Jimmy still behind the counter 50 years on
By Dan Danaher
RETIREMENT is still not an option for 78-year-old Killaloe shopkeeper Jimmy Whelan, despite reaching 50 years in local retailing on Friday.
Jimmy Whelan, of Whelan's shop in Killaloe, is celebrating 50 years in the retail business. Photograph by John Kelly
Jimmy still loves meeting his loyal customers in Whelan's Foodstore at the bottom of Main Street, Killaloe, as much as he did when he opened a small shop in Church Street in January 1964.
Then aged 27, he rented this building, which included the shop, a small kitchen and two bedrooms at a cost of £2 weekly.
Jimmy never envisaged he would transform the old Kincora Dance Hall into a thriving business, while he was playing the button accordion with the Jimmy Whelan Dance Band at this venue from 1964 to 1970.
His current premises, which is located nearby, became renowned as a popular entertainment venue during the construction of the Shannon Scheme in Ardnacrusha and throughout the '30s.
Two West Clare brothers opened a supermarket there in 1970 but were forced to shut down following a fire a few weeks later.
Identifying an opportunity to develop a new business at a prime location in the shadow of Killaloe Cathedral, Jimmy bought the charred shell and developed a general grocery and toy business, as well as a residence for years, following extensive renovations.
He set up home at Hill Road but subsequently purchased an old doctor's residence, Abbey View on Convent Hill, where he currently resides.
After taking out a considerable bank loan, he was working almost 14 hours a day, seven days a week in an effort to establish his new business and keep up loan repayments.
Now entering his sixth decade in the retailing industry, the former musician is still as keen as ever to maintain the business.
"Retiring never crossed my mind. I am reducing my hours but I still work seven days a week. Self-employed people tend to keep going.
"I love meeting the people every day. I would be bored sitting at home. I come over here [home] to make a cup of tea at about 5pm and after a short while, I would be getting itchy feet to go back again. It's my life.
"I will stay going as long as God gives me good health. People expect me to be there in the shop. People tell me 'I was in the shop yesterday and you weren't there'," he says.
A non-drinker and non-smoker, he enjoys good health and goes for a walk most days. Jimmy and his late wife, Eileen, started off with a small shop. She worked as a general assistant in the Lakeside Hotel and had the benefit of meeting and dealing with people on a regular basis, which was a big advantage starting out with a new business.
His current working day starts at about 10.30am and extends until 9pm at night, with two and a half hours of a lunch break and two hours of a tea break, seven days a week.
He said customers became more "cagey" about purchases in 2008 and would often handle an item twice before making their decision.
He expects the celebrations marking the 1,000-year anniversary of Brian Boru in the twin communities should result in an increase in the number of tourists attending the locality this year.
"The scenery in Killaloe is second to none. We have Lough Derg on our doorstep. The 13-arch bridge is a popular tourist attraction. There is friendly rivalry between Killaloe and Ballina when Clare and Tipperary are in action. However, for club games, Killaloe people support Ballina GAA and vice versa. When it comes to business or community activities, there is no real divide between the two," he explains.
Over the last five decades, he has survived the competition from large supermarkets and shopping centres, despite the fact that a lot of people travel to Limerick City for their shopping.
He recalls self-service was the most dramatic new addition that changed retailing completely. Previously, he remembers stacking items high on shelves to try and store as much as possible in a small shop.
However, he acknowledges that even he had to respond to the main selling maxim, "eye level is buy level".
Pride of place in his shop is Jimmy's kitchen clock, which has been there since the retail outlet first opened. Jimmy couldn't afford to take a day off on Sunday, which was usually his busiest day, because other shops closed and an influx of day trippers regularly made the short trip from Limerick to Killaloe to enjoy local amenities.
A break at the time was taking an afternoon off for a trip to meet his wife's family in Lusmagh near Banagher in South Offaly.