Goodbye small-town ghost shop. Hello holiday apartment

Empty for decades, a shop-cum-pub in Kilrush, Co Clare, has a new life as a holiday home

Remember the terrible scene in the movie Brooklyn when bitter old shopkeeper "Nettles" Kelly invites Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) up to her sitting room to tell her that she's onto her secret? You can feel the oppression oozing from her heavy, old furniture and it's easy to imagine the life she's made for herself, twitching at the curtains, keeping an eye out for sin on the street.

Happily, there are few of these terrors left on Main Street, Ireland, but in many towns and villages what remains are empty shops and pubs that – according to one estate agent operating in a small town in the south west – "you just can't give away these days". Boarded up premises, often with a "ghost" name over the door and faded displays in the window, have been a familiar sight for decades as shoppers drifted away towards supermarkets and big multiples in the outskirts of towns.

In Kilrush, Co Clare, the first-floor drawingroom of the The Merchant's House, a Georgian terraced building in the centre of the town, is no hotbed of spite and gossip. With its airy feel and simple vintage furnishings, the apartment overlooking Market Square has been welcoming tourists, mainly from the UK, for the past three years. The two-bedroom apartment which was once home to generations of shopkeepers, is let out for about 20 weeks in the year. And now the ground floor, a former shop and pub, has been converted into another holiday apartment, complete with snug.

Now called The Merchant's House and Store, the building is owned by local businessman Paul Gleeson, whose family run a large household and hardware business on nearby Henry Street. The Gleesons have been in business in the town since 1960, at which point the Merchant's House was beginning a slow decline. There was a burst of excitement in 1963 when the Dubliners played a session in the back room of the pub, but five years later the bar closed, never to reopen. The building returned from commercial to residential use, and was lived in for the next 20 years. It was then acquired by the Gleesons and lay empty until 2010 when Paul took it on. He's enthusiastic about local history and he's an avid collector of "old things" and the two hobbies came to together in restoring the house, which has taken almost six years to finish from top to bottom.


“By 2010 it had reached a crossroads, and was in need of restoration, if it was to be saved.” Gleeson says. “Apart from the building, which had been little touched by the 20th century, I was drawn by the wonderful social history it had witnessed.” Built in 1811, the house was part of the development of the town by the Vandeleures, prominent landlords in Clare who virtually owned Kilrush.

The house was leased to a local milling merchant, Bartholomew Glynn, according to an elaborate legal document that survives. The Glynns, who were big employers in the town, held on to the building for more than 200 years, letting it out to two consecutive families. The first family were the Clancys who were connected to Gen Sir Thomas Kelly Kenny, apparently a friend of Edward VII and George V. The second family were the Ryans whose daughter, Katherine Ryan, was an opera singer who on her return home from singing engagements in London would preform to all in the Market Square from the first-floor drawing room window.

The building was modernised in the late 1880s and the ground floor was turned into a traditional shop and bar. In the mid 20th century the house passed through a number of other families including the McDermotts, whose son is the retired international golfer Joseph McDermott.


Gleeson restored the house in two stages, first tackling the upper floors, which he completed in 2012. The second stage, involving the original ground floor shop, began in late 2015 and has just been completed. The original shop fittings were recreated and period features restored where possible. The exterior got a coat of fashionable grey paint and the old Cadbury’s Cocoa sign was highlighted once again. “We held an open day last October and invited the local community to step back into the house, 48 years after it ceased to trade as a bar and shop . . . People loved it.

“When you walk in, I like to think you can imagine the parish priest walking in and having a chat. It looks the same now as it did then, and that is a great joy to me.”

Gleeson reckons that he spent around €130,000 in all on the refurbishment with family members helping him to do a lot of the work along the way. The upper floor attracts a rent of up to €600 a week and is rented out for up to 20 weeks a year.

The ground floor shop, with its Victorian ad for Cocoa over the front door, now has a long fitted kitchen behind the shop counter, while the original snug in the window is screened from passers-by with opaque glass. The old painted pine shop shelves are home to a collection of bottles and ceramics found in the house and collected over the years by Gleeson’s family.

"As a family we never threw anything out so when it came to furnishing the building we had a lot of things." he says. The bedrooms are furnished with mahogany beds and chests of draws, and gilt-framed prints of far away places. However, it's no museum piece and Gleeson has borrowed from different eras. The parquet flooring that runs through some of the rooms is salvaged from a school in Glasgow, and there are pieces of mid-20th-century furniture and and 1970s Irish pottery.

Gleeson received a grant of about €900 towards the restoration work and is proud of the project. “I have saved a building and though it might look like an ordinary building, it’s an extraordinary one.”

Buildings like these, he says are unlikely to return to retail use. “There is no demand for retail premises at this stage,” he says. “And to turn it into a modern shop would mean taking a way a lot of its character. But as a home it is unique. It would be great to see more premises converted. It might persuade people to move back into town centres.”