Cork's Corner Shops: ‘People came in to see oranges, they hadn’t seen them before...’

O’Neill’s in Killeagh has a legacy going back over 150 years, says CHRIS DUNNE, as we continue our Cork’s Corner Shop Series
Cork's Corner Shops: ‘People came in to see oranges, they hadn’t seen them before...’

Barry and Anne O'Neill, owners, O'Neill's Londis, Killeagh, Co. Cork. Pictures: Denis Minihane.

BEING a shopkeeper was always Barry O’Neill’s chosen career because it is in his genes.

“I never wanted to do anything else,” says Barry, who is married to Ann. They have five children, Edmund, Elaine, Barry, Lucy, James and Ann-Marie.

Barry lives and breathes the grocery shop that has traded under the Londis brand since February 1998.

“I have no other interests outside of the shop,” he says, underling his devotion to it.

O’Neill’s shop began across the street in the mid-1800s, where carpenter James Barry and his wife, Mary Jo Kehigan, traded, selling groceries, vegetables bread, flour, butter, sugar, meat, bacon, animal feedstuffs, candles, turf, coal, and many other necessities that households needed at that time.

O’Neills shop in Killeagh in old times.
O’Neills shop in Killeagh in old times.

When James passed away, Mary Jo continued working in the shop and then her son, Thomas Francis, joined her in the late 1800s. He married Margaret (Rita) Mellerick in 1912. Tragically, the couple lost two sons aged six and two, within three days of each other from the Spanish flu a century ago.

The couple subsequently had two daughters, Marie and Frances. Marie, Barry’s mother, took over the shop when her mother died.

Barry and Ann came to be across the street in unusual circumstances.

“Margaret’s sister and brother bought Condon’s house which eventually came to Marie Barry and resulted in the shop being extended to its present size.

“We think the Barrys and Condons swapped houses at some stage, anyway we ended up here across the street!” says Ann O’Neill, who is a member of Cork Genealogical Society.

Where did Barry O’Neill and Ann Forrest meet?

“At the local Macra na Feirme,” says Ann.

Where all good love stories begin?

“A lot of them did!” says Ann.

Barry was keen to join the family firm.

“Barry began working here with his mother when he finished school in De La Salle, Waterford, and he hasn’t stopped since!”

What kind of a shop did Barry inherit from his ancestors?

“Well, he installed a few cows out the back and he sold loose milk to his customers,” says Ann, laughing.

“We continued selling groceries, fruit and vegetables, cold meats, and feedstuffs, as well as preserves, jam and marmalade.

“There were no prices or scanners back then, so we labelled the goods with a stamp of the shop and a tab showing the price,” says Barry.

Barry O'Neill, co-owner, in the post office which is part of O'Neill's Londis, Killeagh, Co. Cork.
Barry O'Neill, co-owner, in the post office which is part of O'Neill's Londis, Killeagh, Co. Cork.

The customers were well looked after.

“On a Fair Day we did some catering, providing soup, light lunches, tea and cake to the public.

“Fair Day was a massive day in Killeagh, when people came from all over to trade their animals and to sell their varied goods. It was an enjoyable day out and a sociable day out every year for people.”

The farm animals wanted part of the action.

“There were railings erected along the main street to keep the animals from straying,” says Barry.

“The farmers used to park their pony and trap in our yard at the back of the shop. Fair Day and May Sunday were the busiest days of the year.”

What commodities were on offer back in the 1960s?

“Pigs’ heads, pigs’ crubeens and sides of bacon,” says Ann.

“We sold loose tea and biscuits and bought in butter and fresh eggs from local farmers to sell to our customers.”

Some young fowl went on a journey.

“I was an agent for the CIE bus, I’d put tickets on the goods and the destination,” says Barry.

“When Lynch’s hatcheries were going in the village, they would send boxes of newly-hatched chickens on the bus to Cork. I remember the racquet the young chicks made chirping so loudly. There were pin-holes in the boxes where their little yellow beaks would appear out of.”

Barry and Anne O'Neill, owners, O'Neill's Londis, Killeagh, Co. Cork.
Barry and Anne O'Neill, owners, O'Neill's Londis, Killeagh, Co. Cork.

Transport was scarce back in the day.

“There were far less cars on the road,” says Barry.

“Things were much more basic in the late ’60s. We used have a pony and trap for deliveries out the country and later on we acquired a van for deliveries to people who lived rurally, and we’d deliver goods house-to- house.

“Thompsons bakery used to send fresh cakes down on the bus for the shop, they used to be in big demand!

“Local bakers, Abernethy’s, delivered fresh bread to us every day.

“We often had dry fish like kippers or salted fish, they were thrown everywhere!”

Was there a credit book in operation?

“It’s still there!” says Barry laughing.

The shop was open seven days a week from early until late.

“And we often got a knock on the door on Christmas morning. That still happens!” says Ann, laughing.

It was no laughing matter when O’Neill’s was broken into.

“About 10 pounds worth of stuff was taken when the door was blown in about 30 years ago,” says Barry. “I was asked to come to the garda barracks in McCurtain Street when the goods were recovered to identify them. Our own stamp and labels proved that the goods were indeed ours.”

Did the O’Neill children ever work in the shop?

“Only when they could be caught!” says Ann.

There were other obliging people who would help out.

“I remember we knew a lovely lady who was Church of Ireland and who was one of our regular customers,” says Barry. “She used to step in and mind the shop while we said the family rosary in the evening!”

O’ Neill’s was always a place for a chat and a catch up.

“It was like a local meeting place,” says Barry.

“People were never in a hurry when they came in. Covid changed all that. Then, people didn’t delay when they bought their paper or their groceries. They got their goods and left. It was a big change for all of us.”

The small shop extended over the years and the post office was part of it.

“Once upon a time, when I was a young lad, the present post office was the size of the shop which was extended over the years.”

The O’Neill’ had a good head for figures.

“I always had the price of things like tea, butter and sugar in my head,” says Barry.

“That never changed!”

“In the ’60s. the price of butter was a fixed price.”

The goods for sale changed over the years.

“I remember Bisto and Cleeves toffee being a real novelty.”

After the war, fruit was a rare commodity.

“People often came to look at the oranges because they never saw them before.

“I remember Miss Rohan had a shop in Youghal and she was the first shopkeeper in Cork to sell bananas. “

Shopkeeping is in Barry O’Neills blood.

“I’ve always loved being in the shop and I always enjoy meeting the people,” he says.

“It is a way of life.”

And, more than 150 years on, O’Neill’s shop is still a staple on Main Street, Killeagh.

To catch up on our full Corner Shop Series see the link below

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