The Shop in the Town

By Brendan Smith, Ballinacree, December 2020

My rickety old bike struggled bravely on as I pedaled furiously with my tired legs up the hill at Glenboy on my way home from Oldcastle.  It was in the early hours of a Christmas morning almost half a century ago and I had just put in a very long day at work.  The battery on the old flash lamp that I had on the front of the bike was nearly run out but I knew I still had enough light from the full moon and stars overhead to see my way home and pick out the frost glistening on the roadway ahead. I had a lovely cake for my mother and a half dozen bottles of Guinness stout for my father on the back carrier and I was delighted that I had earned a few bob to afford to get them something for the Christmas.  It had been a very busy few days behind the bar and grocery of Owenie Traynor’s and when I got home I was fit for nothing but to hop straight into bed for a great night’s sleep. Christmas day was upon us and I could relax for one day at least.

I was very lucky to have that job in Owenie Traynor’s bar and grocery in the Square for the full duration of my days at school in Oldcastle.   I worked the Summer, Christmas and Easter holidays as well as every Saturday. It gave me a bit of money but more importantly it give me the confidence to deal with people in a social and business environment and to handle situations with tact and courtesy.  It also gave me the experience of encountering some wonderful once- off characters that I suppose frequent such premises the length and breadth of the country, or at least they did.

Owenie who sadly passed away two years ago took over the premises in the early 1970’s having purchased it from the late Sean O’Reilly.  Owenie was a very energetic man when he took it over, working seven days a week from morning to night, rarely stopping for a break. He was lovely to work with and was encouraging, supportive and kind to his staff and at the same time keeping everyone working hard.

I had worked for Sean O’Reilly from the previous year and Owenie kept me on board when he took over the premises.  Of course the hours were long – you could be on your feet from nine in the morning until midnight or later on a Saturday and your feet and legs would be sore but there was such an atmosphere and it was always busy so that the time flew past.

CarOne minute you could be out filling a gallon of paraffin oil, the next you would be loading a hundred weight of coal or a bag of pig fattening meal into the boot of a car. You could then come in and fill an order for a pound of ham or rashers;  no disposable gloves and not too much hand washing either. I am sure there was an aroma of paraffin off the ham on many an occasion.

A lot of the customers would have small holdings where they would have hens, pigs or calves, so small quantities such as a stone of layers mash or clarinda (a form of maize) would have to be weighed out and filled into paper bags; similarly with various pig and calf meals and nuts.

Once a week the CIE lorry would deliver a big wooden cask of Guinness stout.  Christy Plunkett, RIP, a great character who worked there behind the bar would come out and sit on a stool in the shed along with me to bottle the Guinness for sale.  Christy would bung a hole in the cask and insert a tap. He would then decant the contents of the wooden cask into dozens of brown bottles.   He would then pass the full bottles to me. My job was to cap the bottles with a capping machine and then stick on an amber coloured Guinness label with  “Bottled by Owen Traynor” inscribed on it.  We put the full bottles in a wooden crate and brought them in to the bar shelves.

Like most businesses the busiest and most exciting time of the year was the Christmas period.  This was when all the regular shoppers came in to get their order for the Christmas provisions. This order could be two or three times the normal weekly shopping,  containing as it did, the various fruits and spices for the Christmas cakes and plum puddings, jellies and tinned fruits, biscuits and cakes for the desserts and drinks of all descriptions.  Most of the shoppers were regulars who came in week after week for their full shopping and you got to know them on a personal basis. Many of them were from around Ballinacree.  Other similar shops in Oldcastle had their regular clientele too and generally the customers remained loyal to the one that they traditionally did their business with.

As I got more experienced at the job I would work away putting up all the customer requirements on the counter; some of the items would go into cardboard boxes,  others  would be put in brown paper bags or wrapped in brown paper off a big roll. This parcel would be tied around with twine that dropped down from a roll suspended near the ceiling. I learned how to tie it neatly round the parcel and then after a considerable amount of practice I could instantly snap the twine with a deft flick of my fingers. A great skill, no need for scissors there.

Before tally rolls from the till were invented the practice was that the whole order would be written out on a headed bill with the prices shown.  We added up the totals in our head and when finished passed it to the customer for payment or put it on the” slate” for those who had an “account”.

Of course, before the customer departed with their purchase there followed the annual ritual of the handing over of the “Christmas box”   This was expected to be received and the customer could not be disappointed.  Their future custom could depend on it.  I know that Owenie always agonised over what to give each customer- it was a delicate balancing act. So some customers got bottles of whiskey or sherry, others got a Christmas cake, a box of biscuits or chocolates or a couple of six-packs of Guinness.  It all depended on people’s circumstances and the size of their weekly order.  Owenie knew his customers well!  After a few moments of quiet expectation on the part of the customer Owenie would furtively root through a pile of parcels and boxes stored behind the counter and then emerge shyly with the gift and wish the customer a Happy Christmas. Of course the customer pretended to be surprised – “Ah you shouldn’t have, shure I didn’t expect that at all”  –  but they did.    I then carried the whole lot out to their Morris Minor or Volkswagen Beetle and packed the lot into the car boot for them

There was always great excitement on Christmas Eve and as the night progressed the crowds in the bar increased until it was packed with people, all happy in the Christmas spirit. The noise of conversation would be deafening and it was hard to hear the orders shouted in to you. This was the time around the change to decimal currency and it required a bit of nimble thinking to add up the cost of the drinks as you served them up  – The days of learning my tables at school weren’t wasted as I calculated the bill in my head.  Like a football umpire the secret was not to hesitate or be indecisive – right or wrong. Nine and sixpence you might shout out to the customer in the crowd knowing full well that there would be very few who would challenge your verdict especially on a busy night.

When you got the money and had given the change you had to make sure that you did a good job topping off the pint of Guinness. At the time this was an art in itself and you would be prone to severe criticism from the customer if you got it wrong.  In fact some people wouldn’t ask you to fill a pint if they though you wouldn’t fill it right.

Just before midnight there would be an exodus of slightly inebriated customers out the door and on their way to Midnight Mass.  Others continued on drinking into the early hours and they were quietly let out the small side door and wished Good Night and Happy Christmas.   There would be a few more busy nights to go such as St. Stephen’s Night and New Year’s Eve when the Brass and Reed Band played in the Square to ring in the New Year.

One of the great things about working there was that you got to know the personalities of the customers and how to keep them happy or to get them going with yarns or stories.  You got to hear all the gossip of the area; the details about births, marriages and deaths and even on occasions false reports.  I remember a particular case where someone came back to life having already been declared “dead”   Fake news I suppose.  The bar and shop was a continuous stream of conversation – who bought what land and how much he paid, or who is going to law over some row or other; all in the normal routine of pub life.  If I sat down and wrote about all the characters that I got to know there it would fill a book so maybe that’s for another day.

There is no doubt that an establishment such as Owenie’s provides a social service just as a post office or other businesses do in small town.  People, mostly men, came in for all sorts of reasons but mainly to enjoy each other’s company, to share their joys and sadness’s and to have a listening ear. Stories were shared, songs were sung and business deals made.

As for the grocery end of the business the days of locals doing their full weekly shopping in local shops would soon end with the likes of Lidl and Dunnes operating on tighter margins taking all that business.  People got used to the idea of being able to select  their own groceries rather than someone handing them everything over the counter as we used to do all those years ago.   Changing times and different customer needs.