Saturday 20 January 2018

Heritage town shows plenty of enterprise

Abbeyleix has changed over the years with the opening of new shops and restaurants, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

Abbeyleix, a heritage town on the main N8 road to Cork, was founded in the 18th century by Viscount de Vesci. The de Vesci family lived in Abbeyleix up to very recent times, when the Estate was sold, and the present Viscount moved to London.

People tend to drive straight through its long street on their journey south but one can't but notice its beautiful street lamps and fine stone-cut buildings. Having spent some time in Abbeyleix as a child I always keep my eye on it as I pass through. Recently, there has been a burgeoning of interesting shops, and the area has become popular, not just for weekend breaks, but it transpires quite a number of Dublin people have moved down to the area.

Whilst browsing in the gorgeous Bramley's lifestyle store and café on the main street, I got talking to a very helpful member of staff, Aoife Coughlan, who told me that not only had she and her brand new husband moved down there from Dublin but so had her sister and her family, and their parents too. I found this kind of fascinating.

Aoife, 28, was brought up in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines. Her dad, she told me, was in the Army for 41 years, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel, having served in the Lebanon, Bosnia, Croatia and throughout the Middle East. Aoife describes it as an "amazing childhood".

"Once you went through the front gates into the barracks, it was a different world where you felt safe and protected. There were nine families living there with a really strong sense of community, which was great because Rathmines as such, having so many people in flats, tended to be a bit lacking in that area."

On leaving St Louis school in Rathmines, Aoife didn't know what she wanted to do so she went to work for friends of the family "for a short period" in their Genius clothing stores but she ended up staying nine years! She says she learned a lot there about the retail trade and absolutely loved it.

She got married last October to Neil Cooney, who works in the alarm business, and says she and Neil have always been quite focused about money and what they are doing. Aoife had bought her first apartment in Stepaside when she was 24, however, they felt there was a downturn in the offing and decided to sell the apartment and look for a house in the Abbeyleix area, where her sister had already moved. She is a very affable and pleasant girl and I could see what she meant when she said, "I can pretty well fit in anywhere, so we decided to go for it."

Aoife and Neil found their house in the village of Ballyroan, close to Abbeyleix, and they haven't looked back. "Everyone is so friendly, and there is a great sense of community. I always had a place in my heart for country living, and Bramley's is a lovely place to work -- it's like playing house, I get to move everything around".

Bramley's is owned by Shelly Stokes who, along with her husband Peter Stokes, owns Castle Durrow Hotel in Durrow, just a little bit further down the main road. They have also recently opened McEvoy's Wine Bar & Bistro in Abbeyleix which is a good addition to the town for casual dining. I lingered over magnificent country-style oak dining tables, sofas, and rustic antique-style desks by Flamant, a Belgian Interiors Company. They also have a boutique selling a range of clothing 'Dreams by Isabell Kristensen' and some big sizes. Well worth a visit.

Sarah Webb of the food company, The Gallic Kitchen, and her husband Patrick, also sold their home in Ranelagh in 2004 to move to the area. The Gallic Kitchen started out in 1989 and has been in Francis Street, Dublin, since 1994. It specialises in handmade pies, tarts, roulades, quiches, and their Russian style pastry plaits, encasing delicious fillings such as salmon and broccoli, are great for parties or events. Last September, Sarah opened a branch of The Gallic Kitchen right across the road from Bramley's.

Sarah took on a small Georgian farmhouse outside Durrow which hadn't been lived in for 60 years. It was a massive renovation job but Sarah, originally from Co Offaly, hunts and this is the life for her. There are 12 to 14 acres which are zoned organic behind the house, and she has built a commercial kitchen in a former barn from which she supplies the Abbeyleix shop and the farmers' markets, where The Gallic Kitchen stalls are by now a familiar sight.

They also provide catering for Dublin City Council, Trinity College and the National Lottery. The vegetables used are sown, grown, and hand picked at Sarah's brother's farm in Co Offaly and the majority of their meat is sourced from local organic producers.

Sarah intends developing the organic growing in Durrow for use in a line of organic pies. You can check out for market locations but they are always at Marley Park, Temple Bar and Dun Laoghaire.

Next door to The Gallic Kitchen is Alissa Blundell's Horse 'N' Riders, a dinky shop catering for the horse and horseman, amongst other things.

Alissa was born in England but was brought to Ireland as young child. Her English father was a saddler with the prestigious maker of equestrian and leather goods, Swaine Adeney of St James's in London, and her mother was from Tipperary.

Alissa's shop is tiny but brimful of treasures! She specialises in second-hand saddlery, hunting jackets, tweed jackets, and second-hand books.

She also has very witty cards and dressers laden down with jugs, mugs, butter dishes, plates, and lots of curious and interesting bits and pieces to keep you mesmerised. "Jugs are hugely popular with all the visitors to the town", says Alissa, and she certainly has plenty.

They are all very enterprising women and great fun to talk to too! So next time you're on the long drive south, take a coffee break and a browse in Abbeyleix.

Sunday Independent

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