Carrolls of Course
A piece from The Irish Times in 2007 has surfaced again lately. It’s well worth a read.
Carrolls of course 2007
Overlooking the square in Listowel, MJ Carroll has met the town’s hardware requirements – and more – for nearly 100 years, writes Rose Doyle
The square in Listowel, Co Kerry – even allowing for the Kingdom’s well-known modesty – is without a doubt one of the loveliest in any town in the country. It helps that there’s a picturesque old church at its centre, and that there are ivy-clad and other buildings of venerable age in good condition all around.
One of the latter, rapidly heading for its 100th year on the square, is home to the MJ Carroll Hardware store – it has been there since 1908. You can’t miss it: the name and legend are a part of the square, the date over the door for all to see.
Maurice Carroll, with his brother John, runs the business today. It’s changed since 1908 but, in the way of companies with community roots, has somehow stayed the same. The Carrolls have diversified, of course, the emphasis no longer on the agricultural supplies which were the bread-and-butter of the earlier shop, when customers wanted and got potato diggers and prams, ammunition and guns and petrol from the pump outside the door.
MJ Carroll Hardware these days supplies everything from electrical and gardening supplies to household goods and DIY needs and timber, but all of it, as ever, in answer to the needs of the citizens of Listowel and hinterland.
Maurice Carroll, on a sunny Sunday with only the quietest of buzzes on the square outside, tells the story of the hardware store, how his grandfather, an earlier Maurice Carroll, established the business in 1908. “He came from Ballylongford,” says Maurice, “and started off originally with hardware and poultry. He used to pluck chickens, woodcock and snipe for export to England. They had chicken pluckers in the laneway behind.”
His grandfather, Maurice, married Catherine Welsh, whose people were publicans in the town. She and Maurice Carroll had one child, a boy they called John Joe who grew up to be father to Maurice and John, today’s custodians of the business.
“My grandfather and grandmother lived over the shop, always,” Maurice explains. “We’re a bit lacking in history because my grandfather died in 1928 and my grandmother Catherine about 1948. I’ve no memories of either of them. My father, John Joe Carroll, was born in 1912; he was well-known locally and developed the business well. We were into farm machinery in the 1920s and 1930s. My father was sent away to school in Roscrea when he was about 14. He was able to drive, even then, and never spent a day in the classroom! The chief abbot had him driving him around to other monasteries and convents. He didn’t do a Leaving Cert or a thing – he made the contacts in the monasteries and schools and convents and developed his head for business.”
Catherine Carroll looked after things when her husband died and, in 1930, her son John Joe came on board. He loved it, had an instinctive feel for marketing and increased awareness of MJ Carroll Hardware with large hoardings outside the town (one encouraged a viewing of the famous Stanley Ranges at Carrolls), drove much emblazoned, free-delivery vans and came up with the slogan “Carrolls of course” – in use to this day.
He married when he was 40, to Elizabeth (Lila) O’Sullivan from Tarbert who had, her son says, “a hardware background as well; she worked in Roches Stores in Limerick and in Cork.”
Growing up over the shop, Maurice, who was born in 1953, remembers the square and Listowel as “magic. Fair days were held every two weeks in the square. People would come in at 5am or 6am to sell cattle, from all around the countryside. It was the market in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. As a child, it was great to go out in the morning early and get 6d from a farmer to mind his cattle.” He pauses. “There was a lot of drinking involved.”
He has pictures galore, of a square filled with high sided donkey and horse drawn carts, with animals and men in long coats and caps.
MJ Carroll in those years, and for a long time, sold milk churns and “a big thing at the time”, Maurice says, “O’Dearest Mattresses. Prior to the TV in 1961 O’Dearest had an ad with an old woman putting money into a mattress. They lent us the model and during race week we would have crowds at the window queuing up to see her putting the money away, doing the same thing every few minutes.”
The square was magic, too, when he was a child. “You could play football in it. There were only 4,000 people in the town, a figure that never changed much, even to today. It’s a lovely town and one of the finest squares in Ireland.
“Listowel has hosted the races for the last 150 years and the Fleadh Cheoil about 12
to 13 times. It was ‘Writers’ Week’ which really put the town on the map.”
And the shop, of course, was magic when he was growing up. “There wasn’t a day you didn’t have something to do; it was full of old-fashioned boxes and such. I remember the bank manager next door getting presents of turkeys at Christmas and them flying over the wall. It was that rural!
“There was a great staff, 25 or so, a lot of them stayed for years and years. I remember Patsy Leahy, Dan Kennelly, Pat Shine. There was no boss/employer relationship, everyone just worked together. Tom Dillon was with us 44 years and retired only lately.”
Maurice was sent to school in Clongowes, to where his father would drive to see him in the van, which “would be plastered with writing”, Maurice remembers, “you’d have every priest and pupil looking at it. I used to be mortified. Other pupils would have dads pulling up in a Mercedes!”
John Joe Carroll died in 1968. Maurice, the eldest, was 14; sisters Olive, Pamela and brother John were younger.
“Everyone loved him,” Maurice says, “he had a colossal following.”
His mother, Lila, took over. She still lives over the shop and only very recently, now she’s in her 80s, stopped coming down every day. “People liked her being in the shop, she used talk about the old days. Up to 10 years ago the place was old-fashioned, the way it always was. But a fire destroyed a lot of it and we had to rebuild. Only the front wall remained.”
Before he died John Joe Carroll set up a builders’ providers in Listowel. “It happened piece-meal,” Maurice explains. “There were no builders’ providers around here at the time. I look after it now and it’s doing very well. My brother does the furniture and electrical part of things.
“We’ve a staff of 12 or 13 and have been part of the ARRO group of suppliers for 25 years.”
Maurice and his wife, Mairead, have two daughters, Emma and Sarah, in their early 20s and studying at UCD. Maurice doesn’t think they’ll join the business. John and his wife, Anne-Marie, have a daughter, Maire, who at 14 is still at school and not, for now, likely to join the firm.
“Next year is our 100th year,” Maurice reflects a moment, on the past and on the future. “We’ll take it on from there,” he says.
The biggest change to Listowel is the increased traffic. “That and more and more new faces, both our own people and other nationalities. It’s a good thing, there’s more movement going on.
“Listowel is a nice town, a nice looking town too. The community is great, but then you get that everywhere in Ireland when people mix together.
“There’s a culture change from drinking to eating with about 20 restaurants now and, where there once was about 60 pubs, about 15 to 20 now.”
Listowel’s Oldest Mural?
Is this VW on Tarrant’s gable the oldest mural in town.
Gerard Leahy grew up in Market Street across the road from the garage, 60 years ago and he remembers it.
Ned O’Sullivan lived next door to Tarrants and he reckons it was painted in 1960 or 61.
Unfortunately the artist didn’t sign his name but Violet Dalton would bet her bottom dollar it was a Chute.
Lovely Paint Job at Lees
Job finished and looking great on Church Street.
Another Business Closure
Lenten display in St. Mary’s, Listowel in February 2023.