IT WAS ONE of those days that are a predictable part of a holiday in Ireland, it rained; non-stop, drenching rain. We were in the Burren in County Clare where we had been walking the delightful “greenways” which have now been developed or enhanced by Clare County Council, in that uniquely beautiful area of our country.
So, knowing from a lifetime of experience of the Irish weather, that the rain would probably pass by the afternoon, we decided we would explore, in the meantime, the streets of our nearest town. So there we went, or rather fled to, in the continuing downpour.
Our youngest German grand-daughter who was accompanying us, is moving into a residential student apartment in her university and was in search of some basic kitchen equipment. She had particularly liked my traditional apple-tarts and said she would like to try her hand at making them. Could not be done, I told her. The secret was the old deep enamel plate which I used, and these plates had completely gone out of fashion, I said. They were not to be had for love or money.
And then, on that rainy day in the County Clare town, I saw a small shop, which I knew, instinctively, stocked everything from the proverbial needle to an anchor. The window was over-filled with a jumble of crockery, aluminium buckets, picture-frames, rolls of wallpaper and tools. Inside, squashed between the heaving shelves, we met the proprietor, smiling and friendly. There was the usual conversation about the weather, and then I asked: “Would you, by any chance, have a deep enamel plate?” In the blinking of an eye, he produced a selection of three, all of different sizes.
Grand-daughter was enchanted. Her eyes wandered over the ceiling to floor shelves. She found a little brown teapot and then a cereal bowl and sundry bits and pieces. These were wrapped in protective bubble-wrap and have now made their way back to a tiny kitchen on the third floor of a high-rise student building in a German city.
Meanwhile, two other customers arrived, all local people. One asked for a bale of twine and the other a coil of barbed-wire. These were retrieved, via a ladder, from some innner narrow sanctum, while we resumed our weather conversation with the customers. When the proprietor came back again, all three told us about the terrible storms that had devastated the coast earlier this year, and evidence of which we had already seen in the damaged jetties and pot-holed roads. For four days the Atlantic had battered the coastline relentlessly. We were lucky down “there in Tipperary,” we were told. We live in a sheltered place and indeed we do.
By now, it was time for a coffee. “Just three doors down on this side,” the proprietor said, we would find a lovely little coffee-shop. We were met at the door by the addictive (for me) smell of brewing coffee, and inside there was colour, and potted plants and flowers on the tables and a display of gooey, creamy, cholesterol-saturated, cakes. But this was not a day for obsessing about diet - so it was coffee and cakes and all.
And there was more conversation with our fellow coffee-drinkers and with the woman proprietor and the maker-of-the-delicious cakes. Yes, the tourist trade was good this year, “but we needed it after the terrible winter.” We heard more stories of the gales, of the rock-strewn streets, of dislodged roof slates, carried by the wind into crash-landings.
When were were leaving that small Clare town early that afternoon (still raining) all agreed we had had a most enjoyable morning. We went into a higgledly-piggedly shop, where there was apparent chaos but great visual interest, and the proprietor could put his hand on everything. Not only had we a good shopping experience, but we had eye-to-contact with a small shopkeeper who was not pushy but who went out of his way to help us. We met friendly local people, who could laugh and joke, and at the same time tell us of their experiences of the great storms which had threatened their homes, and the extent of which, we, in sheltered Tipperary, knew very little.
In the coffee-shop, we met the same kind of friendliness and warmth. In both premises we encountered entrepreneurs, a man and a woman who were running their small businesses, making their own livelihoods. And though unacknowledged, they were unpaid contributors to our tourist trade.
They were also independent of State-aid. If their enterprises failed, there would be no job-seekers allowances, no social assistance. They were out there on their own, but yet they were part of that valuable, and now very threatened, social and economic structure of centre-town business life.
It is now nationally acknowledged that our centre-towns have been shamefully neglected by governments and local authorities. They have been discriminated against in planning, punished by exorbitant rates and by valuation assessments. They deserve the support of all of us citizens, and if, as evidence suggests, traders are forced to close their businesses, allowing our unoccupied town-centres to become desolate, crime-ridden places, then we - the citizens - have only ourselves to blame.