WE started a few weeks back by talking in Throwback Thursday about those great cafes of Cork city of the 1960s and ’70s, and the memories they evoke.
But through those, quite unexpectedly, we are now moving back into an even earlier period, when spending a morning gossiping over coffee was an unknown for most hardworking Cork housewives, and every penny had to be counted; when children didn’t have pocket money to spare on luxuries, and when a weekly treat was something to look forward to through all the endless school hours Monday to Friday.
That treat might be a Peggy’s Leg or a toffee bar, but it might — it just might — be a glass of milk and a toothsome cake.
You see, back then, everyday food was plain and basic, and if you had enough of it you were thankful.
Cake, chocolate, bottles of Fanta, or Coke, were not household staples, always there, to be seized from the kitchen cupboard any time you felt like it. They were luxuries, rarities, kept for birthdays, Christmas, and other very special occasions. And just occasionally, if you were fortunate, Saturday mornings.
Dominic Conroy, who grew up in Ballyphehane but now lives in New York, says that D’Arcy’s on Oliver Plunkett Street thoroughly deserves to be added to the list of great Milk ’n Cakes emporia.
“It was near Mackesy’s,” says Dominic. “In the early 1960s I went into town every Saturday with me mam.
“As you know, Saturday was the big day to go to town for the messages. I, being the eldest of six, would accompany me mam on these weekly trips until I reached an age where I would go by myself, as taking care of the young ones was a full time job for her.”
They would walk all the way into town with the shopping bags. In those days you did walk everywhere, as “a penny saved is a penny earned”.
Like most other shoppers, the Conroys hit the traditional outlets that Dominic’s mother had always known since her own childhood.
“Mam was from the Northside, and dad from the Southside, as was the make-up of so many families back in the day.
“First stop was Spidere’s towards the top of Shandon Street. He used to be the manager in Dunnes on North Main Street and a very nice gentleman.
“Gentleman — a word we hear less and less of in today’s world!
“Then Nosies at the bottom of Shandon Street of course for the broken up chocolate and hard sweets.
“Next came Dunnes Stores, and sometimes Bennetts, a competitive new-style supermarket along the lines of Dunnes, but local to Cork only.
“Then Haddens on South Main Street. Finally, we would cut across Tuckey Street and head to D’Arcy’s for two half pint glasses of milk, a jam and cream doughnut for me, and a custard pastry for my mother.
“That was my incentive to go with her, and it always worked, I can tell you!”
And then the long walk home.
“To this day I can still see the imprints of the bag straps on our hands. When we got to the Park in Ballyphehane we would sit on the low wall for a break — rain or shine. However, we survived!”
Another Oliver Plunkett Street Mecca for hungry children was Dineen’s, as Ben O’Sullivan recollects. “Back in the late ’50s, this place was run like clockwork by two elderly ladies, and the pint glass of hot milk and a cheesecake were to die for on a cold winter morning!
“I had heard about Dineens from my father and never missed the chance to go in.”
The hot milk was only available from late October to the end of March, reflecting the colder weather and the need for some warmth on the way to school or work.
“But milk in one form or another was the true staff of life, and everybody knew it.
The Inchigeelagh Dairy in Coburg Street/Leitrim Street gets plenty of mentions. Run by the Creedon family, whose cousins still keep the hotel in Inchigeelagh, it was first of all a dairy, which later expanded into a general grocery store, to serve the needs of flat and bedsit dwellers in the surrounding streets.
“I well remember buying my small supplies of bread and milk there, along with the occasional can of Irish stew,” recalls Richard, who had a tiny bedsit on Richmond Hill at the time.
Ben O’Sullivan knew the Inchigeelagh Dairy well, but never frequented it socially for milk and cakes, he explains, “because my mother was great pals with Mr Creedon there, as she had grown up in Coolnoohill, Kilgarvan, and Inchigeelagh is only just over the other side of the county bounds from there, and it wouldn’t have been cool and grown up like!”
His late mother, Norah O’Sullivan (nee Kelleher), however, also ran a small grocery shop in Thomas Davis Street in Blackpool and Ben would often be sent on errands between the two.
“I used to have a part-time job making furniture in Leitrim Street as well, and so I was always running errands on a bike to and from the city.”
He is of the very sound opinion that people who moved up to De City from De Country all stuck together and supported each other (like a peaceful version of the Mafia, he suggests) and as a result they all prospered together.
“Equally, all those they had left behind went out of their way to call and visit anytime they had to travel up to Cork for the day and my mother’s parents were never short of visitors in Blackpool!”
Dermot Knowles says he loves to read these memories of a city that has changed so much in his lifetime. “I remember a Milk & Cake shop named Harrington’s, in Douglas Street, just above where The Gables pub is located. A pint glass of ice-cold CMP milk and a Thompson’s chocolate slice for 10d I think.”
But his strongest memory is of the The Císte Milis in Barrack Street. “Across, if my memory serves me correctly, from where The Yangtse River Chinese takeaway stands. It was run, I think, by two tiny ladies, sisters, and the pièce de résistance for us kids coming from the town, if we were flush, was a small bottle of Taylor Keith lemonade for fourpence ha’penny, and a slice of donkey’s gudge for a penny ha’penny. Heaven for a tanner!”
Taylor Keith (the poor man’s Tanora), he explains, had just come on the market. “The large bottle was 10d (when a bottle of Coke was a shilling) and the small fourpence ha’penny bottle was like the size of a spirits mixer bottle, but still great value compared to Fanta or Tanora at a shilling.
For ten-year-old old brats, we felt so sophisticated to be served our treat sitting down, and the table service by one of the little old ladies was just the biz. Never mind that it was hard bench seats. Wonderful memories of innocent days.”
Tony Daly has a store of wonderful memories and stories from childhood which, one day soon, he is going to put into a book. However, he agreed to share a few of them with Echo readers, so they will all immediately buy his memoirs when they appear!
“I was born off the North Mall. Not exactly on it — our house was behind the Distillery, which is now taken over by UCC. You could say I was born on the river — at any rate, if you ran out the front door too fast, you could find yourself in the Lee pretty quick!”
He now lives in Grange, but remembers the long sunlit hours of childhood as if they were yesterday. “Every laneway, every paving stone. All the tricks we used to get up to!”
Everyone knew everyone back then, he says nostalgically, and the shopkeepers, delivery men, even the gardaí at the local station knew him by name. Thompson’s used to deliver his mother’s bread by horse and cart.
Asked about the shops, he says decidedly that Nosey, at the bottom of Shandon Street, was definitely one of the first to sell ice cream cones. “Then there was Mrs Hayden’s fish and chip shop on Blarney Street. Oh she made beautiful potato pies. Her husand was a bus driver, I think, or maybe a bus conductor in the days when it was still known as CIE. She was a hard-working woman, so she was. I wonder did her nephew open a fish and chip out by the Fox & Hounds?”
Dermot O’Riordan had a tiny shop on Pope’s Quay, he recalls. “And it was tiny, only two people could fit into it at a time, and they’d have to be small!”
While most shops did the majority of their business in the morning and afternoon, O’Riordan’s trade was in the evening and at night.
“People going to the Arcadia or later the Stardust, there were no bars in these places of course, and he would do a great trade in milk and cakes after the dances finished. He would have a tray of Thompson’s cakes on the counter and they would go pretty quickly.”
Tony remembers a dual pricing system too. “If you drank your milk and ate your cake outside the door it was one price, but if you wanted to have it in the shop, it cost more, because Dermot would say you were taking up space!”
Tony’s older sister worked in the Munster Arcade and he remembers the fascination that the vacuum system of tubes for money and change held for a small boy. “It would whiz up to the floor above, and then come back with the change and the receipt. I loved watching it!”
In 1959, the very first ban gardaí came to Cork, and as it happened, young Daly was hanging around with his trusty scooter when they had a publicity event at the local station.
“I was photographed with them and with my scooter, and well pleased I was. Forty years later, they had a big anniversary party and I was called in to repeat the photograph, complete with the old scooter! They had me framed in a big picture upstairs in the building.”
Another entertaining story stems from that one. “I needed to get a form signed, and I brought it into the local police station off the North Mall. The chap on duty demanded some form of identity. I told him he could see my identity upstairs over the fireplace anytime. ‘Oh, are you Scooter?’ he asked. ‘Oh right, so’. And he signed the form!”
In today’s confused times, it is heart-warming to know that somewhere in the old streets of the city, there are people who remember how it used to be, how we once all knew each other. A time when the bread was delivered by horse and cart, when dance-goers eagerly looked forward to milk and cakes before going home at midnight, and when a small boy could run up and down laneways and call greetings to every neighbour.
Do you remember how it used to be? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.