IN a tough year for retailers, it’s good to be able to draw on some first-hand experience of trading in a pandemic. That’s what Michael Cronin is doing at his shop in Oliver Plunkett Street.
Cronins Menswear was founded by his father, John, in 1951, and Michael says: “He often talked about the polio outbreak in the mid-’50s that had a significant effect in Cork. People, feeling cautious, didn’t return to the city for a long time.
“He always said it would come right again in time.”
Michael has clearly inherited his dad’s positive DNA as businesses deal with Covid-19. “We’ve been closed four-and-a-half months of this year,” he says. “But things will come right again.”
John started the store 70 years ago with Paddy O’Riordan.
“They were joined by Finbar Twomey, here over 50 years. Matthew Kenneally is working with us in the shop since 1972,” says Michael.
“Over the years, we have served the grandfathers, sons and grandsons of the same families.”
Michael is from good business stock and his dad had him working in the shop from the age of eight!
“I used to go to the train station to collect deliveries for him,” Michael recalls. “Back then we sold shirts called ‘Kennedy Blue’ made fashionable by President Kennedy, who always wore a blue shirt when he was on black and white TV. I was sent to collect the boxes of shirts from the train station. The ‘Kennedy Blue’ was a marketing drive before PR was invented.”
Wasn’t eight a young age to be working?
“If you came from farming stock it wasn’t!” laughs Michael.
“My father, one of 13, was from farming stock in Carrignavar. You’d be bringing in the cows and doing jobs on the farm even younger than eight. He started me at a young age.”
Michael learned the retail ropes from a master.
“Dad’s sister, Delia, opened the Bargain Stores in Cork in the 1930s,” he says. “Any older people from Cork would remember that shop, later called Bennetts.
“Delia was regarded as a successful woman in the ’50s and ’60s when the only other big store was The Moderne on Patrick Street. All my aunts and uncles would have helped her out at Christmas and other busy times. Dad helped out in the menswear section. Another uncle, Paddy, opened a menswear shop in Camden Street, Dublin in 1947.”
John kept working at the shop right up to his death, at 86, and Michael took over. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree — the other branch of the family was in business too. “My mother, Joan Daly, was from Pine Street,” says Michael. “Her family ran a garage.”
The Cronins have enjoyed close relationships with customers, fellow traders on the street, and their employees.
“We have a lot of people now coming in living in the city who work for Apple or international companies based in Cork.
"Many Cork people work abroad in Dubai or Bangkok for instance, and they come into the shop when they are back to buy a suit or a jacket. Once upon a time we served customers who were working in Fords or Dunlops.”
Cronins still stocks the same best-sellers. “Hats and caps are very popular with our customers from overseas who are hat-wearing people,” says Michael. “They went out of fashion here in the Kennedy era. The President didn’t favour wearing hats. But the trend returned.
“I will miss meeting the regulars this year who came home for Christmas.”
The rapport on Oliver Plunkett Street — Cronins trades at No.59 — and the surrounding area has long been strong.
“There was a hairdresser in the South Mall I recall in the ’60s,” says Michael.
“He would send a man over to my father with a note. It said, ‘please will you dress this man?’ It was a lovely, kind gesture as the hairdresser obviously gleaned how the man was fixed while cutting his hair.”
Michael says the tradition of traders being united has continued.
“We all help each other out.
"There is a wonderful sense of community spirit on Oliver Plunkett Street and we all support each other,” says Michael, who is married to Rosemary from Buttevant. The couple, who live on the Douglas Road, have two children, John and Clare.
“Here on Oliver Plunkett Street, there is something for everybody.
“When someone goes to the barber down the street, they’ll pop in here afterwards to buy a shirt or a tie. Then they’ll walk over to the English Market for their meat or fish for dinner. In normal times, that is an everyday occurrence for shoppers coming to the city, both from home and abroad.”
Michael fondly recalls the ‘shawlies’. “The mammies would bring in the kids for trousers or jumpers. “The mother would say to the child, ‘say thank-you to the man!’”
Michael, being ‘the man’, felt all grown-up behind the counter. “I was only 12, the same age as the child. But being behind the counter, I was ‘the man!’”
John Cronin was a sociable man.
“Dad loved talking to customers who were older than himself!” says Michael.
“He got a great kick out of that, especially when he was in his eighties. He particularly liked talking to farmers about the harvest, the crops or the price of cattle.”
Michael says the Christmas lights on Oliver Plunkett Street “lend a lovely atmosphere”, and adds: “I remember when electrician Michael Ahern used to turn them on manually and return at midnight to turn them off before time-clocks came into operation. The hustle and bustle was great. It was magical.”
Michael recently turned 65, but says of his work: “It’s a way of life. I won’t be retiring any time soon.”
Is he kitted out for the infamous floods when they occur in the street?
“I have an interest in monitoring the weather and I take note of flood alerts,” says Michael.
“I recessed the shop floor level and I don’t have electrical sockets low to the ground. Five out of six floods won’t get you. But the sixth one might!”
He can get about easily too.
“I’ve always cycled around the city,” says Michael.
“It is second nature to me and you can get around comfortably. I fell off once or twice but I shake myself down and get back on the bike again!
“It is a convenient way to travel and you get to your destination quickly. Now we are closed due to Covid, I can drop a pair of school trousers over to a customer, or cycle to the Mercy Hospital to meet a customer who may need a new pair of pyjamas for someone going into hospital.”
One day he came a cropper.
“I was cycling up Pembroke Street and there was a hold-up in the traffic. A car in front stopped, the driver’s door opened and I collided with it. Jim Morley, of Morley’s Menswear, Grand Parade, got out. Jim, who passed away last year said, ‘That’s a good way to take out the opposition!’
Michael obviously maintained good relations with his friendly rivals. “I didn’t get a bill for the damage to his door!”