Jimmy Somers, Athenry 2002

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Commerce runs in every vein of Jimmy Somers who was a travelling wholesaler for twenty-five years. Having sold everything from bowls of raspberry ice-cream to gallons of petrol, he is now happy to take a back seat from business and concentrate on mastering the game of 25.

Listening to Jimmy Somers talk about his life and times brings home the huge changes that have taken place in Athenry during the past fifty years. One of a family of four, he was born in Newford in 1930. His father, Pat, was employed as a pigman at the Agricultural College, locally called The Farmyard, for a wage of three pounds six shillings and eight pence a week (£8–6-8) a week.  the job carried the benefits of milk at two and a half pence old pence a quart (tuppence halfpenny), vegetable at a reduced cost and rent of the house for one shilling and six pence (one and six). His brother, Martin, is still employed at the College.

Jimmy attended the Old Boys School in Abbey Lane where he was taught by Mrs Woods. The principal teacher, Martin Walsh, lived in Salthill and cycled to Athenry every day on a high nellie bicycle during the war years. Later a new school was built in Swangate opposite Hanberry’s hotel. It was customary for a pupil to be sent to the hotel for a pot of hot water for the teachers’ tea. Being wartime tea was scarce and had to be spooned carefully into the water. One day, a pupil, Billy Walsh, who had been treated harshly by the teacher, added a big spoon-full of ashes, from the open fire, to the tea and stirred it in. The boys waited with bated breath, when the teacher took the first taste. They were waiting for “fire-works”. The brew was brew was consumed and Billy was summonsed to the top of the class but much to his surprise instead of getting ‘five of the best’ as a punishment he was praise from a height and was told that ‘it was the best pot of tea ever’ and from then on Billy was the tea-man and kept to the new recipe until he left school.

Running messages

Jimmy’s first job was in 1947 in Leo Mahon’s bar, general merchants and travel agents. This arose because he didn’t like his new secondary school in Loughrea and he promised his parents that he would get a job in town. True to his word he met Leo Mahon, on his way from his house in Swangate to his shop in Cross Street, and asked him for a job. He was interviewed next day and started on a wage of fifteen shillings a week. (15 bob) These were the days when general merchants provided for all the needs of the town. Mahons was one of the biggest and most well-known businesses in Athenry. It was run by Leo, his wife Minnie (a sister of Kathleen Hanberry) and his brother Harry (who also lives in Swangate) in what is now Iggy Daly’s premises. Mary Lavin, the writer, whose mother was Leo’s sister occupied part of the house in Cross street. ‘I was only a young lad and ran for messages, for Mrs Lavin, all the time’ Jimmy says.

On the slate

At that time the railway was the main means of transporting goods and the station in Athenry was the hub of commerce in town. The goods store was visited three times daily to collect incoming goods. These were brought to local shops by ass and cart or handcart. All goods came in bulk and items like tea and sugar were weighed out on the premises. ‘It was common for customers to get cred in those days’ Jimmy explains. ‘Farmers paid bills on the fair day after selling livestock. Very few bills went unpaid. It was a matter of pride to pay off any debts’.

Fair days were held once a month on Fridays and as well as being the busiest days involved a few less desirable chores. He remembers having to erect a barrier outside the path to protect it from the worst of the cow-dung and having to scrub the walls and footpath next day.

After three years with Mahons Jimmy was promoted to chargehand and given an increase of six shillings a week.

Jane Somers (Sr Kieran) outside Jimmy’s first shop

Shop to Shop

The Mahons also ran a wholesale business that supplied many rural shops in the region. When Leo retired from the business, Jimmy decided to take his first entrepreneurial gamble and became a travelling wholesaler. He covered a huge geographical area with his travelling van from Ballyvaughan to Claremorris and as far east as Whitegate and Ballinasloe. I would make ten or twelve calls a day to all sorts of small country shops’ Jimmy says ‘I loved the travelling and built up a great relationship with shopkeepers’. You supplied everything from Milk of Magnesia to puncture outfits for bicycles. If you didn’t have what was needed on the day it could be sent the next day with the breadman on his round.

Jimmy’s next venture was to rent the current Irish Permanent premises and open a shop. Jim Bransfield ran a Sunday shop there for Sweeneys who also had public house and grocery business. There were several well-established grocery business in town such as Fahys, Corbetts, Sweeneys and Higgins so he decided to do something different. He opened a fancy goods shop and also sold ice cream. He employed his sister Jane to run the shop but she left after a year to enter a convent. Jane is now Sister Kieran and lives in Buckinghamshire in England. Keeping it in the family, he then employed his brother, Paddy, who died in 1980.

Tuppenny Wafers

Jimmy always loved dancing and opened the shop late at night to sell ice cream. We served bowls of ice cream with a raspberry on top. There was great demand after dances. At that time a block of ice cream cost two shillings and we would cut it into tuppenny (twopenny) wafers’ he says. Despite his busy lifestyle Jimmy found time to meet and marry his wife Bríd (Cunniffe) in 1962. Bríd’s family owned the Newpark Hotel and she managed it for twenty-two years. They have two sons Enda and Jarlath.

Always on the lookout for a new opportunity he bought Sweeney’s yard and built his next shop. ‘Joe Maloney built and roofed the shop for five hundred pounds. We built the house beside it later and lived there for several years’ he says. ‘This shop was a meeting place for the youth of the town who came to chat and play cards’. After twenty-five years of being a travelling wholesaler Jimmy retired from the road. ‘Times were changing and the cash and carry was taking over’ he says. The family was young and we both had a lot on our hands’.

Short Journey

The final move for Jimmy was School in 1991 when he moved across the road and set up the current Somers shop which was formally the Boys National School.’ I could see the potential to expand the business’ he says. ‘The petrol pumps were a great addition and the advantage of parking is very important for customers’. Jimmy now sees himself as semi-retired since he recently handed over the business to Enda.

A full-scale modernisation of the shop has taken place in the past year and it now operates as a spar franchise. Even though he has opted to take a back seat Jimmy is still very mush the recognised face of the business. ‘All our customers are important and it’s nice to be able to meet and greet the regular faces’. He says’. ‘I’m very happy with all the changes and I’m very impressed with the new shop. It’s a far cry from where I started out with a little hucksters shop. The biggest difficulty I have is dealing with the new money. (Euro). It takes time to adjust to it.

Pioneer

During his busy life he has always found time to become involved in community work. ‘I never drank and I was always involved with the Pioneers’ he says. ‘It was a very social thing in those days. We were always out cycling to and from events and going on excursions’. He is a member of the Lady’s Well Committee that has carried out mayor work at the well in recent times. Jimmy would be relied on to help out at the Athenry Agricultural Show when needed and he runs the shop at the Parish Sports and Community Games.

Another interest he as developed in recent years is travelling abroad. ‘I never had time in the past but I have been to the U.S., Switzerland and England and I loved it’. He sees many changes in Athenry over the years. ‘There’s a huge amount of building going on and a big increase in traffic in the town. Parking is a major problem. There was a time when you knew everyone in the parish. I was one of the collectors of Christmas dues at the church door for many years and I knew everyone who came in. now I wouldn’t know a tenth of them’.

Shuffling decks

After  more than 50 years in business and semi-retired Jimmy certainly can’t be described as taking it easy. ‘I play cards six nights a week with a regular crowd. I enjoy playing 25’ he says. ‘I smoke my pipe and relax. I’m as happy as Larry’.

Feature Photo- Enda, Jimmy, Bríd and Jarlath, 2002

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About this record

Written by Cáit Curran

Published here 13 Aug 2023 and originally published Winter 2002

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