If you bought shoes in Shaws at any time in the last 40 years you will undoubtedly have met Tommy Whelan. The engaging, likeable Laois man who crossed the county border each morning and evening while working in Shaws is now retired. I first met Tommy when we shared a classroom in the Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane. He was one of the many country lads who enrolled in secondary school, for the most part just for a year or two to bed down the primary education they had received courtesy of a local rural primary school. Tommy left school at 15½ years of age to join Bryan Bros. in Emily Square and where he was to spend the next five years, starting on a wage of 30 shillings a week. Memories flooded back as Tommy recalled his work colleagues of 55 or so years ago. Danny Kavanagh, Margaret Ryan, Edith Furlong, Sheila Cahill, Ann Bambrick and George Donaldson were just some of the names he recalled from the 1950s.
Do you remember Bryan Bros. and the overhead pulley system which brought cash payments by overhead wires to a central cash booth? A similar system as far as I can remember was operated in Shaws. As a young shop assistant Tommy worked in all the departments of the store as and when required, as well as sweeping floors, cleaning windows and as he recalls it, ‘washing the bosses car’. Calling on customers to collect outstanding monies was another task entrusted to the male staff, as was the collection of items given out to customers on approbation. Goods on approbation was one of the distinguishing features of retailing in those days, seldom, if ever, to be encountered today. Tales of coats, hats and dresses leaving the shop for trial at home and featuring the next day at a wedding or other social event before being returned to the shop were common. The wiles of some customers could never be underestimated.
After five years retailing experience in Bryan Bros. Tommy moved to McCormacks of Ballinrobe in County Mayo where he remained for one year. He remembers the journey from Slatt, Wolfhill across country to the County Mayo town courtesy of a lift in a Flemings Fireclay lorry. Life in the west of Ireland apparently appealed to Tommy and within a year he took up a position with Logues of Eyre Square, Galway where he was to remain for seven years. Our paths crossed in Galway and more particularly in the Seapoint Ballroom, the onetime Salthill dancing mecca for visitors and natives alike during Tommy’s time in Logues.
A brief sojourn in Coads of Limerick intervened between Tommy’s Galway job and his return to Athy to join Shaws in June 1971. In the 36 years spent in Shaws shoe department Tommy dealt with an extraordinary array of customers, not all of whom could be said to be good for business. The potential customer who insisted on trying on every imaginable pair of shoes, only to walk away without buying anything, was the bane of every shop assistant’s working life. Some folk deemed it a necessary part of everyday life to extract the maximum value for their hard earned shilling and bargained for every purchase. The bargaining invariably started at half the marked price and much coaxing and not a little loss of profit was required before the deal was done. Nothing however compared to the customer who after months, even years of constant wear, insisted on returning a tattered pair of shoes or boots and demanding a full refund. Despite all this Tommy enjoyed dealing with the public and indeed the public delighted in dealing with Tommy.
I was amused by one of Tommy’s stories concerning his boss, Samuel Shaw, who although heading up the Shaw Department store business still operated out of the Athy store where he was constantly on the shop floor. Private security staff, then as now, were an essential part of the retailing business. One day a security man came to Shaws and after a while observing staff and customers advised the staff to keep an eye on a suspicious man who was moving between the various departments putting dockets into his pocket but never putting money into the tills. He little realised that the man in question was the proprietor, Sam Shaw.
In 1982 Tommy met his match in Brigid Walsh who is from my own birthplace of Castlecomer and their son Barry is today a teacher in nearby Castledermot. Interviewing Tommy gives a marvellous insight into the retailing world of provincial Ireland. It’s a world which in many ways has changed, with open displays rather than counters, but what remains the same is the man or woman whose job it is to close the sale and keep the till busy.
Tommy in his time sold thousands of shoes, enough I’m sure to keep many tills busy. He is now enjoying his well earned retirement which was to start on a Good Friday some years ago but which, being a superstitious Laois man, he brought forward by two days.