Gem of a business in West Cork set to shut up shop

O’Leary’s Jewellers will close its doors this summer. CHRIS DUNNE talks to the family about their happy memories of the business
Gem of a business in West Cork set to shut up shop
The late Denis O'Leary in his shop

A LITTLE bit of history will come to an end when O’Leary’s Jewellers closes its doors for the last time this summer.

No.1, Bridge Street in Skibbereen is the corner house on the main street where O’Donovan Rossa traded from 1853 to 1859.

“It is the end of an era,” says Olivia O’Boyle, daughter of the late Denis O’Leary, who passed away last August and who started the business as a gift shop in the late 1960s.

“Dad died of a massive heart attack just across from the shop,” says Olivia.

The shop was Denis’s life-blood. He entwined his passion with the love of his family.

“He died happy,” says Olivia.

When local shop owner, jeweller Dick Draper, retired in the town, he passed on the agencies for Waterford Crystal, Omega, and many more brands to Denis in the early ’70s. It was the beginning of five decades of trading that brought ever-lasting love to the O’Learys and to the community of Skibbereen, renowned for its arts and crafts and for its people.

“For us, when dad died last August, the heart went out of the business,” says Olivia.

But like diamonds, some things last forever.

“His personality is still in the place.”

There is still a homely feel about the shop.

“Before dad started trading at No. 1 Bridge Street, the shop was a bar that traded as McCarthys,” says Olivia.

“It was agreed that Kathy, who sold the building, would continue to live above the shop. She was part of our family’s life until her passing.”

There is a gilded history attached to the shop, which was a treasure trove of trinkets, gems, and timeless artefacts.

“People loved mooching about in the shop not knowing what they might find.”

Donavan Rossa had a motto for his shop and although the stock changed over the years, Denis O’Leary keep the same sentiment.

“Here honest value you will find in farm seeds of every kind. If once you try, so pleased you will be; you will come again to buy from me.”

Denis, infatuated with his business and willing to promote it, travelled to the USA in the 1980s to take orders for Waterford Crystal, Belleek and Wedgewood.

“He built up a great rapport with these people during his travels,” says Olivia.

“He believed in the value of what he sold.”

Rose kept the shop sparkling and vibrant. The windows gleamed with the promise of delights within.

“My mother, Rose, was heavily involved in the business since the ’70s,” says Olivia.

“Behind the scenes, mum was busy doing all the paperwork, book-keeping, pricing and writing many letters to our overseas visitors.”

O’Learys was a family affair.

“All of us girls, myself, Siobhán, Aisling and Karen would have all helped out in the shop during weekends, school holidays and at Christmas time,” says Olivia.

“I remember the jar of sweets on the counter on Christmas Eve and going home to a roaring fire when we closed up.

“Those days hold great memories for us.”

Denis had a good eye for spotting a gem.

The late Denis O'Leary
The late Denis O'Leary

“He always had an eye for something different,” says Olivia.

“And he would search for many interesting pieces. He went on to stock everything from jewellery, watches, glass, china, picture frames, tankards, medals, and trophies.

“He was a master engraver, putting his skills to good use engraving prizes and trophies for the local race meeting or regatta. Aisling helped him with the engraving as a lot of patience was needed.”

Denis had a heart of gold.

“Dad carried out repairs for customers who had pieces of sentimental value and wanted them restored. He never refused anyone,” says Olivia.

“He had his own methods of organisation, knowing where all the different batteries were for time-pieces, and the different drawers where his tools were kept.”

Denis was traditional and deeply religious. A people person, he always had a twinkle in his eye.

“Mum used take us girls to visit our grandparents in London during school holidays.” says Olivia.

Dad used joke; ‘I live with five women. I need the break! But hand on heart; we knew he loved each one of us dearly. Each of his 11 grandchildren adored him.”

Denis had several loves in his life.

“Dad had a love of the Irish language,” says Olivia.

“He’d encourage everyone to have a cupla focal no matter what nationality the person was. Children were always encouraged to speak Irish and if they did, dad would reward them with 10p,” says Olivia.

“Both dad and mum were members of the Comhaltas and they enjoyed many an evening watching Irish dancing and listening to a folk story and Irish music.”

Denis knew how to strike a deal.

“He loved a bit of banter and enjoyed bartering with anyone who came into the shop for a chat,” says Olivia.

“He was good at it and he got a thrill out of it.”

Folk got a thrill out of stepping into Aladdin’s Cave. “People were always amazed at what they could find in a small shop,” says Olivia.

“It was like stepping back in time.

“And as one person said years ago; it was like stepping into Aladdin’s cave. How right they were! That description stuck with us in the family.”

When Rose walked into Aladdin’s cave when she was on holidays from London one balmy summer, she found her own treasure.

“Mum walked into the shop asking dad where she could buy her own dad a bottle of whiskey.”

Denis pointed Rose in the right direction.

“She left the shop with a Shanagarry pottery jug,” says Olivia.

There was a token inside the jug.

“Dad had put his business card into the jug!” says Olivia.

Romance was on the cards.

“Mum starting writing to dad.”

The rest is history.

“The funny thing was that dad was a strict pioneer!” says Olivia. “And whiskey brought them together!”

Apart from promoting his business, Denis also promoted the town he loved so well.

“He was a self-appointed tourist guide, advising what places to stay in the locality,” says Olivia, laughing.

“In the summer months when Skibbereen was buzzing with tourists he told everyone to visit Lough Hyne to enjoy the amazing scenery on offer.”

Rose and her daughters have their own amazing treasure trove of memories from O’Learys jewellery shop, which was a jewel in the crown of the market town of Skibbereen for five decades.

“There is a bit of dad in every room in the house!” says Olivia.

“We all have bits and pieces.”

Rose has the gateway to Aladdin’s cave.

“There was an inner door at the back of the shop,” says Olivia.

“Dad’s tools were in there. Mum said ‘I want that door!’ I have some lovely pieces from the shop in my own home, including hand-painted plates and cups, Peter Rabbit Wedgewood and beautiful silver picture frames.

“My friends say; ‘what is it with you, all the plates and cups?’” says Olivia, laughing.

“They are wonderful heirlooms that dad held in high regard.”

The O’Leary girls, wearing their heart on their sleeve, all got their matrimonial rings from their dad.

“We all got our engagement and wedding rings from him.”

Denis was celebrated on the street where he worked.

“He had a lovely send off,” says Olivia.

“All the traders stood outside their shops while the cortége passed by. There was music playing in the background on the bridge.”

Denis would have liked that.

“Dad was old school. He had the Latin Mass. We were so lucky to be able to celebrate his life. We are very grateful for that, realising that during Covid-19 families couldn’t say goodbye to their loved ones as they might have wished.”

The closing of O’Learys is bitter-sweet but everyone will remember O’Learys jewellery shop on Bridge Street as a pot of gold.

“Dad would have hated to see it closed,” says Olivia.

But there are always silver linings among the clouds.

“It was fitting that he died on the street across from the shop. We all miss him.”

But, like all precious things, Denis O’Leary’s memory will live on.

After all, the man who hailed from Drimoleague, who was small of stature but big of heart, was a real diamond.

O’Learys jewellery shop, 1 Bridge Street, Skibbereen is holding a 40% sale on all stock.

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