The corner shop is probably one of the most visited exhibit buildings at the Ulster Folk Museum. Standing close to the entrance of Ballycultra Town, it is one of the first buildings visitors come to and, perhaps most important of all, it is where you can buy traditional sweets!
The corner shop is one of the museum’s ‘original’ buildings, meaning it was removed brick by brick from its original location in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, so that it could be carefully rebuilt at the museum. It was thought that the building dates back to 1889, although a family member has recently suggested it could be somewhat earlier (prior to 1871).
The building was located on the corner of Nelson Street and Irish Quarter West, a short distance from the gasworks (now Flame Gasworks Museum). Prior to World War II the Old Irish Quarter was a very poor run down Catholic ghetto area of Carrickfergus.
In Louis MacNeice’s poem “Carrickfergus” it is noted,
“But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.” In his unfinished autobiography he recounts, “We rarely went to the Irish Quarter and I used to hold my breath till I got through it. There was a smell of poverty as of soot mixed with porter mixed with cheap fat frying mixed with festering scabs and rags that had never been washed.”
Walter Carruth was the owner of a local building company. He built several rows of terrace houses in Carrickfergus, including Nelson Street and the building which became the corner shop and the family home. Walter was a leading townsman of Carrickfergus Urban District Council and also served as a Justice of the Peace.
Walter married three times and had four sons and two daughters. At the time of the 1901 census, Walter’s household comprised his second wife Margaret aged 53, their son John, a carpenter aged 15, their daughter Margaret, a schoolgirl aged 12 and his sister-in-law Elizabeth McCashin, a dressmaker aged 65.
Some reports suggest the building housed a butcher’s shop initially but for the majority of its time in operation it served as a corner shop, selling such things as toys, sweets, tobacco, tea and a limited range of biscuits. Some seasonal goods were sold, such as small eggs made from hard white icing sugar at Easter, buckets and spades during the summer and religious wares at Christmas. Credit was not given in the shop but a Christmas Savings Club operated for small toys.
It is unlikely that the corner shop ever became truly profitable. The shop’s custom mainly came from local working people and schoolchildren and it faced stiff competition from other shops of its kind including Bell’s on High Street, which is still in operation today.
The majority of the family’s income instead came from the builder’s yard, situated at the back of the property, which had gates onto Irish Quarter West. Sheds housed the main workshop at an upper level, whilst the ground level was reserved for vehicles and storage.
Walter’s second wife Margaret initially ran the corner shop before his daughter Mary (from his first marriage) took over around the late 1910s. Mary’s husband Robert McKeown ran the building business, whilst her daughters helped her to run the shop, in particular her daughter Lizzie.
Robert and Mary McKeown had nine children (five sons and four daughters). Because they worked in the builder’s yard, the boys did not serve in the shop. At times they would tease their sisters by coming into the shop when it was empty and calling for service! It was the family’s habit to use the shop door (and yard door) to get to and from the domestic side of the property. Once the shop door was opened in the early morning (before 9am) it was rarely closed until late evening when the family retired for the night.
Mary worked in the shop until the early 1950s when she decided to give it up due to old age. For a time the shop was left vacant but in the 1970s it was rented out to a local woman who opened a clothes shop.
The house end of the building was retained and lived in by members of the McKeown family until 1987 when the houses at Nelson Street and Irish Quarter West (including the shop) were acquired by the Department of the Environment and scheduled for demolition and redevelopment.
It was around this time that the building was moved to the Folk Museum. The corner shop opened to the public in the mid-1990s. Today it sits on the corner of Cluan Place and Tea Lane across from the IOGT Hall, which also came from Carrickfergus.
I would like to extend thanks to Paul McKeown, the great-great-grandson of Walter Carruth, and his wife Veronika who recently provided me with additional photographs and information about the corner shop and its inhabitants. I would also like to thank Shirin Murphy of Carrickfergus Museum and her predecessor Helen Rankin for providing me with information about the Old Irish Quarter, where the shop was originally situated.