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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