Carmel Flaherty unlocked the recently bolted-up front door to her shop on Dominick Street so that she could stand in the open doorway for a commemorative photograph to be taken.
“When that was closed up, it was meant to be for the last time!”, she commented with a slow smile.
A couple, who had been regular customers, passed on the path directly outside the doorway while the photo was being taken, and expressed their condolences:
“We just heard! We’re so sorry!”
Carmel graciously accepted their kind words as she headed back inside the shop she had run since 1983. A shop that was once described as an ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of hidden treasures, ‘O Flatharta’ had once been a booming source of commerce on the well-known Galwegian street; years ago, when Quay Street was a less desirable path for residents of Salthill/the Claddagh to get to town and Eyre Square, Domnick Street had been the main walk-way. The Galway Races marked one of the busiest times of the year for the shop, when the closing time stretched into the wee hours of the morning, with tea, lemonade, biscuits and sandwiches being sold until 4am to punters on their way home.
The increased footfall of yesteryear meant that a different kind of business thrived on the street; hotels, draperies and newsagents populated the area, in contrast to the restaurants and cafes that now dot along Sráid Dominic’s pavement, attracting activity in the later hours of the day.
One staple of the street remains active, Conradh na Gaeilge – an institution that had once requested that Bridie Flaherty, Carmel’s mother and original proprietor of the shop, name the establishment using the Irish version of the family name, considering the proximity to the Irish language’s headquarters in Galway city.
When Bridie had run the shop with a sharp head for business, her children Christy, Jimmy, Miceal, Stanley, Deirdre, Carmel, Ailish, Hilda and Maura all pitched in once they were old enough. From young children who played ‘piggie’ outside the shop window that once displayed an arrangement of fresh fruits and vegetables, to young adolescents who learned the tricks of the trade from behind the till, O Flatharta’s was truly a family-run business from the very beginning.
The physical layout of the store changed over the years, as did the type of stock that was kept. For example, many nostalgic memories will be stirred as Galwegians reminisce on the America comics, rag dolls and toy guns with caps that were popular among the youths of the 1950s and 60s. With the break out of World War Two just two years after the shop first opened its doors, O Flatharta’s was resilient to the rationing that took place.
In a feature piece published by this newspaper in 1992, the shop was praised for its ‘good service, friendliness and real Galway charm’. The service referred to here wasn’t just the shop’s function of selling goods. An institution and a place people could trust, various individuals and organisations would use O Flaharta’s as a kind of hub, leaving in keys for others to collect, and as a social spot where you could catch up with the goings-on of the day.
Today, we live in a different Ireland to the Eire that O Flatharta’s was established in. The demise of local shops is multifactorial – the trend of people reading newspapers and magazines online, the decline in the numbers of cigarettes bought due to the smoking ban and adverse health effects, the prevalence of chain grocery stores; all of these factors have contributed to an environment which is not conducive for the type of businesses which thrived in years gone by.
Over the last 30 years Carmel has guided the business in accordance with the principles of her mother while being geared to meet the demands and requirements of modern day. When asked if she thought her mother Bridie would have been annoyed at her closing the shop, Carmel conceded that her mother was a very practical and pragmatic woman, and would understand the current state of affairs.
There is a saying which reminds us that when God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window. This is a bitter-sweet time, as the curtains have come down for one of the the last remaining ‘old-Galway’ shops, Carmel O’Flaherty can now embrace the next chapter in her life. This past Saint Patrick’s Day was the first March 17th which the hard-working business woman enjoyed and she took part in the festivities, instead of serving those who line Dominick Street to watch the parade.
O Flatharta’s had a phenomenall run, operating for almost 80 years. The shop will be fondly remembered by the city, both for its success and its place in Galway’s history.