Callan calling: a street that acts as a bridge to the past

The Street: A new series examines the life of four streets in Ireland. First we go to Bridge Street in the Co Kilkenny town, which is being brought back to life by locals

Bridge Street in Callan, Co Kilkenny, was once so busy with traffic that it could take 10 minutes to get through it. This is how Etaoin Holahan remembers it when she was a schoolgirl.

“It was the main road from Dublin to Cork until the bypass. I remember trucks getting stuck on the bridge and people having to go and ford the river somewhere else in their cars,” she says.

The street comprises Upper and Lower Bridge Street, joined in the middle by the lovely stone bridge, under which fish are jumping and birds swooping. The street is hugely atmospheric, with many untouched period facades, and shops that have now closed and remain empty and undeveloped. Parts of it look as they have been created for a film set; and indeed, the street has been so untouched for decades that parts of the 2006 movie Breakfast on Pluto were filmed there precisely because it looked like a film set.

Holahan is now running one of the few remaining businesses on the street, Fennellys. It used to be a bar, grocery, dairy and undertakers, and was a key hub of activity on the street. “During the 1950s, it was an egg store too, where women would sell eggs to make extra money. Cattle were brought over the bridge twice daily and milked at the back. There were milking stalls under the barn.”

Fennellys had been closed for years by the time Holahan’s father, Billy Gardiner, bought it almost a decade ago. “The buildings on this street are like they have been preserved in amber,” she says. “Bridge Street has suffered great dereliction as a result of the bypass and the Celtic Tiger. Some buildings were bought and had their insides scooped out. He didn’t want that to happen to Fennellys.”

Fennellys is no longer an undertakers, dairy, egg depository or even a bar. It is, as Holahan explains, “a space where people can come and have conversations. Things are happening here again, and people come because they are curious.”

The interior remains more or less as it was, with the striking addition of old furniture, fittings and esoteric decorations sourced by Holahan, who has a master’s degree in curation. She runs events here, such as film nights, with dinners. Bands sometimes play outdoors beside the old barn. Her most recent event was a burlesque night for 70 people, with cabaret and film projections.

Bridge Street used to have Pollards drapery, a bookie, a shoemaker, a greengrocer and a butcher’s shop that was run for three generations by the same family. The butcher used to deliver meat by horse and cart across the locality and closed relatively recently. People lived above their shops and businesses. The street is rich in social history, and its built fabric remains virtually untouched and undeveloped.

Social history

Equinox, a Callan-based theatre company, captured some of Bridge Street’s invaluable social history in the summer by opening a pop-up cafe on the street in a former chemist’s shop and offering tea and coffee in exchange for stories about the street.

Next June, during the town's Abhainn Rí Festival, Pat Kiernan of Corcadorca will direct a site-specific piece of theatre that will take over the entire street, based on the stories that have been collected.

Jimmy McCormack owns the building that Equinox used during the summer, and he lives upstairs. “This street hasn’t changed since the 1930s,” he says. “Bridge Street is so special because of the character of the buildings and their plasterwork. They are unique, especially with the river beside them.”

McCormack believes that, for the street to survive, it must think differently about the kind of businesses it could support. “The time of the small grocery is gone.”

Kilkenny is famous for its craft and has several craft hubs in the county, including the city itself and the villages of Thomastown, with its craft school, and Bennettsbridge, home to Nicholas Mosse Pottery. McCormack thinks the street could look at becoming a showcase for furniture restoration and other craft-based trades.

The artist Tony O’Malley, who died in 2003, was born on Bridge Street. There is a commemorative plaque outside the house in which he was born, which has been running as a residency for visual artists for three years.

“The front of the house used to be a shop, selling everything from flour to fishing tackle,” says Jane O’Malley. “There was a lending library here too.”

After Tony O’Malley died, the house was renovated to make a beautiful living and working studio space for artists, who can apply for a residency on the street for a token fee. The residency is administered by the RHA [Royal Hibernian Academy]. “It means there is other people living and working on the street and contributing to the life of the place.”

Benny and Mary Grogan’s two Jack Russells, Jasper and Misty, have their own residency on Bridge Street. The two dogs have a bed in the large window of the off-licence and bar run by the Grogans, and their canine antics entertain the passing trade.

This building used to be the Adelphi Hotel and part of it was also a dispensary. "Twenty, 30 years ago, in the showband era, the hotel used to get all the big bands here," says Benny Grogan, showing off the vast lounge space with its high, grand ceilings. The Grogans bought the place 11 years ago, and they also run a B&B.

“It has got extremely quiet in the last few years,” he says. “Business is down at least 75 per cent in the last five years.” This year, the B&B was full no more than five nights during the entire summer. “We’re trying to keep the street alive.” They open every day. “I wouldn’t think about opening less; we have to try and get them in when we can.”

Fancy bread for six generations

Keogh's Bakery is a family business that has been on the street for six generations. It is still thriving. The landmark corner building has a distinctive facade promising "fancy bread" and featuring green tiles with images of sheaves of wheat. Billy Keogh is the latest family member to live and work in the bakery, which was been operating since the mid-1840s.

His father, John Kevin, continued to do the books for the business almost until his death, aged 93, this year. At the time of his death, John Kevin was the oldest Callan-born resident still living on the street.

Cast-iron oven

The shop’s facade was put up in 1933, which is also the year the quite remarkable black cast-iron Matchless oven was installed. It is still in use every day.

“It takes 18 dozen loaves,” says Keogh. The bread is placed directly on the oven floor, which gives it a unique flavour. He recalls that when he was a child, trucks would bring flour from the local mills, which are all now closed. “The coke came from Kilkenny to keep the ovens going.”

In living memory, the best-selling bread at Keogh’s has been their turnover bead, or “rustics”. “It’s like white batch with thick crusts,” says Keogh. “Five miles up the road, the same kind of bread is called ‘grinders’. That’s because the crust on them is so thick that you’d have to be grinding when you were chewing them.”

He recalls traffic jams lasting up to an hour on the bridge and a time when most people lived over their shops. “There were seven children in this house, five next door, seven alongside. There are still people living on the street, but there are no children living here any more.

“I am afraid that small shops are going to be a thing of the past, especially in small towns like ours. I’d love to see more footfall on Bridge Street and more people living on the street; that’s what will keep it alive.”

TWO-WAY STREET

We want to hear the stories of how a street in your locality has changed for better or worse. Email thestreet@irishtimes.com with your memories and observations.

Next week: Moneygall, Co Offaly