Being a shopkeeper is my life... I enjoy it!

In a new weekly series for The Echo, CHRIS DUNNE visits some of Cork’s much-loved corner shops and chats to those behind the counter, starting with a veteran shopkeeper in Macroom
Being a shopkeeper is my life... I enjoy it!

Evelyn McSweeney, co-owner of M.J. McSweeney's shop in Macroom, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

“I HAVE served the same families of three generations here in the shop,” says Evelyn McSweeney, whose mother opened up the store in Macroom back in 1940 — and it is still going strong.

“I served little boys who became grown men.”

Evelyn owns M.J.M McSweeney in Middle Square, Macroom, selling groceries, household goods, penny sweets, confectionary newspapers, ice-cream and minerals, as well as Lotto tickets.

Has she ever sold a winning Lotto ticket?

“Not that I know of!” says Evelyn, smiling.

Her mother, Ellen O’Connor hailed from Millstreet and she set up shop in Macroom 81 years ago.

“My father was a carpenter,” says Evelyn, whose family-owned shop has formed part of the square in Macroom for more than eight decades.

“He did a lot of work at home and here in the shop. I am the youngest of nine.

Not all of Evelyns’s siblings are still with us.

“My brother James was a priest,” says Evelyn.

“He was based in the Napa Valley in California and he died in August last year and we didn’t know that until later, which was quite sad. Covid turned everything upside down.”

Evelyn, like the rest of us, felt the brunt of the pandemic.

“It’s great to see the square come alive again and to see the people coming to the market. I remember the wonderful Fair Days here in Macroom when people gathered from near and far. It was a real social occasion.”

Evelyn’s shop was once a hotel where the Black and Tans used to stay. There were bars on the windows, which still remain and reflect the history of the store.

Evelyn McSweeney, co-owner of M.J. McSweeney's shop in Macroom, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.
Evelyn McSweeney, co-owner of M.J. McSweeney's shop in Macroom, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

Is that a dent I see on one of the bars?

“Once, a Black and Tan was in the back when a ‘Free Stater’ shot him through the window and the bullet ricocheted off the bars and bounced back and killed one of the ‘Free Staters’. There is still a dent in the bars,” explains Evelyn.

Did lockdown put a dent in Evelyn’s thriving business?

“I sold essential goods, so no. People shopped locally and my regular customers still shopped here all the time. Most of the locals are very familiar with the shop. We all know each other by name.”

Evelyn is a very popular member of the local business community and she is very involved with the affairs of the town. She is a prominent member of the Town Council and an active member of the Senior Citizens committee.

“We’re all delighted that we can meet up again and catch up again,” says Evelyn.

“Older people who were cocooning during lockdown felt very isolated.”

Nobody feels isolated when they come to McSweeneys shop in the Square.

“The shop is a great meeting place for many people,” says Evelyn.

“We can have a chat about national and local affairs.”

Evelyn’s charming shop is one of the last bastions of corner shops around the country that serve the community on a commercial and friendly social level.

“With nine of us in the family, we all took turns helping our mother out in the shop after school,” says Evelyn, who is a born shop-keeper.

Fair Day was a family day out.

“There was always great activity in the town square on Fair Day.”

Everybody had to be fed and watered.

“And it was always a very busy day for us in the shop,” says Evelyn.

The women of the house and the women in the shop were extra busy on days like these.

“My mother was the main lady in the shop,” adds Evelyn.

“My sisters and I were busy helping her out in the shop and helping to prepare the meals at home.”

A woman’s work is never done.

“That is true!” says Evelyn.

“Dad was busy with his woodwork. He made chairs out of oak barrels and out of wooden butter boxes. He made the chairs in our kitchen.”

There were many items that made their way to the shop via the family kitchen.

“We sold bacon, pigs’ heads and potatoes,” recalls Evelyn.

“At Christmas time, we sold candles, fruit, jars of sweets and loose tea from the tea chest. Christmas was a big shopping season when the country people came into town to do their shopping. It was a big day out.”

Transport was different back then.

“People came in from the country in a pony and trap!” says Evelyn.

“We had no fridges to keep goods in. Everything we sold was fresh on the day. There was no such thing as sell-by-dates.”

When the goods were gone, they were gone.

“That’s it exactly!” says Evelyn.

So it was a case of deal or no deal, trading fresh produce every day.

“Yes. All our perishables and fresh good were sold on the same day. So we had to gauge the amount of stock we carried, like fruit, vegetables, ham, etc.

“You nearly knew who would come to buy the various goods and often they were ‘put aside’ for the regular customers who came to shop on a Tuesday or on a Saturday to do their weekly shopping.”

Festival Day, like Fair Day, was always a big deal in Macroom.

“The Mountain Dew Festival was a marvellous event,” says Evelyn.

“We were the first town to host an open air rock concert in June, 1977.”

They hosted one of their own too.

“Rory Gallagher got a mighty welcome here,” says Evelyn.

In 1977 in Macroom he played a gig that both inspired and entertained.

“People in Macroom still talk about that amazing concert.”

Evelyn and her helpers worked amazing hours in McSweeney’s shop.

“On Fair Days and Festival Days we operated a late opening and we always opened seven days a week.”

Evelyn, a smooth operator behind the counter, found her perfect pitch in the shop after leaving school.

“It seemed like the natural thing to do,” says Evelyn.

“I liked working in the shop more than the others. And I loved meeting people.”

She met Clare man, Pat, whom she married.

“I reared our family and I ran the shop,” says Evelyn.

Pat was self-employed and he helped me out in the evenings and at weekends. Our children, Michael and Clare, have their own careers.

Evelyn was always on call.

“You might get a phone call on Christmas morning from someone looking for batteries, or for a packet of peas that you steep in water, Marrowfats, they were called.”

Evelyn always knew ‘who she had’ in her store.

“I have served the same families of three generations here in the shop,” she says.

“We all have a connection. I served little boys who became grown men.”

The big boys who came to town didn’t affect Evelyn’s business.

“I think people still like the personal touch in a small shop,” says Evelyn.

“The arrival of Aldi, Dunnes or Lidl into Macroom never affected my business.”

When the big band comes to town, it’s celebration time.

“St Patrick’s Day is big here,” says Evelyn.

“In 2000 the Philadelphia string band travelled here to join in the celebrations. We’re connected with the band since 1940.”

Macroom is well-connected.

“Admiral Sir William Penn’s son founded Pennsylvania,” says Evelyn.

“And we have a cultural connection with the USA city. William Penn once owned Macroom Castle.”

Evelyn is well connected too. She served as Mayor of Macroom on three different occasions over 20 years.

“It was always a great experience and Pat and I got to travel abroad a lot.”

The owner of McSweeneys, who is a great ambassador for Macroom, is well versed in the local history and she is well aware of what still sells.

“We sell HB ice-cream, fizzy sweets and Brown Knorr sauce,” says Evelyn. “Those things still sell.”

Some things never change.

“People still buy blocks of ice-cream after Mass on Sunday. I wrap it in newspaper so that it keeps cold until they get home.”

Some things last forever.

“The Macroom creamery butter, the Macroom flour, the penny lollipops, the fresh ham and the fresh corned beef never cease to be popular,” says Evelyn.

Evelyn never ceases to be popular too.

“Being a shopkeeper is my life,” she says. “And it is a life that I thoroughly enjoy, and always did.”

Next week: Powers shop in Crosshaven.

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