In early November last year, when I was between jobs, living at home with my parents and in need of diversion, I visited Courtmacsherry Community Shop. I loved the bright, blue building overlooking the bay, with its canary yellow door opened by a constant stream of customers, and then I spotted a handwritten sign, pinned above the confectionary at the till, seeking volunteers. I put my name down and it wasn't long before I was equally captivated by the story behind this unique enterprise and how it came to be west Cork's first community-owned shop.
Courtmacsherry is a small fishing village of 500 inhabitants – a number that swells on the tides of summer holidaymakers – in west Cork. In 2015, its sole convenience store closed, leaving the village without a local shop for the first time since the 1870s.
The loss of this essential service was deeply felt and, as an area known for its volunteerism, locals were soon prompted to action. They decided to create a community-run shop that would not only reinstate a vital retail outlet in the village but would equally tackle the isolation that often pervades rural Ireland.
"Nobody had any shop experience – it was quite daunting – just a desire to provide basic services to the local community," said committee chairman Denis Cahalane. Yet, buoyed by purpose, village support and grant funding, the Courtmacsherry Community Shop opened on June 1st, 2016. Since then, its 11 founding members have built a strong volunteer base and have expanded its services to meet the needs of their customers.
Pride of the village
A second-hand bookshop was installed, complete with rocking chairs and sea view. A tea and coffee machine was introduced to keep weekend walkers from hypothermia, while a side room became a treasure trove of the kaleidoscopic wares of local creators: fresh bread and cakes from Brendan “from down the road”; hand-labelled jars of locally-made jams and chutneys; handcrafted earrings and hair accessories now complemented by home-made face masks; and everywhere the proud display of the RNLI lifeboat merchandise – the coastguard service that has been the lifeblood and pride of the village since 1825.
These additions illustrate the central purpose behind the shop’s founding. This isn’t merely a place to pick up your Sunday papers and obligatory fry requirements. Profits made are reinvested in the village through small grants to local festivals and schools. Campaigns to honour the surrounding landscape and rich heritage are launched within shop walls. It was the shop’s volunteers who lobbied to have Courtmacsherry added to the Wild Atlantic Way – an inclusion that hugely benefits a village dependent on tourism for survival.
Relying on tourism and the time and energy of mostly retired volunteers to stay afloat, it seems inevitable that the pandemic would have weakened the shop’s resilience. Indeed, the past year has presented the greatest challenge to maintaining the shop’s services, as older workers were forced to cocoon at home.
However, surprisingly (or perhaps not at all) the shop flourishes most in seeming hardship. As founding board member Michele O’Dwyer noted, the shop first came into its own as a community focal point during Storm Emma (the Beast from the East) in 2018, establishing itself as a safe place to escape to when stuck at home and in need of briquettes, rashers and the comfort of contact with others.
History seems to be repeating itself. When all other businesses in the village were shut by the pandemic, the community shop alone remained open. It became, quite literally, a beacon of light in a time of darkness, remaining brightly lit and inviting when all else appeared desolate.
Suddenly, never-before-seen residents were becoming regulars and unknown locals were signing up to volunteer. When all else was stagnant, the shop’s reach was actively growing in the pandemic. “I’ve met people in the shop – people who have lived here for years – and I’d never seen them before”, O’Dwyer says.
The shop became a lifeline as a vital conduit to human connection. This was certainly the case for Francesca Mash, who joined the team in October. Mash and her husband had relocated from the United Kingdom to Courtmacsherry – a village they'd never been to and knew nobody in – shortly before Ireland's second lockdown. "Our families were concerned we might feel isolated," she said. "After all, we were both working from home and relocating during a pandemic."
Volunteering became – and continues to be – Mash’s outlet to connect with her new home and neighbours. “Time in the shop is something I look forward to each week. To catching up with those I see regularly on my shift. To brief chats with others that pop in and out to do their shopping.”
That is what is at the heart of this enterprise – a place where DIY Christmas decorations were freely given out in November to raise community spirits. It is the solidarity, camaraderie and generosity Ireland is known for. It is debating the price of bacon bites with teenagers and extolling the benefits of sea-swimming with grandmothers.
That a small village shop run entirely by volunteers can withstand a pandemic and in the process provide refuge, solace and companionship to so many, is indeed remarkable. That the majority of its founding members are still involved today while, over the past four years, more than 35 people from all walks of life have given countless hours to the shop’s upkeep, is hopeful.
Asked how the shop plans to survive long term, Cahalane says, “By continuing to provide whatever Courtmacsherry needs.”