Family shops in Mayo on their challenges: ‘At one point council rates were almost €20,000 a year’

Family-run businesses in Castlebar and Westport are staying optimistic as they fight against what they feel is a lack of official support

Helena Parsons and Annemarie Gaughan of Don Racine in Castlebar, Co Mayo. Photographs: Michael McLaughlin

Helena Parsons has a treat every Saturday morning: solving The Irish Times crossword as she stands behind the counter of her family-run boutique in Castlebar, Co Mayo. She may be the face of Don Racine, her well-known business family’s destination shop – particularly for mothers of the bride and older women – but her mother, Margaret, is still the matriarch. When well enough, Margaret still comes into the shop she established with her late husband, Michael Parsons, in 1981 and sits beside the counter, reading her newspapers and chatting to long-time customers from Achill and Belmullet, Galway and Sligo.

After all, the septuagenarian was just eight years old when she ordered her sisters and brothers to carry the dresser from their little farmhouse in the village of Coolanabina, under Nephin mountain, down to the road to set up her first shop.

Michael, known locally as Mickey P, was reared over another shop, Parsons shoe shop, which is still owned by other members of the family.

I have four adult children, and three of them have gone to Australia. The new reality is that their age group buys online or in chains such as Penneys or Zara

—  Helena Parsons

When Margaret and Michael, who was Mayo Man of the Year 2015, met at a Garda dinner dance, she was running her hairdressing business at the end of town.


“After my parents got married in 1967, Dad suggested expanding the family shop to include more trendy women’s fashion, like miniskirts and flared jeans. My mother’s eyes lit up. They were like the Posh and Becks of Castlebar flying off to Paris, Milan and London to buy clothes,” says Helena.

As she and her two brothers grew up, their parents decided to branch out on their own. In 1981, Don Racine was opened by Michelle Rocca, who was Miss Ireland at the time.

“The shop was always part of our lives, and when I’d come home at the weekends from boarding school, you wouldn’t get away without a Saturday working; and after I finished school, I was here full time,” says Helena.

'It really makes a difference to business when the council allows free parking over the Christmas period. They could easily do more of that.' Helena Parsons in Don Racine, Castlebar, Co Mayo. Photographs: Michael McLaughlin

“They were the good times, when there would be a queue up around the corner of Castle Street when we had a sale. We’d have to lock the doors and allow people enter the shop in small groups as they would be snapping stuff out of each other’s hands,” she says.

Helena, an optimist despite the many contemporary challenges, is also realistic and well-used to booms and busts.

“I have four adult children, and three of them have gone to Australia. The new reality is that their age group buys online or in chains such as Penneys or Zara.”

This was crystallised during the pandemic but big challenges began a decade earlier, when Castlebar, the county town, had a whole “new quarter” of shops open, including Shaws, Dunnes Stores, Pamela Scott and more.

Shutters come down on Westport shop after nearly 100 yearsOpens in new window ]

“We had to close the upstairs part of the shop during Covid to reduce our overheads, particularly county council rates, which at one point were almost €20,000 a year,” she says. However, overheads such as rates, electricity and insurance are still about €1,000 a week, not including wages.

The ethos among shopkeepers is supportive, but Helena feels the county council could do more to support shops that are key to the integrity of the town.

“It really makes a difference to business when the council allows free parking over the Christmas period,” she says. “They could easily do more of that, and it is something I’ve been saying to candidates in advance of the local elections.”

The days of queues around the corner may be long gone but Helena and her brother, Martin, who looks after the financial and social media aspects of the business, remain optimistic about surviving the vagaries of the economy.

The only trouble, says Helena, is when Martin steals her Irish Times to read David McWilliams’s latest musings about the economy.

Mary O'Brien Chambers of John O'Briens on Shop Street, Westport

On the surface, the economic picture looks very different in nearby tourist hotspot Westport. Like the Parsons in Castlebar, the O’Brien family own their premises and have been synonymous with a number of shops in the town since the early 1960s.

It all started when the late John O’Brien and his young wife, Colette, opened a pub and grocery shop on Altamont Street, above which their eight children were reared.

“Then in the early ‘70s my parents rented this shop here from the Browne family and developed a general haberdashery, with men’s and women’s clothing as well as fabrics,” says Mary O’Brien, who runs the shop with her husband, Frank Chambers.

It was in this premises that John Lennon of the Beatles signed the deeds for the Clew Bay island of Dorinish, which he bought in 1967. Michael Browne, whose family lived over their shop at the time, was his solicitor.

“Tourism was just beginning to take off around then, but the shop primarily catered for locals from all over the west of the county, from Achill to the other islands and down towards Leenane. Fair Days were the big busy days and a lot of credit was still given “on tick”.”

Mary says it was around this time the Americans and German sea anglers began to visit Westport as a number of family-run hotels and restaurants began to open.

“Back then the tourism season was like night and day,” says Mary. “It would start in June and finish in September. Visitors used to buy the traditional Aran sweaters, sheepskin rugs and linen tablecloths. Nowadays we have visitors all year round, with active retirement groups, who travel in big groups on the train, an important part of our trade during the low season. They love to buy the little woollen ponchos or hats and cardigans for their grandchildren.”

I don’t think we would survive if we weren’t in a tourism town

The John O’Brien shop is always evolving to suit the changing interests of their customers, both local and from abroad. It is a haven for knitters and crocheters, and a treasury of quality, Irish-made woollen garments, as well as laminated rolls of tablecloths, raingear, cushions, slippers and hats.

“Our clientele tends to buy more merino or cashmere wool nowadays as they are lighter and don’t cause allergies like the heaver wools originally used for the Aran patterns,” she says. “We also provide school uniforms for the Sacred Heart School here in the town.”

She adds: “I don’t think we would survive if we weren’t in a tourism town, though.” She cites the fact that their county council rates doubled in one year.

“Since the disbandment of town councils, business people in Westport have been penalised because they think the town is very busy, so it is up to us to subsidise the other towns in the Westport-Belmullet Municipal District.”

Despite the rising costs of running an independent retail business, she is optimistic about the future.

“There are so many good days like the time the actor Julie Walters, who starred in Educating Rita, came in to buy an Aran jumper. Her parents were from Co Mayo and her mother was an O’Brien, so she was hoping we were related to her.”

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