WordSmith: From corner shops to robots

Like many of us, Gerard has fond memories of the Corner Shop and never wants to see it replaced by self-service options...

Betty Hickey was a woman of many words, all of them sweet and delicious, “Will you take a cone, Gerard?” she’d ask, in a voice that sounded like Black-Forest-Gateaux tasted: rich, fruity, and full of comforting depth. Betty was the proprietor of a sweet shop located four doors up from main street, Cavan.

The ice-cream cones she sculpted were glorious. There was also a lady who worked in Hickey’s, I believe her name was May. Like the month, May possessed all the warmth and sunny optimism of an approaching Summer. Then, there was Maggie Hickey, Betty’s sister. To me, Maggie was the quiet ‘Melanie Wilkes’ to Betty’s sparky ‘Scarlet O’Hara'. Hickey’s – a place gone with the winds of time. But still here, in my mind’s eye.

During my early years away, Betty and Maggie passed; and the shop underwent a number of iterations, one of which I’m told was a ‘Lingerie-Shop'. From knickerbocker glories, to knickers, “Sacre-bleu!” I can hear Betty’s hearty laugh over that one.

The shop is now MULTISOUND. Which is fitting, given it was once a place full of music to my ears. What prompted this recollection was a man who approached me at the Sports Complex, “Will you write a column about the corner shops gone from Cavan?” he suggested. Given Hickey’s location five doors up from the corner of main street, it wasn’t technically a corner-shop. But for me, Hickey’s had: character, convenience, community, and sweets galore; that’s corner shop enough for me.

His suggestion was timely, given that very morning I’d dashed into Dunnes to buy a bottle of water, only to run out again when I saw the snaking queues of multiple trolley-basket-jams at both the human and robotic checkouts. I lamented the loss of our last corner shop, Blacks; a place I could pop into for a can of coke, a few Freddos and a bit of banter.

Folk of my vintage and younger will have a multitude of corner-shop memories. From the iconic Pat McGoverns’ on Connolly Street. McCaffreys’ at the bottom of the hill. Tom Boylans’ on the corner of College Street. Fays’ up at Swellan. Then there was every child’s favourite, The Favourite on Bridge Street. And one of my personal favourites, Reillys’ on the corner of the park lane. Forgive me if I’ve omitted your favourite, there’s only a finite number I can mention in one column.

In every town the local shop was the cornerstone of convenience and community; and still is in many places. Recently at a Mass in Butlersbridge, I invited family back for tea, then realised I had neither milk nor biscuits  – Foynes’ shop saved the evening. On one of last year’s rare Summer days, passing through Crossdoney, we stopped at Martin Lyons’ shop to refresh ourselves with Loop-The-Loop ice-lollies, and I picked up a loaf of bread while there. After decorating a pub for Christmas in Redhills, a friend and I picked up a few essentials in The Village Shop, before availing of refreshment in The Playboys bar.

Now, let me take you back to Hickey’s, and in doing so take a reflective detour. I mentioned Hickey’s is still here, in my mind’s eye. And I’ve no doubt the shops of yesteryear and the characters who inhabited them still live on in yours. In our world where Artificial Intelligence (AI) has entered the retail space, is generating articles, creating art, and writing fiction; our memory is a portal of ever increasing importance. Our heads are our ‘hardware’ our minds the ‘software’ that no robot can infiltrate (not yet, anyway). Memoir was once the primary domain of ‘Celebrity.’ But now there’s power in the personal experience, extraordinary in our ordinary – it’s important to talk about and document the people and places of our past. And you don’t have to write a book, post your reflections on social media, start a podcast, write a poem; document your memories and musings – let’s confront Artificial Intelligence with our Authentic Human Insight.

Now, back to corner shops. I’m no Economist nor Town Planner; but I do believe there’s still a place for the corner shop in Cavan Town. To borrow from Arnie I’m going to say with cautious optimism, “They’ll be back.”


Saying ‘goodbye’ to the same ghost that haunted me