Teacher Maria O’Rourke recalls fond childhood memories of a generous lady who ran a busy shop on Carlow’s Tullow Street
ON the last Friday of every month, my mother paid Mary Kelly. I only remember that because of the brown paper bag with crisps and chocolate she sent home for us children on pay day. Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Tayto and a can of Fanta orange each – we didn’t even have to share them.
My mother always said the same thing: “I don’t know how that woman makes any profit in her shop. She’s way too generous. I’ll have to ask her to stop.”
“No!” we wailed. “Mammy, don’t!”
The viability of Mary Kelly’s shop was no concern of ours.
Inherited from her mother before her, Mary Kelly’s shop was always painted red. The display windows on either side of the door were rearranged regularly – selection boxes and biscuit tins at Christmas, pyramids of Easter eggs during Lent, and Halloween masks in October. There were yellow and red streamers of plastic so that you couldn’t see through to the shop from the road, and when Mary was decorating the window, all you could see was her disembodied arm arranging this season’s treats.
I never saw Mary Kelly outside of her shop, although I believe she went to 7.30 Mass every morning, returning just in time to sell cigarettes to the men on their way to work in the sugar factory. She ran a ‘book’ for my grandmother, my mother and my aunt, and for countless other Carlow people, mostly women.
The entries were written in a sort of code that only Mary and her customers understood. Sl P was a sliced pan, 10 cigs could mean Silk Cut red in the case of my mother, Consulate for Granny, or Silk Cut Purple for my aunt. Each day, more was added, until a line was drawn at the end to signify payment. My grandmother’s last bill came to eight pounds, four shillings and six pence.
Stepping into Mary’s shop, a bell rang as the door shut behind you. The counter ran around three sides of the shop with the door into the house directly in front of you on entry. It was from here that Mary would appear, calling ‘coming, coming’ as she padded into the shop in her house coat and flat shoes, often with a hair-net covering her pink rollers. The house, or what you could see of it through the doorway, looked like the set from a play, with red velour chairs facing a fireplace topped with a ticking clock and a swirly brown carpet.
I remember, as a small child, hearing Mary discuss the new decimal currency that was coming in to replace pounds, shillings and pence. She was holding the orange information leaflet in her hand, saying: “How will I remember it? I’ll never get used to it.”
But get used to it she did, except for the milk. I remember being sent in to get the messages one day shortly afterwards. I had a list, which Mary duly transferred to ‘the book’. She muttered to herself as she walked around behind the counter picking up tea-bags and butter, before turning to me and asking: “Your Mammy wants milk – did she say you were to get a large litre or a small litre?”
If we were home sick from school, and Mam popped in for a bottle of Lucozade, Mary would reach up to where the lucky bags were hanging on a kind of clothes-line over her head. “Bring this home to the poor child,” she’d say, and the ‘poor child’ would be ecstatic to unfold the gummed top of the magical mystery bag containing anything from a lollipop to a tiny yo-yo, a whistle and a bag of jellies.
Sometimes Mary Kelly’s sister was visiting and as soon as we would arrive into the shop, she’d say: “Hold on, hold on till I get you a few sweets.”
Mam would say “not at all”, despite the glares we shot at her, but Mary’s sister wasn’t deterred. She’d run around behind the counter to the side that had jars of sweets and bars of chocolate and, reaching for the bullseyes or gobstoppers, she’d say “catch!” before rolling them one by one across the counter. Then from both sides of the shop in stereo, the two sisters would marvel at how tall we’d got, how like our granny or our cousins we were and what lovely clothes we were wearing.
Mary Kelly’s is boarded up now. The big supermarkets opened, the sugar factory closed, and Mary retreated into old age to her silent sitting room, waiting for another bell to ring. But when she finally left us, it wasn’t without one more surprise. A few months after her death, my mother and aunt got a phone call to say Mary Kelly had left them a small sum of money in her will – a token of gratitude for their loyal custom. While we may call it progress to shop in multi-national stores and online supermarkets now, generations of Irish families are indebted to shopkeepers like Mary Kelly.