Toy story: My tribute to Queen of Shandon

Generations of children stuck their noses against the window of Claire O’Driscoll’s Toy Shop at Christmas time. In Hollybough, CÓNAL CREEDON hails a legend of Cork’s northside who died this year
Toy story: My tribute to Queen of Shandon
Mrs O'Driscoll inside her toy shop on Shandon street. Picture: Martin Duggan

THE word wound its way around the warren of lanes of Shandon and spread right across the hills of the northside.

Then, seeping down along Shandon Street to the North Gate Bridge, the news crossed onto the island of downtown and made its way, shop counter by shop counter, along the spine of the old town, the full length of the North Main Street, all the way to the South Gate Bridge, and filtered out from stall to stall along the Coal Quay, across the flat of the city.

Then, lamp post by lamp post, the word travelled up the steep climb of Barrack Street and over the hill into the southside.

And, like everyone else who heard the news that day in July — I too was so very saddened to hear of the passing of Claire O’Driscoll, née Ormond.

Ever since I was a small boy in short pants, with my nose pressed against the window, Claire O’Driscoll’s Toy Shop at 120, Shandon Street has always had a special place in my heart; been a landmark in my imagination.

Generations were dazzled by the glitter of toys and trinkets, this spellbinding world of magic wands and jewel-encrusted crowns was a veritable Aladdin’s Cave — shelves stacked to the ceiling with cowboy suits and racing cars, Crolly Dolls and tea-sets, and a whole array of dainties and delights strung up in clusters from every hook, nail and picture rail.

But the real magic of O’Driscoll’s Toy Shop was Claire herself. Day in, day out, that’s where you’d find her, holding court at the counter, surrounded by sparkling tinsel and flickering fairylights, queen of all that she surveyed.

Claire was a very special, straightforward, philosophical woman, with a highly- tuned sense of humour and spontaneous witty turn of phrase — a real-life fairy godmother, her discreet generosity often helping out a cash-strapped Santy Claus during the difficult days of recession.

As boy became man, I occasionally called to Claire’s Toy Shop, where she’d greet me as “The boy Creedon from The Inchigeela Dairy down on Coburg Street”. And rather than interrupt whatever consultation or conference that would be in session with some neighbour or other, my visits seldom extended beyond a brief hello from the door.

But then, back in 2005, Claire agreed to feature in my documentary film, If It’s Spiced Beef, It Must Be Christmas, which explored the people and traditions that made Christmas special for me.

Of course, she was brilliant on screen, a born natural; her humanity, humour and zest for life just shone out. It was such a fun time and a privilege for me to spend those days in her company.

And so, in the intervening years, my visits to Claire became more regular. Sometimes I would bring my nieces Ruby and Asha along — where there would always be a warm ‘one of our own’ welcome waiting for us.

On occasion, my nieces would arrive home with a gift from O’Driscoll’s Toy Shop under their arm. Claire always treated them like little princesses, and of course, to the girls she was the Queen of Shandon Street.

Claire has long been one of the brightest threads in tight weave that makes the tapestry of the Shandon area so vibrant and unique. With family links to the renowned Ormond and Ahern Bakery, and a tradition steeped in the Butter Exchange Band that stretches back generations, her credentials run deep.

After learning of her death, I reflected on a previous Facebook post I had written about a Christmas visit to Claire’s shop.

“Christmas? A funny time of year is Christmas. It’s enough to put the head spinning and the mind doing somersaults.

“It’s a time when bygones become bygones, and those dead and gone are remembered.

“It’s a time when the pain of loneliness can find comfort in candles and fairy lights and the lonesome sound of Shane McGowan singing of drunken fairytale nights.

“It’s a time when the mind wanders to when everything was happy, sweet and innocent in the world — a time when all the earth stands still and the world stops spinning for just one day.

“It’s a time of tradition and I’m so looking forward to visiting my friend and neighbour — the wonderful Claire O’Driscoll’s toy shop — on Shandon Street...”

Alas, this Christmas just won’t be the same for this little boy...

I would like to take this opportunity to extend my deepest sympathy to the O’Driscoll family. Claire’s husband, Jerry; children, Collette, Majella, Jerry and Kenneth; grandchildren, Orla, Melanie, Conor, Robbie, Jake, Emily, Katie, Niamh and Aoife.

I know from my conversations with Collette that the family took much comfort from all the kind messages and poems they received from friends and neighbours after her death, and the collective sense of loss that has been expressed right across the city.

Claire O’Driscoll will be missed by generations past and present, memory of her will live long into the future — Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.

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