Atmosphere of a wake as Annascaul shop closes
There was the atmosphere of a wake in Ashe's shop in Annascaul on Saturday as locals called in for a cup of tea and a chat before the doors were closed for the last time on a business that has served the community since 1916.
For Thomas Ashe and his wife, Eileen, the decision to close was "extremely painful" but in the end there was no getting away from the fact that it had become economically unviable to continue running a small shop that simply couldn't compete with supermarkets.
Although the gradual decline in small rural shops has been ongoing since the 1980s, Thomas feels that the more recent arrival of Lidl and Aldi in Ireland has "skewed the whole market". Other supermarkets were forced to cut their prices in order to compete and the knock-on effect trickled down as far as small shops. However, small retailers didn't have the same scope for cutting prices which left them at a competitive disadvantage and one by one they have been forced to close down.
Ashe's shop didn't go down without a fight. Since taking over the shop in 1990 Thomas and Eileen diversified into providing a wider range of artisan foods, they expanded their selection of wines and added a seating area in an effort to attract more customers. All of this helped, but not enough. Even their greatest strength - the advantage of being a local 'convenience store' - was diminished by the fact that Annascaul doesn't have enough footfall to maintain the cost of running the shop in which two people were employed.
"We tried everything... We would love to have kept it open; it was a heart-breaking decision to close but there was no option. I feel bad for the village of Annascaul, but a shop has to be economically viable and in the end it wasn't," said Thomas.
The fate of Ashe's shop is part of a pattern that has been replicated throughout the village of Annascaul and throughout West Kerry. Thomas recalls that in the 1980s there were eight small shops and a 'pop-up' chemist shop in Annascaul, now only O'Donnell's shop remains. The village used to have two small petrol stations, both are now closed. West of Dingle only three rural shops remain and the two-pump country petrol stations have become a thing of the past.
Ashe's shop leaves behind a fascinating slice of local history. It was built on a site bought for £12 from the Tralee and Dingle Light Railway and opened in 1916 by Thomas's grand uncle Michael F Ashe and his American-born wife Ella O'Flaherty after he returned home from Boston where he had owned a pub with Cornelius O'Sullivan.
Michael and Ella, who was of Annascaul extraction, operated the shop as a general merchant store, selling every kind of commodity that would be needed in a rural village as well as buying butter from local farmers which he then sold on to the butter market in Cork.
The shop included a butcher's counter and from the outset one of their house specialities was home-made black pudding. The pudding met with approval from discerning local palates and shortly after he took over the shop in 1990 Thomas seized on this as a source of inspiration. He set up Ashe's Annascaul Black Pudding as a separate entity and gradually it grew to become the main business, winning a great many awards and commendations along the way.
Seven people are now employed in the small food production unit at the back of the old shop where Ashes produce their black pudding - using the family recipe that Thomas learned from his mother - along with a range of other products including sausages, sausage rolls and rashers. The business supplies up to 70 shops, restaurants and hotels and in an Ireland where artisan food is more appreciated the future looks bright.
That success doesn't take away from the sadness at the closure of the old shop but Thomas still holds out hope: "The premises is still here, so who knows, there might be the possibility of something in the future," he says.