The opening scenes of the film ‘Titanic’’ have underwater cameras probing the interior of the hulk that was once the great ship Titanic. Something in these images of disintegration and decay reminded me of the once splendid departmental stores that had graced many of the small towns until the seventies. Such a store was that of Monica Duff & Co. Ltd.
Until very early in the 19th century the Dillon family had lived as small tenant farmers at Lissine, two miles to the east of the small town of Ballaghaderreen. In 1812 the head of the family, one Luke Dillon, finding that he was unable to pay the fine for the renewal of his land lease which had fallen due moved with his family to Ballaghaderreen. His oldest son, Thomas, sought to repair the family fortunes by starting a small shop in the town’s main street. This prospered and in time became a substantial business which for generations to come was to play an important part not only in the life of the Dillon family but also in the development of Ballaghaderreen itself.
Another consequence of the move to Ballaghaderreen was the birth in 1814 of the town’s most widely known native son, for in that year was born in the new home in Main Street, Luke Dillon’s younger son, John Blake Dillon.
By the late 1830’s Thomas Dillon’s shop had prospered to the extent that his younger brother, John Blake, was attending Trinity College in Dublin which was a rare enough event for a Catholic in those days. At Trinity John Blake Dillon met and became firm friends with Thomas Davis who several times came to stay at the Dillon home in Ballaghaderreen and attempted to learn the Irish language in some of the local townlands where it still survived.
The family business had continued to prosper. By the end of the 1840’s Thomas Dillon’s small grocery shop had grown to twice its original size. Before his death, Thomas handed over the business as a going concern to his widowed sister, Monica Duff, and she in her turn passed it on to her daughter, Anne Deane, also widowed after a brief and not very happy marriage. Anne Deane was a woman of great business ability and remarkable force of character. Under her regime the firm of Monica Duff and Company continued to prosper and expand. At the time of John Blake Dillon’s death in 1866 his niece, Anne Deane, had built up the family business to the point where it was Ballaghaderreen’s biggest employer. This was a role it would continue to fulfil for the next hundred years. To the original grocery shop had now been added a large drapery department, an iron mongers store, a boot, shoe and leather warehouse, a spacious yard dealing in guano manures, farm seeds, animal feed stuff, fuel and builders supplies, a bakery and a thriving farm at Kilcoman on the town’s edge. The firm had also gone into beers, wines, spirits and tobacco trade in both retail and wholesale. Later still a mineral water manufacturing plant would be set up. One could obtain under the firm’s own brand label of ‘MONDUFF’ almost every grocery and household product on the market. Monica Duff & Co. was also the town’s Post Office. The firm had been chosen to be Ballaghaderreen’s first post office when the postal service was introduced in this area. A shipping office stood to the front and many a ticket was sold for America. Anthony Trollope visited to organise services and post boxes. It is believed he finished one of his books (the Barchester Chronicles) while residing in Ballaghaderreen.
In my childhood in the fifties I remember shelves stocked with bales of Donegal tweed, Foxford rugs and blankets, Irish damask table cloths, knitting wools, curtain materials, men’s shirts and ties and upstairs the Ladies Department overseen by Miss Kielty. As a child I loved to be sent on a message there. Full of importance I ascended the stairs. All around were beautiful garments, knitwear, scarves, and underwear, in glass case displays. Stockings, as distinct from tights were arranged individually in boxes covered by tissue, ‘Legs ankle tailored by Bradmola’ was the slogan. All the old manufacturing names are like a distant litany: Bradmola, Brendalla, Highland, Clydella, and Goray. In December and January, the ladies window was dressed with long evening dresses, blue georgette, scarlet taffeta, with white and black fur capes as accessories and silver and gold ankle strapped sandals. These were displayed in preparation for the big annual social outings of the director’s dinner dance held in Swinford and St. Nathy’s dinner dance. The men’s window displayed suits, tuxedos, white silk scarves and patent pumps. Elegance reigned supreme. Over in the grocery the bacon pieces were laid out and what huge bacon pieces, people brought them for families. The coffee grinder ground the finest coffee and great chests of tea lined with foil, had their innards shovelled out slowly if not exactly in ‘coffee spoons’, in half pound and pound bags bearing the oak crested logo of Duffs. Before Christmas if there was ‘no trouble in Jordan and the Middle East’ the dried fruits and almonds arrived. Long narrow coffin like boxes bore citron, lemon and orange peel caramelised and sugared and I now can still remember the taste of the sugar from the centre of the citron pieces. Great heaps of muscatel raisins were weighted and packaged. All the ordinary dried goods and tinned stuff was pyramided neatly on white painted shelves. There was an aroma of spices and nutmegs and cheeses in the air. Loughglynn cheeses (no longer made) in their great wheel shapes were cut on a marble slab with a wire cheese cutter and usually judged and cut to the exact weight. The most abiding memory for many people is the smell of baking loaves rising over the chimney tops at midday and later their being carried on great trays to the shop: steaming turn-overs, deep crusted pan loaves with a taste and texture second to none. In the early fifties a loaf cost seven pence farthing. Farthings were in common usage then. In October Duffs made their unforgettable bracks. These were made with the finest ingredients, fruit and eggs and of course the Halloween ring. These bracks were posted all over the world to emigrants, wrapped in their double wrappings of white greaseproof paper and a shiny red wrapper proudly bearing the oaktree (Duffs logo). These were are Epicurean ambassadors.
Across from the grocery was the bar which before the ‘Post Vatican II Improvements’ had a large pot-bellied stove constantly fed with great shovels of coal. On long benches, the loyal clients sat and others arranged themselves on high bar stools. It was an all-male club… almost, supervised by the superb John McGoldrick, Paddy Flynn and Haulie Costello. As far as I remember coffee and cheese sandwiches were also available for hungry fair days. I cannot list all the wonderful people who worked there or describe their service and almost eudal loyalty to a family firm. Fathers and sons sometimes followed one another in almost hereditary jobs in store and yard.
In the great yards up the back, a busy office was kept going and a further front office manned by Gerry Tighe. Further up was the bakery under Tommy Griffin and his helpers, and in that huge network of outbuildings a bonded warehouse and enough storage space for an occupying army. Managing all was the capable Mr. Michael Cawley. Back stairs, front stairs and passages connected all areas while the ghosts of Matthew Gallagher (a long dead old retainer) and the still living faithful Tommy Walker kept vigil. One by one the many different departments of Duff & Company closed down. First to go was the ironmongery section. This was followed by the shutting down of the mineral water manufacturing plant. The yard greatly reduced the scope of its activities. The farm went and the land was sold to Roscommon County Council. In the summer of 1985 the drapery, household, grocery and bakery outlets closed, gone for ever now were the MONDUF unsliced and unwrapped pan loaves that had been Ballaghaderreen’s favourite bread for more than a hundred years. Gone forever now too, was Duff’s famous barm brack which was regularly mailed in its hundreds to sons and daughters in every part of Britain and the U.S.A.
What happened our Titanic? The great iceberg of change in shopping habits, multinational stores, decline of labour intensive personal service, the shift in the mobility of customers and the ageing of owners all torpedoed the old family owned departmental stores. Wages that were once considered good became static and limited advancements contrasting with opportunities opening up in multinational’s nationwide were other factors. Heirs to these great stores chose other lifestyles and professions. An upwardly rising in mercantile class had abandoned ship recognising change before it occurred. Shops with a large staff and miles of counter fell out of favour.
In early February, 1986 it was announced that Monica Duff & Co. would completely close down in March, 1986 when the wholesale section would cease trading. On its final days as a Departmental Store Duffs saw feverish sales; attended more by strangers than regular customers. In its drapery window reposed a broken wooden fashion model- its fragmented limbs teetering across a once elegant shop window. What remained of a loyal staff were laid off or accommodated elsewhere. This well-remembered store having connections with Parnell and Davitt, with the Marshall Field Store in Chicago, (James Dillon learned business there), all its politics, loyalties, service and labour is now an empty hulk awaiting a creative hand and vision. The old cherry tree that Parnell and Davitt had probably seen still grows overhanging Duff’s outer wall and I sense that ghosts still keep watch.
*Historic reference to early shop taken from Irish Times local history project by John Gallagher