Turtle Bunbury

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Vanishing Ireland
EILEEN HALL
Shopkeeper
Killevan, Co. Monaghan
Born 1924

My kinship with Mrs Hall’s shop in Killevan was serendipitous. Ally and I were due to be married in St Tighernach’s Church, Clones, on the afternoon of Saturday 20th May 2006. Six days before the wedding, Monaghan drew with Armagh in a close fought quarter-final match. A rematch was hastily arranged to take place in Clones on the very afternoon of our wedding. Unwilling to invite the expected crowd of 40,000 to our reception, we sought an alternative church. We came up trumps with a pretty church, merry as marriage bells, overlooking the village of Killevan on the road between Clones and Newbliss.

Mrs Hall’s shop lies directly across the road from the church. It is the solitary shop in the village. Born in 1924, this amiable spinster has donned her tea-coloured grocer’s coat and run the shop for the best part of forty years. The building dates to the 1840s and was originally a straightforward thatched cottage. Her grandfather Robert Leary made his money working on farms in Canada during the 1880s. He returned home and established the grocery in the early 1890s. A public house stood next door in the early days but, alas for our wedding guests, the alcohol licence was soon sold on. ‘When he died, his son took over’, says Mrs Hall. ‘Then my uncle Joseph had it, and when he passed on in 1970, it came on to me.’ Joe's memory is ingeniously preserved on the exterior of the shop where he trained the climbing ivy hedge to read ‘J’. Another uncle, Lance Corporal Fraser Leary, served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers in the Great War and was killed in the trenches of the Somme in July 1916.

Today the shop offers basic provisions– tea, sugar, bread and cigarettes. Behind the counter, timber shelves are sparsely bedecked with peach cocktails, custards, tuna, pear halves, baked beans, brillo pads and Aquafresh. In the window, three sun-bleached boxes of Surf washing powder confer beneath a can of fly-spray, a bottle of Dettol and a cylinder of cooking salt. Penny chews and antiquated stationary cling to the old grocery box drawers behind the cash till. A roll of postage stamps catches the eye from the counter top. To her right is a small cast-iron fireplace, turf burning to keep her warm, surely a rarity for any 21st century shop in Ireland. Other than the fire and a single, bald overhead bulb, the room is illuminated by the daylight that comes through the sash windows. Monaghan tends to be a rather dark county so it is as well she has the light-bulb.

It was not so long ago that all lamps in these parts were paraffin based. Certainly, paraffin was one of the shop’s big sellers in the 1940s and 1950s. The arrival of ‘the electric’ put paid to that, says Eileen, but it was not without controversy. Many of the older generation believed electricity was the devil’s work and refused to have it in their house. They preferred to live by the hours of the Celtic twilight.

Classic advertising posters adorn the walls. ‘Insist on Sunlight – So Kind to Clothes and Hands’. ‘Look Your Loveliest with Luxurious Nightcastle’. The Wills Woodbines tobacco poster seems particularly old world, given the quoted price tag of 10 and 4 pence for a pack of twenty. She used to stock a fair amount of plug tobacco but gave up when she realised that nobody in the parish smoked a pipe anymore.

In 1845, the Parliamentary Gazetteer estimated that the parish of Killevan comprised 4,933 Roman Catholics, 1,820 ‘Churchmen’ (ie Protestants) and 520 Presbyterians. ‘There used to be a lot more houses here one time’, confirms Eileen. ‘It was a much bigger community. But they were all tossed down, a hundred at one time. There wouldn’t even be fifty people here now’. Part of the problem was the decline of this part of the country generally. The Troubles were partially to blame but the closure of the railway line from Newbliss and Clones was also a terrific blow.

Most of the time, it is so quiet in Killevan that all you can hear are the rooks rustling in the treetops and the bubbling waters of the Davagh River pouring over the rocks nearby. But sometimes Mrs Hall’s ears are drowned by the sound of boy racers zooming up and down the road beside the shop all day long. She believes the lack of order in the younger generations is the fault of their parents. ‘They’re too busy working’, she says. Conversely, these young men clearly have ‘too much time on their hands’.

Rural shops like Mrs Hall’s will not survive for long in the present age. There are simply too many negatives stacked against them. The most obvious predator is the supermarket and the garage shop. ‘They have taken away from the small shops’, she says. ‘They have more variety and it’s very difficult to compete on price.

With thanks to Sean McQuillan and John P Graham.

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.