Valentia shop reopens after 21 years

If the rest of the summer on Valentia island is anything like June, the ice-creams in Tony Walsh’s shop will be selling like — well — hot cakes.

Valentia shop reopens after 21 years

Which makes the timing right to reopen his shop in Knightstown after a closure of 21 years.

Valentia recorded its sunniest June in 74 years, with 265 hours of sunshine breaking the record last set in 1940.

Since the reopening last Tuesday, there has been a steady stream of people coming through the door, as much to see what a 1950s shop looks like as to buy anything.

While the inside has been cleaned, spruced up and freshly painted, the pitch pine counter is exactly as it was, just like the wooden sheeted walls and the floor to ceiling timber shelves.

Tony, an agile 93, opened the shop with his late brother Diarmuid in 1950. They ran it until Diarmuid’s death in 1993 and the following year, he decided to retire. That left only one shop on the island of 660 souls. When that shut in May, the idea came to Tony’s son, Donal, it might be a good idea to reopen. It would also give him a rest from decades of back-breaking work hauling lobster pots.

“I was reared over the shop but I avoided working in it as I was always more of an outdoor person,” says Donal who, along with his wife, Rosie, will run the business day-to-day.

“Rosie is from the Philippines and loves it here. She has a great personality and is well liked locally. When I told her what I had in mind, the thought it was a good idea. The shop is going well so far. We have had lots of support from locals and tourists alike so we should do well enough for the summer.”

Tony and Diarmuid opened the shop in a time of deep austerity. The heady days of the late 1800s when Valentia became famous as the location for the first transatlantic telephone cable from Europe to America was a distant memory. So, too, the once thriving slate quarry — since reopened — which adorns the Palace of Westminster in London and Paris Opera House.

Ironically, while Valentia linked the old world to the new, it was physically severed from the rest of the country — an island, off an island, off an island.

It wasn’t until 1971 that a bridge was built linking Valentia to the mainland. The ferry arrived in 1996.

“It wasn’t just groceries,” says Tony, who combined his work with active membership of the Valentia RNLI lifeboat. “We did hardware, too. We sold everything, from a needle to an anchor. There was no bridge and no ferry so everyone shopped locally. It meant that we had to get most of our stock in by boat so we were always looking out for the weather.”

The shelves that once groaned with porridge and cocoa and bottles of Bovril are the same today, although the fare on offer is a little more exotic. Reassuringly, there are bottles of YR sauce on sale, along with jars of boiled sweets.

You can still see some of the old stock as well, rescued by Donal when they began clearing out the shelves to prepare for re-opening. There is a row of shampoo marked ‘79p’ each but none for sale. Two bicycle lamps and the innards of a Thermos flask are stacked high, with no price because they are probably priceless.

That sight gladdens the heart of Declan Mulvany, an art gallery owner from Killarney, who has a holiday home on the island and goes to Valentia any chance he gets. He laments the island’s commercial demise.

“At one stage, there were four shops in Knightstown alone, including a butcher, and more in Chapeltown. Valentia was once the epicentre for world communication but now you can’t even post a letter there.”

Donal Walsh’s plan is to gradually wind down his fishing business and build up the shop. Can he do it? The elder Walsh launches a quizzical look in his son’s direction and, with a devilish grin, remarks: “Don’t you worry at all about that. I’ll be keeping an eye on him.”

Visit valentiaisland.ie

More in this section