A small building with a big history

Posted on: 20th January, 2015

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

Vincent Allen looks in to the story behind Mary Barrett’s Sweet Shop in Clonakilty.


Pic above: The building in 1978

Like many well-known landmarks, we tend to pass it without really noticing it. But the  small corrugated-iron building, standing at the busy roundabout at the eastern entrance to the town of Clonakilty is unique in the town’s architectural history and fortunately has survived the many changes and developments of the last twenty years.

The original occupant of the building was Mary Barrett, who ran it as a sweet shop from the mid-1900s. Mary was brought up on a farm in Aghyohil, but the family moved into town due to the death of Mary’s father. The building was constructed by Edward and Ned Barrett, brothers to Mary.  Edward Barrett was Kevin Barrett’s father, Mary Barret was his aunt.  Kevin is now retired from An Post and living in Dublin, but visits Clonakilty regularly.

Mary lived initially on the premises in the small extension at the back before moving into a house on the Tobereen Road. She sold ice cream, soft drinks, sweets, chocolates, crisps and biscuits and other smaller items such as blades and soap. Her stock was by definition limited but the business prospered, partly due to the large workforce in the Strand Motor Works directly across the road, where Scally’s Supervalu premises now stands. Its proximity to the primary and secondary schools in the Convent of Mercy also helped, as did the fact that it had no competition at the eastern end of the town.

The original layout of the premises was much different to today. The counter ran along the left side of the building, from front to back. To the right was an open area with seats. The shop was a social centre, as much as a sweet shop. Local children congregated and played outside in the good weather, eating ice cream and other goodies purchased in the shop. In bad weather, they moved indoors to the seated area. The large work force from the Strand Motor works (over twenty) used the seated area as an unofficial staff canteen. My own personal memory of the shop was that I drank my first Coca Cola there, soon after the drink was introduced into Ireland. The fact that Mary sold the new American-style drink when some local shops refused to stock it, probably in deference to local suppliers, suggested that she was a good business woman. For some reason which I have not been able to unravel, the shop was known as the ‘Atlantic Tavern’.  But perhaps at this remove it is better to retain an air of mystery and intrigue about the name than to have it revealed.

The walls on either side of the building contained some of the old metallic advertising signs, which have since gone on to become classics of the advertising trade — the Players and Woodbine cigarette signs and the Coco-Cola signs. A timber sign for the nearby Imperial Hotel brought in a small rental fee. Other local businesses also advertised there.

Mary ran the business till her sixties, when she retired.  The building then lay idle for a numbers of years. After Mary’s death, it changed hands on a number of occasions. The first purchaser was Michael O’Reilly, who ran a shoemaking business. Michael also ran a coal and fuel delivery business from here and lived near the Barret family in Convent Terrace. The next owner of the building was Timmy O’Donoghue, a local carpenter who used it as a carpentery workshop. Another change of owner occurred in 1998 when  Teddy ‘Cheeser’ Hayes purchased it. Fortunately, Cheeser realised the uniqueness of the structure, and part of his motivation in buying it was in fact to preserve it. Cheeser used the building as a store room for his electrical business and also used it as a bicycle-hire shop to tie in with his role as owner of the Old Brewery  Hostel near Emmet Square. An interesting aspect of this phase of the building’s history was that he had planning permission to convert the structure into a small, self-contained accommodation unit, suitable for a single or retired person. However, this change of use never occurred.

The building was purchased by Sean Desmond and Brian Quinn. Sean and Brian were the engineers in Bob Hilliards’s construction company, Hillback Construction. But the building was now in very bad condition and so the story enters its most dramatic phase.  It was decided to demolish the building and rebuild it.  Fortunately, due to the valiant efforts of the recently-retired county architect, Billy Houlihan, the building had been listed as a protected structure. This followed a number of attempts to purchase and demolish the structure, as part of numerous road-widening schemes at this busy junction. The building was knocked and, following strict conservation conditions, rebuilt in 2007. The floor of the new building was raised (it successfully escaped the major floods of 2012).  The ‘trumpet-shaped’ walls were realigned and the attractive railings and stone walls were added. The original colour scheme of black roof and yellow walls was retained.

The building was leased by the computer repair and information technology company, Smartech. Whenever I passed by, I was bemused by the contradiction of a 1950s  corrugated-iron building housing computers, information technology and smartphones. It was probably one of the few corrugated-iron buildings in the country housing a business. It was certainly the only building of its type involved in information technology. It represented an unique combination of the old and the new.

The present occupant of the building is Martin Kelleher, who runs a property management company.

Despite the fact that Mary Barrett vacated the building some twenty-five years ago, despite the numerous changes of owners and uses since and especially allowing for the fact that the original building no longer exists, many residents of the town still fondly refer to the present building and location as ‘Mary Barrett’s Sweet Shop’.

Long may the building continue to welcome visitors to the town at Fax Bridge. Give it a second glance the next time you pass by – it is an important feature of the town’s social and architectural history.

And with a little bit of luck,  the original colour scheme of black roof and yellow walls will be restored.

I am indebted to the following for information in this article; Kevin Barrett, Teddy ‘Cheeser’ Hayes, Bobby Hilliard, Billy Houlihan. Special thanks to Maurice McCarthy for use of the photographs.


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