Tuesday 15 October 2019

My 1916: Lemass and Lemon Sherberts

Eddie Kavanagh runs the Dublin sweetshop where Rising heroes plotted, planned and tucked in to the confectionary

The candy man can: Eddie Kavanagh runs the sweetshop his parents opened in 1925
The candy man can: Eddie Kavanagh runs the sweetshop his parents opened in 1925

The Kavanagh family shop on Dublin's Aungier Street on the southside of the Liffey dates back to the days shortly after the Easter Rising, and many of the characters associated with the place would have been involved in some way with that week which changed the course of Irish history.

My grandparents, who established the store, which may today be Ireland's oldest surviving sweetshop, would have witnessed many of the events of that revolutionary period. And sometimes took part in them.

One of our oldest and most loved customers, Eileen, who passed away just a few years ago at the grand age of 103, had been a regular customer from her childhood, and would tell us of her early memories of the Easter Rising.

When members of staff would comment on how well she looked, she'd remind them she'd been through the Rising, two world wars, and a whole lot else.

The events of Easter Week 1916, and the War of Independence that followed, wouldn't have happened without the active participation of Ireland's commercial class, the people that ran the shops and small businesses.

There are many tales in the lore of the Kavanagh family about the rat-runs which were a feature of many business outlets in the Dublin of the time, where rebels would use a store or an office as a pre-planned escape route, dashing in the front door after staging some event and maybe emerging from a basement a couple of streets away.

That's how it was back then.

The shop on Dublin's Aungier Street opened its doors in the years when the impact of the Easter Rising was fresh and new and still unpredictable. Nobody knew how it was all going to turn out.

The business was established by my grandfather, Joseph Kavanagh, who moved to Dublin from Edenderry.

When he opened the Aungier Street shop in 1925, Joseph already had two other sweet stores. One was just down the road on George's Street and the other was on Moore Street.

During the Easter Rising much of the district around O'Connell Street, including Moore Street, was devastated and took many years to recover.

Moore Street became something of a 'no-go' area for shoppers, and the Great Depression followed by the shortages of the Second World War didn't help it to recover.

As the nation came to a standstill in the 1940s, so did our shops on George's Street and Moore Street, so Joseph closed them. Aungier Street, though, thrived.

The then plotters and future leaders of the nation, Eamon de Valera and Sean Lemass, would hold shady meetings within the smoke-filled tearoom at the back. The young Lemass had a special fondness for Orange Caramels and Lemon Sherberts.

In the late 1970s a chimneysweep was at work in the Aungier Street shop unblocking the soot and grime of decades. I was around the age of 10, and already a veteran at serving in the shop, which I'd being doing since the age of six.

We heard this massive yell and this tumbling noise and it was the sweep coming flying down the chimney breast out into the shop. And lo and behold, lots of old army outfits and rifles and all the gear from that era came flying down with him. They'd been hidden up the chimney for decades. They're now on display in the National Museum.

The shop was run for decades by my grandfather Joeseph Kavanagh and his wife Theresa, who'd have come to Dublin in the 1910s. My grandmother Theresa was the driving force. She went in to put the bid on the shop to buy it, and in those days it wasn't the done thing for the woman to be in that role.

In those days it was an old-style grocery shop with a tea room at the back. A lot of the women weren't allowed into pubs, unless they were prepared to closet themselves in the hidey-holes of the snug, so they went to tea rooms to socialise. They did a lot of sandwiches, a bit of hot food, tea, coffee. It's thought that the reason for holding the plotters' meetings in tearooms was to make women welcome.

I followed my father into the family business, but others were forced onto the emigration trail. My uncle Edmund is quite prominent in America where he's known as what is a 'gold chaser' in the jewellery business. He'd have made lots of jewellery for Frank Sinatra and his wife and he's made a chain that Mike Tyson wears.

My father took over the store in the mid-1970s when the tea room had vanished but some links to the era of 1916 remained. Our main trade was weighing out sweets onto scales to be sold loose from the jar.

It was a business and it was a family business, but it was also a way of life. You met your friends in the shop. I remember people having sing-alongs in the shop.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, Easter meant something different in a sweetshop. My father would break up any unsold Easter eggs and sell them loose as broken chocolate. For kids it was a very popular source of cheap chocolate which was sold in quarter-pound bags.

My father also had loads of broken Kit-Kats which were sold in the same way. The likes of Cadbury and Rowntree had loads of seconds which came off the production line in odd shapes and sizes.

Today they destroy them, but back then they had all these small outlets, like ours, that would sell them broken. Easter also fell around Saint Patrick's Day, which still is always a comical day in the shop because we get the same customers coming in with their children on that day. It's a tradition for a lot of them, because as kids they used to come into the shop for sweets.

The Saint Patrick's Day parade used to go down Aungier Street for many years. The same families would congregate outside the shop, get their sweets, watching the parade. Now the parade goes down Dame Street but after the parade those children from my youth come up to the shop with their kids to show the kids the sweets they had when they were children.

And, of course, the arrival of Easter always meant that Lent was over. For my parents it meant business as usual again.

Irish Independent

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