O'Connell Street, Ireland

 

ROSITA BOLAND begins a three-part series on our main streets with a visit to not-thriving-but-surviving Dungarvan, in Co Waterford.

HELEN BARRON is helping two customers at once, hurrying back and forth from the changing rooms. Helen’s Lingerie Boutique, a tiny shop whose shelves are crammed with carefully organised boxes, has been on O’Connell Street in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, for 25 years. “Customer loyalty is majorly important to my survival,” she says.

And surviving she is. Though business is down, Barron is optimistic about the future. Bras have been her bestseller over her quarter of a century in the shop. “Recession or no recession, we’ll always have boobs and bums,” she says with a laugh.

But Barron also worries about what effect the street’s vacant premises have on businesses such as hers. The shop next door, Mary Lee Fashions, was popular for many years. Then the owner died. The premises have been vacant for 18 months. “There was fantastic business being beside a boutique, and they were great people,” Barron says. “It doesn’t look good to be trading beside an empty shop.”

What’s happening on O’Connell Street in Dungarvan is being replicated around the country. With a population of 8,000, Dungarvan is a typical small-to-medium-sized Irish town. Its O’Connell Street, which runs from the central Grattan Square, is an atmospheric period street that displays conflicting signs of prosperity and hard times.

It’s impossible to ignore, for instance, the vast and empty landmark site, halfway down the street, where the Ormonde Hotel once stood. It was sold and demolished in the boom; planning permission was granted for a mix of retail and residential units. They were never built, and the site is for sale again.

About 80 commercial and residential premises remain on O’Connell Street. They include three bars and restaurants, two fast-food restaurants, six clothes shops, Barron’s lingerie shop, a music shop, an auctioneer, an art gallery, two butchers, two shoe shops, a dry-cleaner, a newsagent, a travel agent, a farm and garden shop, a quilting shop, the constituency office of John Deasy TD, the office of the weekly Dungarvan Leader newspaper, a derelict cinema, 24 houses, some unoccupied, and at least 13 commercial premises that are vacant, for sale, to let or derelict.

Andrew Quealy reckons his is the longest-established business on the street: his family has run it on the site, in one form or another, since 1847. He took over the existing bar in 2004 and expanded, adding a “fine-dining restaurant”, upstairs, that seated 50. It was busy for the first three years, with good reviews and a Bib Gourmand – a Michelin award for good food at moderate prices.

“I saw the decline beginning in summer 2008,” Quealy says. Four years ago main courses cost €30 or more; starters cost from €6; desserts cost up to €8. Christmas of 2008 produced the best business he ever did. Then bookings slumped.

“You have to reinvent the product in a downturn, and you must do it quickly,” he says. “We closed the dining room upstairs, moved the food service downstairs to the bar and made everything less formal. The waiters had worn uniforms and ties. Everything is much more casual now.” Today main courses start at €12. The upstairs room opens only for parties and functions; it had far fewer bookings last Christmas than in any other year.

“Our O’Connell Street used to be a microcosm of a town within a town; it was so vibrant and had everything,” Quealy says. He worries that “the street could end up vacant if the older traders leave. Rentals will plummet, and pop-up shops and fly-by-night shops will move in. Put it this way: we don’t need any more fast-food restaurants on this street.”

No shopping street ever remains static; premises will always be opening and closing. Some of the businesses that close permanently can continue to define a street by their absence, as they still occupy a place in a collective memory.

Quealy, like several other traders on O’Connell Street, talks at length and with regret about two much-missed businesses that are no longer on the street: a hardware shop and a furnishing shop, owned by the Curran family, that had stood at the Grattan Square end of the street since 1932. During the boom the Currans sold the businesses, and the new owners moved them to larger premises in a business park outside the town. By all accounts, the closure of such long-established shops was a shock both to the street where they had stood for decades and to the wider town. And the expanded hardware store recently ceased trading. “They got the timing wrong, but they were only doing what many others on this street were thinking about doing during the boom,” says Quealy. “It could have happened to any of us.”

Ned Whelan’s newsagent, which he took over from his parents in 1988, has a distinctive red canopy. He has lived over the premises since 1966. The shop sells newspapers, magazines, toys, cards and sweets. He has just turned 71.

“I don’t ever see this business continuing as it is when I close up shop. It won’t survive,” Whelan says, matter-of-factly. “You can buy papers anywhere now, and they were the core of our business. I’m only still opening up each day because I live over the shop, and I’m able to cope with the business, because it’s never that busy. I’m afraid there is too much retail space on this street. The empty shops are the proof of it.”

Michelle Ahern opened her children’s boutique, Muiri K, in March 2008. It had been something she had always wanted to do. “I love transforming kids into little butterflies,” she says. The clothes when she opened ranged in price from €220 for a coat to €170 for a dress for children aged between 18 months and four years old. They sold well, but since then new customers have told her they had been afraid even to come into her shop when it opened, because of its prices.

Today her most expensive dress costs €99 – still not an insignificant amount, but the price now includes matching tights and a hairband. She is leasing the building, and the landlord has dropped the rent. “I’ve had to adapt: I’ve had to find the same beautiful garments for customers, at a very good quality, but cheaper. They’re not cheap, no, but they’re clothes you wear, wash and pass on, and some people still want to buy those kinds of quality clothes. I’m positive about the future of the street. I have to be.”

Like many other traders, Ahern is opposed to the pedestrianisation of O’Connell Street – a subject of debate in the town. She regards passing motorists as window-shoppers and, therefore, potential customers. “If you don’t see something, you can’t aspire to it,” she says.

EYE-CATCHING VINTAGE photographs of Dungarvan hang on the wall of Capitol Cleaners, the dry-cleaning and alterations business that Ann Marie Rossiter owns and runs. Like Ned Whelan, Helen Barron and Andrew Quealy, who also own their premises, Rossiter says the fact that she doesn’t have to pay rent helps her business survive.

Rossiter is also a town councillor, so she has been able to take a proactive role in what has been happening on O’Connell Street. She was part of a campaign to have a mural painted on the hoarding of the former Ormonde Hotel site. “It still doesn’t look great, but it’s better than it was,” she says.

As another strategy to keep the town alive, Dungarvan has a gift-voucher system under which people can buy tokens of €10, €25 or €50 to use at any local business or service. In 2011, Rossiter says, €160,000 worth of vouchers were sold. “That’s money being spent locally and staying locally.” As she is explaining how the system works, a customer comes in for some dry-cleaning, and pays for it with a voucher.

During the boom a shopping centre was built on land that was developed behind O’Connell Street. You can get to the centre, which has a Dunnes Stores, an Eason and a cinema, along lanes from the road. Some traders say it has helped their businesses by attracting more shoppers to the area; others say they’re losing out because they can’t compete on price.

“If the shopping centre had been located out of town, or on the edge of it, it would have totally shut down the town,” says Rossiter. “I think there is now a very good connection between this street and the new part of the town. I wouldn’t say O’Connell Street is thriving, but I do think it is surviving.”

Eamonn Spratt is the third generation of Spratts in the family auction business. He is in no doubt that the centre has rejuvenated O’Connell Street. “I can’t stress the importance of the shopping centre being off this street, and how it has benefited people here.”

Spratt says property prices on the street peaked in November 2006 and “have remained in continual decline ever since” – they’re now only half what they were, he estimates. “But Dungarvan is a good, strong provincial town,” he says. “I am certain the vacant sites on this street will be developed, but I don’t know when. What would not be good for this street would be more closures in the meantime.”

As it happens, the owner of the Drawing Room quilting and patchwork shop has just told her regular craft class that she is closing down after 11 years. She is too upset to talk further.

Maurice Troy of Bob Troy Co has run a farm- and garden-machinery shop near the end of the street for 20 years; it is one of three that his father had owned in Co Waterford. He sells ride-on lawnmowers, chainsaws, generators and bicycles, among other items; he also rents tools. Troy has been in the business for 30 years. “Back then we didn’t even have a cash register. Everything was handwritten into ledgers,” he says. In the early 1980s his biggest sellers were motorcycles, particularly Honda 50s. “There were about 1,300 people in the area working at the Youghal Carpets factory, and people couldn’t afford cars, but they could afford a Honda 50 to commute to work. Which shows you, as bad as things are now, people are still able to buy second-hand cars.”

No single product keeps the shop open. “You wouldn’t live off any one of them,” Troy says, “but you put them all together and you just manage.”

He has a long-running Christmas bicycle club. Customers start paying into a savings fund in August, then come in during December to pay the balance. “This December I got a call from a customer I know well, who’d been paying into the club, and who told me she’d found the same bike for €30 cheaper in Waterford and was cancelling her order. I was shocked that there was no customer loyalty at all from someone I knew, or that she had no sense of supporting a local business. In the end, I split the difference with her. There was no margin of profit on that bike.” Troy sounds hurt, baffled and anxious about the future as he tells the story.

Two of his three staff are down to a part-time week. “I’ve warned the lads I might have to let one of them go altogether. I feel very bad . . . They all have young families. I feel the onus is on me to help keep these lads in a job.”

Maurice Butler, who owns a shop across from Troy’s, says, “The first thing you have to do on every street having a tough time is to clean it up. There’s nothing worse than the rest of the street dropping its shoulders when someone closes.”

Butler’s parents ran a grocery on the site, and his mother still helps out. “But Dunnes can sell stuff cheaper than we can buy it. So we had to change our business,” he says. Butlers now sells an unusual mix of goods. At the back you can buy pet food, birdseed and other pet-related items. Another section is done up to look like a traditional sweet shop, with 110 jars of old-fashioned confectionery. “The sweet shops are a trend. They’re popping up everywhere. I have a feeling they’ll pop down again in a while, but we’ll go with it as long as it’s a trend.”

There’s also a wedding-car rental service, and for the past four years the shop has had an ice-cream counter selling up to 24 flavours that are made in the shop window. Butler regularly travels to Italy for courses and likes to experiment with flavours. At Christmas he sold a mulled-wine sorbet and Christmas-pudding, brandy and custard, and mince-pie flavoured ice creams. Regular bestsellers are orange and chocolate, mint chocolate, and wild cherry. Word has spread in Co Waterford of the unusual ice creams to be had at the far end of O’Connell Street, and Butler now stocks take-away containers that keep the ice cream solid for up to four hours.

The premises on either side of Butlers are empty; one is a hair salon that is to let. “We’re going to paint both of them, to keep the place looking fresh,” he says. “And we’ll keep on improving our shop. We had a thriving street here. Now we’re going to keep our heads down and figure out a way forward, so that this street thrives once again.”

THE VIEW FROM O'CONNELL STREET

TODAY, MONDAY, TUESDAY

The Irish Times has visited three O’Connell Streets around the country to see how the streets, the towns and their people are faring in today’s Ireland. Today we focus on how trading is holding up in Dungarvan, Co Waterford.

On Monday Rosita Boland reports on a night on the town in Ennis, Co Clare. On Tuesday she talks to shoppers in Sligo.

These three towns are among the many with an O’Connell Street. You’ll also find them in Limerick, Clonmel, Kilkee, Waterford, Birr, Athlone and Kinsale – Daniel O’Connell was a popular choice for honouring during the renaming of numerous streets in the 1920s.

Ireland’s best-known O’Connell Street, in Dublin, was given its current name in 1924; Daniel O’Connell’s statue, punctured with bullet holes from the 1916 Rising, had stood on the street since 1882.