Shop life snapshots for sale over the counter

UNDER threat from rampant commercialism, these are the people behind the small family-run shops and businesses that give Cork city its soul and character.

Fighting against 24-hour supermarket giants and bland shop brands, they have been captured on film by photographer Clare Keogh, 27, before they disappear forever.

With the help of a Heritage Council grant, the Cork-based photographer spent two years visiting the shops and chatting with their owners.

Using an old-style box camera, she captured the “human faces of capitalism” in evocative and mood-laden shots in their premises — some of which are more than 100 years old and which have been in their families for ten generations.

People like John Manley, saddler and harness maker in Blackpool, who sleeps in the bed he was born in and who uses his grandfather’s tools, and Breda Twomey of Twomey’s Grocery Shop on Barrack Street, set up by her parents 65 years ago.

“Some people might pop in if they have a problem. I listen, that’s part of the job. Lend my ear. They go out with an easier mind and they go out that little bit happier. I can take the time because I am my own boss,” she says in an interview which accompany all the photographs.

Others too like Robert Kane, a shoemaker in Fermoy, who opened his shop 30 years ago, who said: “I am like a priest, interested in saving soles.”

Mother-of-eight, Mrs O’Leary, of Saint Philomena’s Stores in Ballyphehane, recalls how she and her husband had a credit system so people could pay when they had the money.

“My husband couldn’t bear the thought of anyone going hungry,” said the sprightly octogenarian.

“Back then, people didn’t want as much, they got by on very little. I think people want more now.

“What is money — at the end of the day you can only eat one meal, and sleep in one bed at a time.”

And Lillian Clerke, who runs Clerke’s Grocery Shop in Skibbereen, said she wouldn’t know what to do without her shop.

“It’s my way of life. This type of shop of disappearing fast. It’s more of a social centre,” she said.

Clare, a daughter of UCC professor of history, Dermot Keogh, said the project was not just about making pictures, it was about understanding a way of life.

“I hope these photographs will act as a record for the shop owners and their families, and record their places of work which have anything but the sameness of modern retail outlets,” she said.

And she hopes government policies will change to protect such businesses.

Clare also hopes to expand the project next year and document similar shops all over Ireland.

There are more than 100 photographs in Over The Counter: Cork’s Retail Heritage. They were first published in the prestigious British Journal of Photography.

* Over the Counter: Cork’s Retail Heritage, published by Mercier Press, is on sale now, priced €35.


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