The Irish Local Shop
The Irish local shop
The Irish local shop was once a phenomenon in Irish culture and globally. The phenomenon of it was its diversity. It could have been in a sitting room, a pub or a stall at a crossroads or even on the cart behind the horse. The variations alluded to your location and era.
Our own shopkeeper
The local shop holds particular significance to us at Lee Valley because my mother and grandmother were the local shopkeeper's in Ballingeary village. Remnants from her local shop are still a part of our lives. The scales she used daily has been restored and are located in our showroom. Fond memories have become family folklore: butter being weighed out and wrapped for customers, cigarettes sold individually, milk being bought and empty milk bottles being returned, everything had to be wrapped in paper to be carried home. Happy days...
Inside the shop
The front counter – proportionate to being a young lad in short pants – was very high. On top of the counter was a stack of paper. The wall behind was shelved to the ceiling, housing anything and everything. The shelf at counter level was deeper than the others. The weighing scales sat there proudly. Beneath the front counter was a shelf, on it sat the money box. The money box was often an old cigar box or an empty tin. There was a door from the sitting room into the shop, the upper half of this door had two panes of glass with a net curtain. This was very convenient to see who the next customer was. Customers used to just knock on the counter to gain the attention of the shopkeeper, some shop counters and front doors had a bell.
Many twentieth century pubs and shops in rural Ireland have many similarities – the high counter, shelving to the ceiling behind the counter, a door from the living area into the bar or shop and a cigar box as a cashbox. Another feature of the local shop was a painted half window inside the front window of the shop. As electricity was unheard of until the 1970s, a window was essential to flood light into the shop. The inside half window allowed the light into the shop and also provided a semblance of privacy to the shopkeeper.
The very start of the whole shop movement were the peddlers. These craftsmen traveled the country selling their skills and products as they traveled. Before the local shop was a stationery thing, there were markets in the towns and before that stalls would have been set up at the crossroads on a particular day. The Romans have the kudos for being responsible for the physical shop building. They may not have had windows but they had shutters and doors. In many cases the shutters doubled as a counter. The evolution of the shop is very interesting and will take you on a journey around the globe. Because we have a connection with one shop (Denis’ Grandmother) in the twentieth century and so close to home, we will stick to Ireland.
In Ireland markets were the most popular and sociable way for traders to meet and trade products as well as gossip. Some of the stall holders were locals, some regional and a few were national. Bigger towns would have their market day coinciding with their mart day. This was to oblige the rural customers and traders, they would have to go to mart and this way they could go to market too. It also offered more choice to customers by having more traders on the day.
The bigger towns had a general stop. These stocked a bit of everything from buckets and tools to thread and food. They were hardware, household and grocery shops all in the one shop. It was from these general shops that the local shop stemmed. People did not have the use or comfort of a car to run to the shop for a few groceries, they had to plan and shop in bulk on a weekly basis. Initially the local pub started to sell essential items such as eggs, milk and bread. Over time the products available grew to include more and more items. In some cases, the pub owners’ wife and daughters would open a shop in their front room next door to the pub.
Demise of the local shop
As cars became more popular and affordable, people traveled to towns and cities on a more regular basis. There they could shop more economically. People needed to fill their cars and tractors with petrol and diesel, this led to shops putting a fuel pump outside their premises. Later garages were built by national fuel companies and they incorporated a shop for their customers. It was easier to make one stop for fuel and groceries than two separate stops. Ultimately these progressions in society are what caused the demise of the local shop. I am glad to say some towns are lucky enough to still have a local shop to fulfill their grocery needs.
- Lisa Twomey