For the people of rural Ireland, as opposed to small town dwellers and city dwellers, the Traveling Shop was a vital lifeline, not just for much-needed groceries but also for news and gossip – and sometimes even as a ride to Sunday mass.
The mobile shop brought animal feed, fuel supplies and groceries for the rural folk,” says Vincent Henry, whose father Peter ran a mobile shop from 1945 to 1985, supplied from his small grocery store in Clara, Co. Offaly.
“Our van was one of many providing this service and it was an integral part of my family life when times were tough and people had little. This shop on wheels frequented the highways and byways of the rural Midlands.”
Sometimes hidden under a case of minerals were pounds of contraband butter, bottles of stout, ale and lager – and around Christmas time a drop of whiskey, “although such transactions meant my father had to indulge in a somewhat flexible interpretation of the law of the country.” .
His father’s business – to which former slingshot player and footballer Henry from Offaly is dedicated in his new book, One last bend – was operated from the “Van”, a name that encompasses a number of such vehicles.
Pay was “flexible”—some farmers used barter, others paid their bills weekly, and still others worked on long-term credit that was “entered in a little red book.”
In some cases, a stamp was affixed to certified purchases, giving them the appearance of official standing. But in rural Ireland at the time, common people paid their debts. It was a mark of honor that no one could say they owed anyone money.
“The van,” says Henry, “was more than a vehicle that sold goods.” As it meandered through Midland counties of Offaly and Westmeath, “it provided social interaction with the rural community, bringing news, messages and gossip, which my father and the customers enjoyed alike”.
“The actual deal could take 10 to 30 minutes; the length of stay in a household doubled or even tripled – with endless conversation as gallons of tea were drunk,” he says.
“Agriculture, politics, religion and sports were discussed – sometimes very seriously, with arguments and debates going on into the early hours.”
He adds: “Unlike today, men have never bothered to talk about sex. They just believed in doing it,” left that particular thought hanging in the air.
For those living in rural Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s, in remote farmhouses on the edge of potholes, the traveling shop and the postman were often the only callers from outside their own town. In many cases the children of the farm would have gone to Dublin or further afield – and apart from a weekly Sunday outing to Mass that was their only connection with the outside world.
The traveling shop had a well-defined route Monday through Friday, although the exact time of the call was flexible depending on how late the driver had been to discuss matters of national importance with the previous head of the household.
But the van would eventually pull into the yard, or a honk on the horn would indicate it was “at the end of the lane.”
Characters it encountered on its daily rounds included solitary farmers living in remote boreens, strong women running the household, a range of extended family members, powerful priests, and greedy bank managers.
On the other side of the equation was a character I heard about myself while living in Mullingar in the early 1970s. He was an elegant man and went by the name Roche T, but as Vincent Henry writes: ‘Why his name went in reverse I do not know. And I never asked to find out.”
Roche T was a sales representative for Ranks Mills and a regular caller to the Henrys to take their order for sacks of flour. Unlike most of his clients, he played rugby rather than Gaelic football or hurling, and it was when he attended a game for Mullingar that he achieved lasting fame.
In that particular match, he received a massive kick in the crown jewels from an opposing player, leaving his prostate and nearly unconscious from pain. When alickadoos, as they were called, attempted to provide relief, Roche T came to life with a stammer that was repeated for years: “Don’t rub them, count them.”
This was a world before television, when the family knelt to pray the rosary and the Henrys’ van rarely left the road, be it for business or pleasure.
“When the van’s sliding door finally closed at Scally’s of Attyconnor, it was time to head home – and I couldn’t wait. With no animal feed, briquettes or coal on board and the groceries much lighter, the van could go a little faster on the return trip.”
Back in Clara, it was no longer a traveling shop, but was converted into a van for a game at Croke Park the next day, using the wooden egg crates as seating.
“There was nothing to do but bed, breakfast, mass – and make banana sandwiches, which were often black by the time we got to Dublin.”
The advent of the car, the depopulation of the rural hinterland and the bliss of bungalows finally put an end to the mobile shop. The delivery truck gave way to the supermarkets and the petrol station, and an attitude towards life that lasted for generations gushed out, was gone in an instant.
One Last Bend: A Personal History of Peter Henry’s Traveling Shop by Vincent Henry is available at local retailers and also on Amazon
https://www.independent.ie/news/tales-from-a-lost-time-when-mobile-shops-were-rural-lifelines-42193577.html Tales of a lost time when mobile businesses were rural lifelines