An Irishwoman's Diary

In the opening scenes of the film Titanic, underwater cameras probe the interior of the hulk that was once a great ship

In the opening scenes of the film Titanic, underwater cameras probe the interior of the hulk that was once a great ship. Those images of disintegration and decay reminded me, oddly enough, of the once splendid department stores which graced the small towns of Ireland until the 1970s. Such a store was that of Monica Duff & Co Ltd, in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon.

The store's history dates back to very early in the 19th century when the ancestors of the former Fine Gael leader, the late James Dillon, were living as small tenant farmers at Lissine, two miles from the town. In 1812 the head of the family, Luke Dillon, unable to pay a fine for the renewal of his land lease, moved with his family into Ballaghaderreen.

His oldest son Thomas sought to improve the family fortunes by starting a small shop on the town's main street. It prospered and in time became a substantial business which for generations played an important part in the life of the Dillon family and in the development of the town.

John Blake Dillon

Another consequence of the Dillons' move to Ballaghaderreen was the birth there in 1814 of John Blake Dillon. Among the few Catholics to attend Trinity College in the 1830s, he became friendly with Thomas Davis and together they found the Young Ireland movement. Davis became a regular visitor to the Dillon home in Ballaghaderreen and attempted to learn Irish in local townlands.

That political tradition continued with John Dillon, John Blake's son, who was a good friend of Parnell's and who later succeeded the "Uncrowned King" as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. John's son James also went into politics and was leader of Fine Gael until 1966. He played an active part in running the family business in Ballaghaderreen right up to his death.

But back to that business. By the end of the 1840s Thomas Dillon's small grocery shop had grown to twice its original size. Before his death Thomas handed over the business to his widowed sister, Monica Duff, and she in turn passed it on to her daughter Anne Deane, another widow.

Anne Deane made the shop into the town's biggest employer, a role it held for the following 100 years. A drapery department had been added to the original grocery shop, as well as an ironmonger's store, a boot, shoe and leather warehouse, bakery and a spacious yard dealing in guano manures, farm seeds, animal feed-stuffs, fuel and builders supplies. There was also a thriving farm at Kilcolman on the town's edge.

Monica Duff & Co was also trading in beers, wines, spirits, and tobacco, retail and wholesale. Later a mineral water plant would be set up. By the 1880s the firm had its own Monduf brand labelling almost every grocery and household product.

Ladies' department

From my childhood in the 1950s I remember shelves in Duffs stocked with bales of Donegal tweed, Foxford rugs and blankets, Irish damask tablecloths, knitting wool, curtain materials and men's shirts and ties. Upstairs, the ladies' department was overseen by Miss Kielty.

I loved to be sent on a message there. Full of importance I would ascend the stairs; all around were beautiful garments, knitwear, scarves, underwear, in glass case displays. Stockings, were arranged individually in boxes covered by tissue. All the old manufacturers' names are like a distant litany now: Bradmola, Brendalla, Highland, Clydella and Goray.

Over in the grocery section bacon pieces were laid out - and what huge bacon pieces! The coffee grinder ground the finest blends and great tea-chests lined with foil had their innards shovelled out slowly into half-pound and pound bags bearing the oak-crested logo of Duffs.

Before Christmas, if there was no "trouble in Jordan and the Middle East", the dried fruits and almonds arrived. Long, narrow, coffin-like boxes contained caramelised and sugared lemon and orange peel and I can still remember the taste of the sugar from the centre of the citron pieces. The most abiding memory for many people in the town is of the smell of baking loaves rising over the chimney tops at midday and of the loaves being carried on great trays through the streets to the shops. Steaming turnovers, deep-crusted pan loaves. In the early 1950s a loaf cost seven-pence farthing. Across from the grocery was the bar, which before "improvements" had a large pot-bellied stove that was constantly fed with great shovels of coal. Loyal clients sat on long benches while others arranged themselves on high bar stools. It was virtually an all-male club.

One by one the many different departments of Duff & Co closed down. First to go was the ironmongery section, followed by the mineral water plant. The yard greatly reduced its activities. The farmland was sold to Roscommon County Council.

Closed down

In the summer of 1985 the drapery, household, grocery and bakery outlets closed, and gone forever were the Monduf unsliced and unwrapped pan loaves that had been Ballaghaderreen's favourite bread for more than a 100 years.

In early February 1986 it was announced that Monica Duff & Co would close down in the following month. In its final days as a department store, Duffs saw feverish sales. In its drapery window reposed a broken wooden fashion model, its fragmented limbs teetering across a once elegant shop window.

This well remembered store, with all its politics, loyalties, service and labour, is today an empty hulk, owned by a local businessman, John Duffy. I sense ghosts still keeping watch there.