Main Street, Belmullet, Co Mayo, is a street of the kind that used to be in almost every town and village in Ireland. It's full of family-run businesses, many of which have been there for decades. On this short and modest street, there is a butcher, florist, hardware shops, drapery, bakery, hotel, greengrocer, a hair salon, the barber How's She Cuttin', pubs and others.
None are chains or franchises. It’s such a relaxed street that several cars are parked on double-yellow lines: no fear of the arrival of a traffic warden here.
Belmullet's main street is not only surviving, it is thriving. It may only have a population of about 1,000, but it is the chief shopping hub of the Mullet peninsula, which is the size of Co Louth. It is a beautiful and remote area, and earlier this year it won The Irish Times Best Place to Go Wild competition.
Brown paper packages
“The heart has gone out of so many other towns, but the reason we’re still here is that we’re too far out for the multiples to reach us,” says Liam McAndrew, who runs the drapery opened by his family in 1948. “Our remoteness is what has saved us.”
There are no motorways, bypasses, big supermarkets or shopping centres anywhere near Belmullet. The nearest big towns are Ballina and Castlebar, 40 and 50 miles away respectively. As a result, and almost by accident, Belmullet is a now-rare example of what small-town Ireland used to look like. The street is still a true business community, even though few who work here now live over the shop.
In McAndrew's drapery, the original counter, which was installed by a relative, is still in situ. It's made from the former church benches of a now-demolished Protestant church farther down the Mullet. The lovely brass and glass display case came from Todd's of Limerick more than half a century ago. Over the case is an empty spool, hanging from the wooden ceiling.
“We can’t get the string for it any more,” says McAndrew. “We were wrapping parcels in brown paper and tying them with string well into the 1990s.”
What sells best in the draper are oil cloths, balls of wool, white shirts, black belts and cotton handkerchiefs. “People buy a dozen at a time. I can’t keep them in stock.” The Mayo men of the Mullet must be very dapper indeed.
“A remote area like this needs a town with diverse shops,” says McAndrew. “It’s an intermediate town. You don’t need to be going to Ballina to buy black socks. You mightn’t get your wedding outfit here, but people will always look in at you first.”
Across the road, Paula Murphy has been running her florist business for 20 years. Her shop was originally the family home and her father was a tailor.
“It was definitely a challenge in the beginning,” she says. “You’d never see a man walking through that door in the early years. And all people wanted to buy at the start were artificial flowers, and in those days they looked artificial.”
Murphy is the sole florist in the barony of Erris, and she has the Interflora contract for the region. She delivers the flowers herself, and, such is the scale of the area, it can take a day just to deliver two bouquets. “I’d be great with the fire brigade or ambulance service, because I know where every house on the peninsula is,” she jokes. She gets two deliveries on a Monday; if she needs extra, she goes to Sligo to get them.
“We are very isolated here, but we are a community.” The florist is so much a part of the community that Murphy doesn’t have a mobile phone, because when she did have one it rang at all hours of the day and night. “I’d often be woken up in bed at night if someone had died and the family wanted me to do the flowers.”
Men come through the door to buy flowers nowadays, but she has learned to keep a supply of black bin bags on site.
“They’ll buy flowers, but some men won’t walk down the street here with them. So I put them in a bin bag. I don’t pass any remark. They’re embarrassed enough as it is.” The last time she did this was two weeks before our chat.
The Erris Fruit and Veg shop is run by Mary Conroy. For more than 25 years, she ran it as a stall on the corner of Main Street, in all weathers. She only moved into a building in the last four years. “At the end, we had a canopy over us, but I never felt the cold,” she says.
Along with an impressive range of vegetables and fruit, Conroy sells bags of turf for €3, locally laid hen and duck eggs, and bags of dilisk. “Some people eat dilisk like crisps,” she says. “It’s picked on the shore here and left to dry in the sun to bring out the taste. It’s very popular with people home from America or England.”
Across the road, Sheridan’s butchers is run by brothers Anthony and Kevin. “We’ve been here 38 years,” says Anthony. “Our job hasn’t changed one iota. The only thing that has changed is us.” In almost four decades, the brothers have worn out two giant chopping blocks, and are well on their way to finishing off a third.
There used to be 13 bakeries in Erris; now there are just three. Two of those are nationals, Irish Pride and O’Hara’s. The third is the Builín Blasta (Tasty Loaf) on Main Street, which has been baking bread for the people of Erris since 1932.
Sisters Eva and Dawn O’Donoghue and their brother David, together with Noel Reilly, Eva’s husband, run it. The O’Donoghues’ father, John, had it before them. “When I was helping out, when I was at school, we had one girl helping us in the shop,” says Dawn. “Now we have 11.”
“We’re blessed to be so far away from another town,” says Noel. They bake more than 100 different products a day, including 18 dozen loaves of bread, and deliver as far as Crossmolina, which is half way to Ballina. “We sell locally about half of what we make, and the other half goes out,” says Dawn. “But we don’t send out any fresh cream products, such as eclairs.”
The bakery has expanded in recent years to include a cafe, which now seats 72. Every day they sell out their entire bake. “This is the busiest summer for the longest time,” says Dawn.
At Anthony “AJ” Reilly’s hardware shop, which he runs with his wife, Kathleen, it’s hard to know where to look first.
“Everything from a toilet seat to a kitchen pot,” he declares. I see dozens of kettles, wind chimes, birdhouses, flower baskets, lanterns, clocks, and lights – and these are the objects hanging from the ceiling alone.
Elsewhere, there are Child of Prague statues, paint pots, mops, toasters, smoke alarms, icing bags, egg cups, fire screens, walking sticks, cushions, suitcases, curtains, buckets and scores of other items.
“You’d never exist in this town selling only one thing. It’s a bit of an Aladdin’s cave all right,” he says proudly.
They have been in business for more than 40 years. Their biggest single seller is paint. “In the last 25 years, I wouldn’t have sold one tin of grey paint. Now the big thing is for grey paint and deep purple. Wallpaper was big when we started.”
The recession took its toll here. “What we take in a week now, we’d have been taking in a day during the Tiger,” says Kathleen. “But we’re still here.”
AJ is 73 and has no immediate plans to retire. “I’d go mad,” he says.
As we’re talking, he sends a shop assistant out to look for the priest. It emerges that the person who cut the priest’s lawn that morning has dumped the grass in a public place and Reilly wants to get it moved.
It’s a reminder that little passes unnoticed in a small community. Reilly doesn’t even realise he’s multitasking as a kind of community civic watchdog while also working behind the counter of his hardware shop on a busy Saturday afternoon.
Continue the conversation on irishtimes.com. Series concluded
TWO-WAY STREET: READER FEEDBACK
- I'm Italian and I lived very close to Meath Street [featured in last week's instalment of The Street] for two years. I fell in love with the area. I bring tourists to Meath Street and Francis Street to show them the real Dublin. They are always astonished. All the ladies with their street stalls and the local characters make Meath Street the beautiful place that it is. I really hope the street and the area won't change too much, because shopping there is not just shopping, but a life experience. Antonio Dellacorte
- Motorways with service stations on them are a fact of life all over Europe. Many small towns across France have historical attractions or wineries to attract people off the motorway. We can't compete with that, but at least Moneygall has the Obama connection. It would be better if traders from the towns were given some stake in the service stations. Arno Belfry