Sunday, April 02, 2006

Yesterdays behind today's facade

Looking at the sign on the supermarket promising a 'new way of shopping' soon, reminds me of how that particular shop once was.

When I was growing up, there were two separate shops on the site. One was a combination drapery/hardware, owned by my grandfather. The other was a grocery and pub owned by a pair of aunts of ours, Peg and Nora.

Each of which, to a small boy growing up in the early fifties, had enormous attractions.

The most important to me, in those very early memories, was the glass office that divided the drapery and the hardware shop, in which Grandad's book-keeper Miss Young was the real boss.

Every purchase in either part of the premises had a handwritten docket, which was presented to Miss Young with payment before the customer left the shop (unless they had the credit status to have their purchase 'put down in the book').

There were many attractions for me in going down to the shop, not least of which Miss Young apparently had a soft spot for me. Every day when I'd go in after school, she would slip me half a Milk Flake, twisted back into its original wrapper. I never wondered what happened to the other half, but in retrospect can only assume she ate it herself, because my piece had all the wrapper ...

It was a place of textures and smells, and on the hardware side -- overseen by the late Tom Keegan -- there were many wonderful things.

Such as the shining copper wire rabbit snares, hung from a nail on one of the posts that held up the mezzanine balcony above where stocks of all kinds were stored, accessed by a stairs that even today is strong in my memory as being exceptionally steep.

Those snares were simple things, a little stake of wood with a loop of copper wire noose. They worked when a rabbit would catch a leg in one set along a 'run' by those who knew how the little things fed at night, and when the noose tightened, there was no way they could be freed. The next morning, the setter of the snares would check them, armed with a stick to kill any that hadn't already died of fright.

OK, it may seem cruel today, but I know families whose parents and grandparents were absolutely dependent on the snared rabbits to feed their families. The tough times of little work and no social welfare safety net are not a long time back from the Celtic Tiger comforts.

Then there were the clay pipes, which were also strung together on wires. For those who still smoked them, they were important. For us children, they were great for blowing bubbles using a soapy water mixture. The strength of the soap was important, too much or too little didn't work, because this was before the detergents which rather later made bubbles much easier to achieve.

There was an aluminium 'cap' available for the pipe with holes in it that increased the smoking time, but with some skill on our part it also allowed the blowing of multiple joined bubbles.

The smells of the hardware were myriad. The cardboard boxes of nails and screws behind the counter had their own particular essence, and this mixed further towards the back of the shop with the taint of the iron oxide coating on slightly rusting 'loose' nails in boxes in the 'back store', accessible by one step up through an arch beyond the end of the counter.

In that store, things became much more pungent, mainly from the barrels of paraffin from which smaller containers were filled for customers whose lighting and heating, out in the country, depended on that fuel. Their radios also depended on the acid in glass containers in the same store, from which the 'wet cells' were refilled weekly so that they could listen in to Radio Eireann, and very importantly the commentaries on the weekend football games. The acid had its own stringent scent, which I fancy I can still 'nose twitch' today.

There was a large metal lever-balance scales just inside the archway into the back store, primarily used for weighing out sacks of seed and other stuff. We youngsters used to delight in weighing ourselves from time to time, in the process upsetting the calibration and Tom Keegan at the same time. But we were 'the Boss's' grandchildren, and fairly untouchable.

The back store had a door out onto the 'back lane', and across that were two open shed areas, in which was stored more bulky stuff behind the iron gates that protected them. These included long lengths of various-diametered steel, and angle-iron, and there was also a coal store and a closed in place where coffins were stored ... my great-grandfather was a carpenter who made coffins as well as buildings, and that was the start of the family's involvement in funeral undertaking. A business that has only recently ceased with the untimely death of my brother Des.

Back inside, the drapery side of the business was operated by the Misses Mayne and Duffy, and probably wasn't that much of interest to us youngsters. Except at Christmas.

That was when the toys came out, and I still have vivid memories of the big display in the drapery-side window, and the even bigger one in the shop itself.

It was a time when travelling even to Dublin was a major thing, and only by bus for most people. There were no shopping centres, and no specialist toy shops. Several shops in town did the Christmas toys thing, but the main one was Byrnes drapery, and to a child of the time the shop was a magical place.

To us Byrne children it was even more magical, because we took the chances to play with many of the things on offer, to the regular consternation of the Misses Mayne and Duffy (who were lovely people, by the way) who had to tidy things up afterwards.

But outside Christmas, a drapery business in a town like Kilcullen was important for the same reasons as was the toys business ... it was a more major operation to go to Dublin, or even Naas and Newbridge, at the time than it is today. For shirts, jumpers, shoes, jackets and coats, and work clothes too, everybody shopped locally. That the town supported so many drapery establishments -- Byrnes, Kennys, Bardons, Maloneys come immediately to mind -- is a reflection of that.

And I particularly recall a wide selection of Wellington boots ... how many people ever wear wellies today (and at that time all of them were black, made by Dunlop I think).

Accessories were important stock too ... ribbons came as rolls of many widths and colours, and I have recollections of rooting through drawers filled with buttons on cards, and similarly carded hair slides. Not because I needed them, just because they were there. There were also shelves of caps and berets, in various colours and sizes.

The shoes section had none of the designer stuff we're familiar with today, no Addidas or Nike trainers. Strong brogue shoes for men and women and children, and, in summer, sandals for children. All stacked in their cardboard boxes with a picture of the contents on the end.

The availability of shoes didn't mean that everyone could afford them. When I started in school, the barefoot pupil was no longer an issue, but I do remember friends with holes in the soles of their shoes. Heck, I remember when I got holes in my shoes, but I was lucky that my parents could afford to get them repaired.

I started this piece on the basis of a small observation. As I wrote it, memories I had forgotten came flooding back. That doesn't surprise me, because as a writer I know that every word written generates another, or two or three. And words are the vehicles on which memories are maintained.

But it is time to stop, and I've only dealt with one of the shops that were on the site of the current supermarket.

I'll come back to the other one, owned by the aforementioned aunts Peg and Nora. Believe me, it is fascinating. Well, to me, at least.

And as a result of this post, there came from my beloved cousin Marella Fyffe (Uncle Tom's daughter), a copy of the old Byrne & Co letterheading (above), and the following memories of her own:

"One thing I remember about Tom Keegan as a little girl, that he could make the most wonderful brown paper packages, containing exciting of things, tied up carefully with brown string that hung from the roof of the hardware, and that he was actually able to break it without using a scissors. No matter how I practised the technique I was never able to do it.

"Do you remember the long white candles, and the pile of potatoes in the back store that had to be weighed, or the way they were able to cut glass, like magic to a five-year-old. Do you remember the squeak of the wooden boards and the heavy black folding irongate that had to be pushed open everyday? Do you remember? Do you remember?"

Indeed I do. BB

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