Pat McCarthy's decision to open a small shop was more of a statement of community defiance than a commercial punt, but business is booming, writes Tony Leen
Outside Pat McCarthy's Halfway Shop in Ballymacelligott, the owner is trading news and smiles with two neighbours and delivering that solemn, now patented, pledge.
"Call back tomorrow and I’ll have them for you," he says with a conviction that leaves neither lady doubting he’ll be good to his word.
Locals proffer advice on what they see as necessities and add a few delicacies on the open pages of Pat’s ideas notebook. Within 24 hours, they’re invariably on the shelves. From sellotape to sherry.
“I've a bit of a thing for 'Catch' bars and within two days they were on the shelf,” confirms Heather Groves-Sugrue from nearby Gortagullane. “They stock everything from Castlegregory carrots to the daily papers.”
That so many of his suppliers are native to the parish not only accelerates delivery but accentuates the reassuringly indigenous feel of this unlikely success story.
The old glass bottles of milk and cream from Chris Maloney’s Ballymac Dairy, ‘real’ honey from the O’Sullivans and the McNultys, freshly-made coleslaw and creamy pasta from Con Leen Salads, Kay’s Scones, Dan’s bakery, Pa Walsh’s fruit and veg. Local eggs and jam joust on the shelves with briquettes, stamps and apple tarts.
Mass cards signed by the parish priest alongside reusable cotton facemasks, manufactured locally and selling out at €4 each. The sheet of prayers and parish news from lock-downed church masses in Ballymac and Clogher greet visitors at the door.
Where the coronavirus has scorched earth across the country’s high streets and town centres, a unique set of circumstances have provided an unlikely environment for small ideas to win big.
It would be a neat narrative to suggest that the pandemic has driven fearful communities from the malls and retail giants into the arms of the local crossroads store. But it would only be part-true in the case of McCarthy and his Halfway Shop.
The virus hadn’t been heard of and he was less in dread of the venture failing than he was the sound of silence at the heart of his native parish. Opening his small, everyday shop was more a statement of community defiance than a commercial punt.
Ballymacelligott is halfway on the road from Tralee to Castleisland, covering most of the 11 miles of hinterland between.
The townland of Ballydwyer was once its hub with three shops, a post office, the creamery and Twomey's Halfway Bar and fuel pumps. The bar has been idled by the pandemic, the remainder fell the way of so many rural businesses when a big road ran through it.
Small, everyday stores don’t just define and protect a community. They provide an anchor, a place where news and money are re-circulated, where word of deaths and ailments are corroborated, where weather is interrogated.
They are anchors and harbours all at once and their loss is as much psychological as it is economic.
When Ballymac’s post office closed after 70 years on December 21, 2018, nothing remained save the bar, which didn’t open til dark. And that scared Pat McCarthy, who, until recently, spoke for the community as a Fine Gael county councillor.
He had watched a once vibrant parish quietened. Where once the post office, creamery, two shops and the parish’s first pub busied the crossroads, now the place was stilled, save the sound of cars passing fast on the new road.
“The parish had 11 shops at one time,” McCarthy explains.
“The first shop to close was O’Connors in Maglass in 1969. Browns shop in Clogher closed in the early 1970’s. The creamery closed ‘as a creamery proper’ in the early 1980’s. The Lane family across the road there stopped trading in 1990 but the Clifford family took over the shop and remained open for another 10 years before closing the door.
"Therefore, it was a big shock when the Mannix’s announced they were closing the post office up the road there after 70 years.
“When it went, we felt one of the last key pieces of infrastructure was gone. Our sporting organisations are doing a great job bringing unity to the parish, but it is vital for a community to have a local shop, a pub, a meeting place. You never miss the water until the well runs dry.”
The Halfway Shop venture is as understated as one might imagine.
It has little to recommend it from an aesthetic point of view and if there is a nod to the pandemic, it is the one-way entry and exit system carpentered by Pat of all trades in recent times.
It is a repurposing of the original house attaching to the pub opened by Maurice and Margaret Twomey in 1967.
Where the shop counter sits was once the kitchen table around which the Twomey family ate dinner and regurgitated the news pouring in from the bar and down daily from the creamery.
“We opened the shop on the 22nd of December 2018 with just a few basic essentials,” McCarthy says. “The reaction was varied, most of my immediate family thought I was gone totally bonkers.
"Their concern was that I would lose money but my grand-daughter Caoimhe -who now works in the shop- thought it was a great idea. We built up the stock gradually and appreciated advice and suggestions from our customers.”
On Friday morning, as locals came and left with their bags, there was universal agreement that, initially, the venture made little economic sense. Though many in the parish understood McCarthy’s motivation, it has taken the curse of the virus for them to properly appreciate it.
“Pat’s commitment to the people of Ballymac didn’t start with pandemics and lockdowns,” Anne O’Sullivan, from Ballydwyer, points out.
“As our churches are currently closed and weekend masses are suspended, the Halfway Shop is now the parish centre point where we get to meet neighbours."
"It’s nice to fly in the face of modern political thinking which promotes urbanisation and anonymity.” Chris Maloney, who owns Ballymac Dairies, concurs.
“It's like that movie Field of Dreams - if you build it, they will come. If I could get the space, I would love to relocate my creamery nearby as well.
"In terms of the Covid crisis, you can see that the shop has become even busier. It’s a bit of normality.
"You rarely see someone take a risk purely for the benefit of the community.”
Maureen O’Shea is shopping at home too. “The local shop has become this enormous gift to our community,” the former Kerry GAA PRO explains. “When the Covid-19 precautions were introduced, Pat ensured physical distance was observed, adding a new door to ensure we had one-way traffic. A perspex glass for staff and customers was erected on the counter and we had a station with hand sanitisers. It gave us all a great sense of security. Plus, it’s nice to be greeted in the morning by ‘Hello, Sunshine’ when one is feeling far from sunny.”
Pat McCarthy leans against the open boot of his car and reflects on this community reawakening.
“Covid-19 has definitely improved business in the shop with people avoiding the big supermarkets.
"The Local Link bus in Ballymac is doing a great job collecting groceries from the shop and delivering them to people’s homes.
"This pandemic has made people rethink about the way we look at life and our planet. Sometimes we need to stop and reflect. To that end we believe that people will appreciate their locality, their neighbours and their local facilities.”
Over the space of a couple of morning hours, delivery vans whizzed in and cars wheeled out of the yard with cardboard boxes in the boot, bags in the front seat.
"I found it uplifting to hear the banter and chat between Carol (Daly), Caoimhe (McCarthy), and the customers. A lot of people are feeling anxious at the moment about how long this socially-challenging and life-changing experience will continue,” said Pat Dowling of Maglass.
“This small social service is improving the wellbeing of those most in need of a chat, especially those living alone.”
The silence has left the locality.
"Call back tomorrow," Pat McCarthy tells Mary Bonn. He’s on the phone then to Sheila Barnes of Kylebeg. “That’ll be dropped up soon to you.”
Next door, the Twomey sisters are painting their mother’s wall. Neighbours walk over from the Handball Alley cross and the old main road for the morning paper.
Two hundred metres away, past the old post office and up towards Clogher's school, church and graveyard, Joe Galvin's field is being rotovated, the groan of the diggers audible as Friday morning clears its throat.
And the most important sound of all is barely heard but discernible nonetheless through the parish.