John Arnold: I’m like a kid in a sweet shop when I take a tour of Shandon

John Arnold
John Arnold: I’m like a kid in a sweet shop when I take a tour of Shandon

Father and son Danny and Tony Linehan, of Shandon Sweets on John Redmond Street, Cork, which has been in business since 1929

IMAGINE, it’s half a century ago since the film Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory was first screened.

Starring the zany Gene Wilder, it was based on a book written in the 1960s by Roald Dahl.

Over the years, the film has continued to be a favourite of successive generations of viewers and become almost a Christmas ‘staple’ on television.

I always associate Willie Wonka, Indiana Jones and The Quiet Man with the festive season. I must have seen each dozens of times by now and yet I never tire of their content.

Willie Wonka, or should I say, the chocolate factory, provided a visual feast of ‘treats’ for children, and still does all those decades later.

Well, on Wednesday last week, as I walked up John Redmond Street on the northside of Cork city, I felt a buzz and a sense of anticipation as I was visiting the Shandon Sweet factory - the last remaining one in Cork.

You see, about a year ago Paddy O’Brien (the Over 60s Talent Man/Social Worker extraordinaire) had promised me a walking tour of the historic Shandon Quarter of Cork.

So, on a crisp December day with Christmas in the air, Paddy and myself trekked the streets and lanes of a unique place in the city by the Lee.

Truly, I can say I never realised so much history and lore could be packed into such a relatively small area. Going into the premises of the Shandon Sweet company was like stepping into a dream.

Dan Linehan and his son Tony are well known to Paddy but they welcomed me as if they knew me also. Going to see the toys being made in Santa’s factory is about the only comparison I could draw with the sweet emporium!

Founded by Dan’s father in 1928, this business is the last place in Cork- maybe in Ireland, for that matter - where hard and boiled sweets are still hand-made. To see the father and son team in action was to observe craftsmen at their chosen toil.

Sugar, glucose and colourings were boiled, mixed, poured, kneaded and shaped into a variety of beautiful sweets. Clove Rocks, acid drops, honeycomb and satin mixture are just some of the wonderful range of products made here in this amazing building.

Dan is a proud St Vincent’s GAA man and a great Cork supporter - he has a Christy Ring hurley from the 1950s on display. In truth, I could have stayed there all day so enthralled was I by the enterprise. We left to continue our city rambles.

As we passed Rowlands Lane, the song Isle Of Hope came to my mind.

On the first day of January, 1892

they opened Ellis Island,

and they let the people through

and the first to cross the threshold of the isle of hope and tears,

was Annie Moore from Ireland,

who was only 15 years

It was here, at No 2, Rowlands Lane, that Annie Moore had lived for a while. Her parents had gone to America and later Annie and her two brothers followed.

Uniquely, when the Ellis Island Emigration Centre opened, the very first person to pass through the gates was Annie Moore. The song says she was 15 but in fact she was 17 but gave her age as just 13 -possibly so that she would not be separated from her two younger brothers.

Thinking of history, I recalled Lords Mayors MacCurtain and McSwiney – we commemorated the centenary of their deaths just last year. They proudly wore the Chain of Office of the Lord Mayor of Cork and Rowlands Lane was named after Samuel Rowland who, in 1787, was the first wearer of the historic chain.

In John Redmond Street, Paddy told me about Fr Christy O’Flynn and The Loft where drama was on the agenda for so many Corkonians. Those with speech impediments were so grateful to Fr O Flynn for his unique techniques which helped them speak perfectly.

As we walked up towards the impressive Firkin Crane Centre and the Butter Market buildings, it was early afternoon. Save for a few with bulging bags of Christmas ‘messages’ the street was quiet. Such a change, I thought, from the hustle and bustle that must have been here back in the 1800s when butter from all over Munster was brought in, then sent by boat to the four corners of the word.

The Firkin Crane is a dance centre now. Sadly, the Butter Exchange is idle, but redevelopment plans are afoot which will bring business and vibrancy back here once again.

Two Bartlemy brothers farmed their ancestral acres together in the 1870s. They had a nice ‘bawn’ of dairy cows, milked by hand each day. Every Friday the butter they had churned on the farm was packed in wooden firkins and taken, by pony and cart, the 15 miles or so here to the Butter Exchange.

On one such trip, the brother designated to sell the butter had completed his transactions and was going to other parts of Cork city to buy some farm requisites. On Shandon Street he was surprised, even shocked, to see his brother, who he’d left on the farm at 8am that day.

His brother reassured him all was well. 

“Yerra, after you left I was looking for the key of the dairy door and no trace of it, so I thought maybe you put into your coat pocket so I said I’d walk up here to see if you had it.”

Sure enough, the key was nestling in the brother’s great-coat breast pocket! It was handed over and the walking brother struck to road from Cork to Bartlemy, while his brother went about his business in the city - a 30-mile walk, no bother to him!

I was thrilled to get to see St Anne’s Church Shandon, built in 1722. Walking around inside, history seeped through the very walls and floor. The ‘four-faced’ liar of a clock in the Tower inspired Francis O’Mahony to write The Bells Of Shandon, fittingly he is buried in the nearby cemetery.

As I said to Paddy as we rambled about: “There’s history at every twist and turn up here.”

We walked down John Philpott Curran Street, named for the Newmarket-born politician whose daughter Sarah was the girlfriend of Robert Emmett. Curran represented the pot-walloping Borough of Rathcormac in the Irish Parliament from 1790 ’til 1798.

There are beautiful plaques on many of the streets explaining the story of the place - here Nano Nagle founded one of her early schools.

The North Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne was beautifully adorned in preparation for Christmas. We lit candles, thinking of those amongst us this time last year and have passed away since.

Little did we ever imagine this week in 2020 that the dreaded word ‘Covid’ would still be on the tip of our tongues a year on.

Paddy and myself walked Shandon Street - once called Mallow Lane - and called into a few shops just to see how the Christmas trade was going.

I saw the house where Jack Lynch was born - now an Artists Centre. Back then to the North Infirmary (now the Maldron Hotel) where we’d parked the car.

And so, on a closing mid-winter’s day, I bade farewell to Paddy and headed for home. The lights sparkled everywhere, the street decorations were only grand. We’d had a great afternoon with chat and talk and laughter, and I thought: “Do ya know what, but that’s truly the spirit of Christmas,” being with friends and enjoying the company.

Despite all the bleak predictions, I am truly looking forward to these next two weeks as we mark and celebrate the Christmas season. Plenty talk and a few prayerful silences too is what I’m looking forward to, but being with family especially at this sacred time.

To you, dear readers, thanks for all your support during 2021. I hope on occasions I’ve made you smile and laugh, maybe shed a few tears too on occasions - that’s life and we must make the best of it.

Have a Happy, Holy and Healthy Christmas and a great New Year.

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, but learning to dance in the rain.

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