Cork newsagents MacCarthy’s shuts up shop after 105 years

After 105 years in business, MacCarthy’s newsagents in Clonakilty closes on Christmas Eve, writes Noel Baker.

Cork newsagents MacCarthy’s shuts up shop after 105 years

"I’ll tell you a story,” says Dave McCarthy. He has plenty of stories, some of them daily news. “Here every morning we have five fellas in,” he says, “early in the morning, before 8 o’clock, and everything is discussed, between religion, national, everything — insults thrown, compliments given, one fella will walk out, he’ll come back again the following morning... that kind of thing.”

There’s been plenty of “that kind of thing” over the past 105 years: the amount of time MacCarthy’s Newsagents has been open and running on the corner of Rossa St onto Pearse St in the West Cork town of Clonakilty.

Every brick and cranny seems to tell a tale, not least the sign itself over the door - ’MacCarthy’, even though the people running it are McCarthys. Dave says the man who did the sign, Tommy Tuipéar, thought the extra A was more aesthetically pleasing as the signage bent around the curve of the building.

“All McCarthys should find that missing A,” Tommy joked this week.

A more recent addition to the signage declares the shop has been in operation since 1912 — “more than 100 years in business”.

But this Sunday, Christmas Eve, trading will cease. The building at 63 Pearse St has been up for sale for three years, but at the age of 68, retirement is calling for Dave and his wife, Kay, something which also brings an end to a family tradition dating back to 1912 when his grandfather, Florence McCarthy, a local national school teacher, paid the princely sum of £450 to take it over.

“I don’t know how he did it,” says Dave, scanning the deeds which have been in the family’s possession ever since.

He also has an old ledger dating back to 1928 — by which time one famous past customer, Michael Collins, had sadly met his end — and pictures showing the shop in all its glory, with ropes and pipes hanging from the doorframe.

“It is always known as John McCarthy’s Corner,” explains Dave, referring to his father who worked there for 40 years before dying suddenly in the early 1970s. That sad event meant Dave’s return to Clonakilty from Dublin, where he had been studying agricultural science.

Alongside his mother, Kitty, who died earlier this year, and with the aid of family members and staff, the newsagents kept going.

J Mc Carthys Newsagent around 1922. In the picture are Nell Mc Carthy, and Miss O Donovan.
J Mc Carthys Newsagent around 1922. In the picture are Nell Mc Carthy, and Miss O Donovan.

“I never thought I would end up here and my father never thought he would either but he did because of circumstances,” says Dave.

“But I was happy with my lifestyle.”

And why wouldn’t he be? The shop continued and he taught science for the coming decades in the local community school.

He got married to Kay and they had four daughters, while Dave’s prowess on the football field resulted in an All-Ireland medal in 1973, the final famous for Micheal O’Hehir’s sing-song commentary as a Jagger-hipped Jimmy Barry-Murphy toyed with the Galway backline before popping the ball into the net (“Jimmy Barry on the 14, what’s he going to do.... It’s a goal!”).

“That was my worst game of football,” Dave says with a laugh. “I played for Cork for eight years and it was my worst game of football I ever played. I had just finished my final exams [that September] and there was another lad from Galway with me, Joe Waldron, and we were both... Now it’s no excuse.

"My daughter Niamh bought the video of the 1973 All-Ireland and I said ‘Niamh, if there’s any other game, fine!”

It was the first Cork football victory at All-Ireland level for 28 years and Dave’s uncle, Humphrey O’Neill, had been on the previous winning side in 1945.

“We had a very good team and we should have won a few more,” he adds.

He’s laughing, even as he recalls the car accident in 1979 that put him out for two years, and the injustices of 1976, when Cork were dumped out of the Championship courtesy of two disallowed goals.

“Looking back on it, they were happy years - playing matches, going up the country, and you know — they were great.”

The shop, a medium-sized edifice that catches the eye as you progress up through the town, was ever-present. According to Tommy Tuipéar, “it made up a ballet dance of buildings that are all curved” — the pharmacy on the opposing corner, Nuala’s Corner clothes shop, and a now-vanished building that used to form the point of Asna Square.

Dave’s old photographs also show that the aspect of the building has changed over time. “It used to be taller,” he says. That changed when the old IRA would take pot shots at the barracks at the top of the hill, sometimes falling short with the munitions and causing damage to the top floor. So it shrank in height a little.

Over the years it served as home to Dave and his siblings until they moved out and it became storage for the shop at street level, which in turn took the pulse of the nation and the locality every day of the week. As Dave puts it: “Every morning here, I get the good news and the bad news.”

This reporter has to confess to a personal interest in all this. Growing up not that far away, Clonakilty was ‘town’ and MacCarthy’s, alongside the equally well-stocked and beloved Meade’s up the street, offered windows onto the wider world. My mum would return some weeks with copies of Shoot, Match, and Roy of the Rovers — the holy trinity.

By the time I was in secondary school, Metal Hammer and Kerrang were occasional purchases, as I split my custom between MacCarthy’s and Meade’s. Struggling through Leaving Cert French I would pick up the odd copy of Le Monde and try and translate the articles on subjects I knew something about. Hot Press was secured every fortnight, plus the NME, Melody Maker, Vox, and Select, if finances allowed.

I’m pretty sure I made a stab at appearing cosmopolitan by buying Cosmopolitan, at least once. It didn’t work. I definitely bought a copy of the New York Times from MacCarthy’s, which, with its elegant curvature, is our own little version of Manhattan’s Flatiron Building.

The straplines, banners, and headlines blaring from local and national papers on the display rack would draw you in — a siren call, a sweet shop for news junkies, with the added bonus that it also sold sweets.

The shop, and hundreds more like it up and down the country, acted as a local information exchange for people passing by and as an advocate of the simple pleasures of pages between your fingers, the idea that printed words can communicate on a deeper level — or at least on a different wavelength — than video or audio or pixels.

The curved vestige will stay, but last weekend as the town hosted a festive school parade with stiltwalkers and snow machines and children dressed as elves, it was noticeable how the window of MacCarthy’s, always bricked in by all manner of toy tractors and matchbox cars, was starting to empty out. Spaces appeared where there were never spaces before.

“The amount of people coming in saying how they’ll miss it,” says Dave, “and the kids saying ‘where will we get our sweets?’

“We have had great staff here always, lovely people coming in. I would never regret it. We have had a local doctor coming over to us one time and saying ‘By God, I see you’re now prescribing.’

Some woman came in here with chest and cough complaints and one of the girls in the shop recommended her a particular cough mixture.

We had another time there, there was a woman who was going over to the chemist shop and she had such fun in the shop she said it was better than any tonic. We will miss that hugely.”

Sometimes it was a virtuous circle, selling the news to local people and occasionally getting something more than news back.

Kay McCarthy and Sheila McDermott serve customers, from left, Margaret Hayes, Marie Crowley, and Padraig Downey. Pic: Denis Minihane
Kay McCarthy and Sheila McDermott serve customers, from left, Margaret Hayes, Marie Crowley, and Padraig Downey. Pic: Denis Minihane

“I’ll tell you a story,” he says again. “My father and mother got married in 1947 and they went on their honeymoon up the country and they came back a week later and the spin they got back was with the Examiner van early in the morning.”

He is careful to pay tribute to his wife and to his daughters Niamh, Eimear, Áine, and Ciara, as being key to everything working so well over the years. Two of his daughters are now renting locally.

Given how the building has so far gone unsold, Dave’s tempted to do it up and turn it back to residential use. It would be a big job, but it might just be a labour of love, much like the endeavours of the last 46 years.

Tomorrow, with the end in sight, they’ll have a celebration and then on Christmas Eve they will close up early — “we won’t have much to sell”.

For the first time in more than a century, there’ll be no worries about opening on St Stephen’s Day. “People coming in and saying ‘what are we going to do’ — it pinches the heart,” says Dave, adding with a bittersweet laugh: “We’re nearly apologising for closing at this stage, but we just have to.”

As we’re visiting the shop two burly gents call in to politely ask if Dave is selling the cooler housing the cold drinks. He is — life moves on. Yet it’s a safe bet people will still tarry at MacCarthy’s Corner, exchanging news and views, like it was never any other way.

“I’ll tell you a story...” Over the years, through the people moving in and out and the papers sold over the counter, across all our yesterdays — they did.

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