaped in teetering piles. Ballydehob has one, My Beautiful Launderette, where we have dropped off our laundry and bought glue, mousetraps, nails, tools and flower seeds. In Bantry, when we can’t find the exact light bulb we are looking for in the airy modern electrical supply shop we can be sure to track it down in Vickery’s, a shambolic space loaded to the scuppers with kitchen ware, hinges, table lamps, shovels, and soap dispensers.

My Beautiful Launderette, Ballydehob

My Beautiful Launderette, Ballydehob

While modern boutiques abound in the larger towns, some clothing and haberdashery stores retain an old-fashioned charm, with most of the goods shelved in plastic bags behind glass-fronted counters.

Shoes, hats and First Communion dresses

Shoes, hats and First Communion dresses

Perhaps our favourite is Miss Clerke’s in Skibbereen. It is unchanged from the small grocery shops of the 1950s, with a little of everything neatly arranged around the walls. We go in there to buy bonbons – Robert has a liking for the apple-flavoured ones – although we have been out of luck lately. “The traveller,” she tells us, “hasn’t been able to get the apple ones for a while now.” We go home happily chewing on lemon ones (a ‘quarter’ in a paper bag) and fantasizing about life as a bonbon traveller.