Two halves of a whole

Posted on: 31st December, 2013

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

When Tom and Claire drove past a rundown building for sale in Connonagh, near Leap, on their way to Skibbereen, the decision was made — West Cork felt like home.

He’s the solid silent type. She’s more outgoing and inclined to a fit of the giggles. Both have a strong creative streak. They first met as teenagers; he was going out with her sister, she was dating his friend. Life separated them but as so often happens, these halves were drawn back together some years later. Although their love story begins in Dublin, West Cork is where the real story is…in a little shop in a tiny village off the N71. The Old Mill Stores in Connonagh is where Tom Keane and Claire Graham set up home and shop over 10 years ago. It is where they have successfully raised a family and a business, faced Cancer together and come out the other side together.  As a result, their love for life and each other is stronger than ever. Mary O’Brien enjoys a leisurely chat with Tom and Claire about life, love, interiors and where it all began…

In 1996, Claire and Tom were living and working in Dublin. Tom had set up ‘Ovne’, specialising in the selling of antique stoves and Claire, who was working in radio production, helped out with the business. One day, the couple set off on a trip to West Cork, delivering a stove to Jeremy Iron’s castle in Skibbereen. Business rents were high in Dublin at the time, the couple had been offered a “ludicrous” amount of money for their little house in Kilmainham and they were anxious about bringing up their two children, Austin and Cal, in the city. When Tom and Claire drove past a rundown building for sale in Connonagh, near Leap, on their way to Skibbereen, the decision was made — West Cork felt like home.

Although their chosen property was in a dilapidated state, they were used to doing up old houses and Claire had a flair for interiors. They purchased The Old Mill in 2000 and renovated the top two floors.

Claire got work with the Irish Examiner, writing the regular weekly interiors feature in the property section. She also wrote for a number of interiors magazines, subsequently receiving a number of interior design commissions. Tom ran the only antique stove shop in Ireland.

From the beginning, Ovne supplied stoves to Pinewood Film Studios. Some of Ovne’s most famous clients over the years have included Jeremy Irons, David Puttnum, Darina Allen and artists Dorothy Cross and Vivienne Roche.

Life was good, if a touch hectic, business was booming, the boys were happy growing up in the country and then in 2005, Claire was diagnosed with breast cancer. What followed was two long years of treatment and anguish. “I was extremely stressed at the time I was diagnosed,” says Claire, which I think probably did contribute to my illness. I’m a lot more relaxed now. I passed my stress over to Tom at the time.” Two of Tom’s sisters have died from cancer and he admits that it was very tough watching his wife battle the illness. And after getting the all-clear, Claire suffered from depression. “When you’re having treatment your whole focus is on getting better and then when you’re given the all-clear, you don’t have the feeling of elation that you expect. It took some time to build up my confidence again,” explains Claire.

“I did stop at this point and ask myself where am I going and what am I doing?”

Claire, who has a nursing background, decided to volunteer with the Irish Cancer Society outreach programme. “For me, information around the whole illness was power and I was very comfortable talking about it,” she explains.

Around this time, she also started doing PR work with small businesses through the West Cork Enterprise Board and West Cork Development Partnership. “I changed my whole lifestyle, ” explains Claire.

A stint working as coordinator for Cork Craft Month got Claire thinking about selling Irish craft work through their shop. The couple decided to start selling beautiful and unusual craft items alongside the antique stoves and The Old MIll Stores was born. Both Tom and Claire also have a passion for collecting vintage items.

Recommended last year as ‘the most chic shop in the county’ by the Irish Examiner and listed in Sally and John McKenna’s Bridgestone Guide, The Old Mill Stores is a West Cork success story. “I’m happy the way it’s gone, it has exceeded our expectations,” says Tom. He feels hopeful and optimistic in the current climate. “You can almost taste a turnaround in the retail sector.”

Six months ago, the couple finally renovated the basement of their property, part of which is a listed building dating back to 1760. Today, home is downstairs and work is upstairs.

“We do find we have to leave the premises to separate work from leisure and discuss anything other than work,” says Tom.  “But we both love what the shop is, have definitely created it together and bring different talents and skills to it.”

“We like to think that when people come in to our shop, they will find things that represent who they are,” says Claire “We’ve really shopped around to get practical and functional things but also things that are very attractive to the eye… and also fun.”

From stylish dusters made from ostrich feathers to Scandinavian lighting, clocks made by Irish designer Jenny Walsh to tea cosies made by Mary Jo just over the road, The Old Mill Stores is a quirky collection of chic and collectible items for your home.

And behind it all, Tom and Claire are the real success story. “He makes me laugh,” says Claire. “I love her giddiness,” admits Tom smiling.

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Wave to Mary! 65-year-old Mary Nolan Hickey is running around the entire coast of the Island of Ireland to raise funds & awareness for the RNLI and is currently running the roads of West Cork.

Mary is the only woman to have completed every single Dublin Marathon (all 38 of them). She’s also completed the grueling Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert, known as the ‘toughest foot race on earth’.

To mark her 50th year involved in Athletics Mary is taking on her biggest challenge yet (even though she thought she’d already done that when completing the Dublin Marathon when she was over six months pregnant!) She wants to raise as much money as possible for the RNLI.

Mary started her epic journey in Arklow, Co. Wicklow, on New Year’s Day. She aims to cover up to 5000 kilometers, using coastal routes, over the next five months. She hopes to get back in time to get her first pension payment in June when she turns 66.

Mary will stop off at as many RNLI stations as possible, on her once in a lifetime adventure. As far as she knows no other woman has ever taken on this challenge.

Speaking about her journey Mary said:

“I wanted to prove that age not a barrier. Coming from a coastal town I have a deep affinity with our local RNLI station & volunteers and have huge admiration for the brave men and women who risk their lives to save lives at sea”.

Mary, who’s depending on the goodwill of communities along her route for accommodation, has been astounded by the response so far. “The support has been overwhelming,” she said. “I have met the most amazing and encouraging people along the way”.

To see more about Mary’s adventures, and to pinpoint her location today, check out her Facebook page - rnlilapofthemap2018.
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20th March, 2018  ·  


This Saturday the 10th March, will see some magically curious activity as local Bandon national schools compete in a Wizarding Harry Potter Quiz. The prize will be the beautiful Bandon Banshee Perpetual Cup.

As any Harry Potter enthusiast knows, Bandon has the unique honour of having a character named after the town. The Bandon Banshee, was referred to as the nemesis of Gilderoy Lockhart in the Chamber of Secrets. The book grossed €60 million in sales and was the 7th highest earning film of all time.

Locals, looking to enhance the town for young people, saw the quiz as an ideal way promote the connection. The universally absorbing book series brings young readers on a huge adventure of magic, adversity and triumph. It is also an exploration of loyalty and friendship, good and evil – so it is not only popular way to engage young people, it is a hugely positive connection.

Zoe Tennyson, one of the organisers said they were delighted with the response from schools who ran a qualifying quiz as part of World Book Day. On Saturday Bandon Town Hall will be transformed into Hogwarts Great Hall, with proceeds going Bandon Playground Group, and to cover costs of the event.

Bandon Books will be rewarding the winning team with vouchers to each of the five members. The Bandon Banshee, or Bean-sidhe na Bandaan Perpetual Cup will be hotly contested – but which school will the Banshee go to??

If you have any questions please call Marguerite McQuaid on 087 900 9494
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8th March, 2018  ·  

Ballineen Foróige Young Engineers Exhibition 23 February 2018

The inaugural Ballineen Foróige Young Engineers Exhibition will take place in Gort Mhuire Hall in Ballineen this Friday 23rd February. As part of Engineers Week 2018, leaders and members of Ballineen Foróige Club have organised an exhibition which will showcase a diverse and exciting range of engineering projects that have been undertaken by members of the club over the last few weeks, with the aid of leaders and a number of local engineers.

With the aid of local pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, along with the support of STEAM Education, a UCC based company focused on promoting science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths subjects in primary schools, Ballineen Foróige has been engaging members and leaders in all things engineering over the last six weeks. From researching, designing, and prototyping a project based on local problems, to participating in various workshops on coding and careers in engineering, Ballineen Foróige have been extremely busy in preparation for the exhibition this coming Friday night.

On the night itself, Michael Loftus, Head of Engineering at CIT, Fintan Goold, Manager at Eli Lilly and All-Ireland Cork winning Footballer, along with Geraldine Coughlan of GCA Architects & Designers, a local business, will act as judges on the night, evaluating the different engineering projects and offering some advice to the members of the club. Also in attendance will be the CEO of Foróige Seán Campbell, along with a number of local councillors, TD’s and Senators.

Leading the team of Ballineen Foróige leaders organising the event, is Rebecca Dwyer, a bioprocess engineer at Eli Lilly. Rebecca recently became a leader in the club and says that Ballineen Foróige Young Engineer Exhibition 2018 “promises to be a fun, challenging and rewarding experience for all involved and we look forward to welcoming parents, relatives, friends and members of the public to the exhibition and film screening on the evening of Friday 23rd February.” Overall, there are twelve projects entered in the exhibition. One project, led by Cian Kennefick and Charlie Nolan, members of the starting out club, examines the possibility of installing speed ramps on the road near local primary school. Fourteen-year-old Charlie says he got involved in the project as it was something to do and it gets you thinking. Cian says the most exciting part of the project was the building of the prototypes.

Both Cian and Charlie, along with thirty other members of the club will display their projects this coming Friday 23 February in Gort Mhuire Hall in Ballineen. Doors open at 8pm and the event runs until 10pm. All are welcome to attend, and admission is free. Catering, including tea and coffee, will be provided on the night.
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20th February, 2018  ·  

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Main course

17th February, 2018  ·  

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