George Hegarty always seemed to be part of the Athy I knew as I grew up. Surprisingly he has only been with us since 1957.
Of West Cork farming stock George was born in the townland of Smorane, Skibbereen, where his brother still works the farm which has been home to Hegartys for seven generations. At an early age George was apprenticed to a draper and shoe merchant in his native town. In those days shop apprenticeships were much sought after and indoor staff, who lived over the premises, actually paid for the privilege of learning their trade. As an outdoor staffer who lived at home George earned 7/6 per week for the first six months. To younger generations unaccustomed to the intricacies of pounds, shillings and pence, his pay in modern coinage came to 37½ pence per week.
In April 1945 George was on the move when he got a job in Templemore. Staying only eleven weeks he moved further inland on being appointed Chargehand in the Boot Department of Goods of Kilkenny in July 1945. As a member of the indoor staff George lived over the premises with full board and a salary of £14.0.0 per year. Boots and shoes sold in those days were of the sturdy type, designed to last. Every home had an iron last used when reinforcing newly purchased boots or shoes with the metal heels and toe caps so prevalent in the 1940's and 1950's.
George spent three years in the Marble City before returning to Templemore in November 1948 to set up his own boot, shoe and light drapery business. Marrying the following year George was to spend the next eight years developing his business during the difficult years of the pre Lemass boom years. Giving up the unequal struggle in 1957 George came to Athy to work for Shaws as Manager in mens clothing.
In the late 1950's and well into the 1970's tailor made suits were all the vogue. A good quality suit cost sixteen guineas although a cheaper version was available for £12. Rolls of cloth decorated the shop shelves but the choice was limited normally to dark grey or navy with or without stripes. Customers were measured on the premises and the cloth was then sent to a local tailor or to Dublin to be made up. If made up locally all the trimmings were provided by Shaws. These included buttons, thread (including twist or heavy thread for button holes), heavy outer lining and inner lining of canvas, hair cloth or synddo. The local tailors included Mick Egan of Leinster Street, Tom Moran of St. Patrick's Avenue and John Connell of Prusselstown. Once made up the garments were returned to Shaws for a fitting after which final adjustments were made before completion.
The emergence of the ready made suits in the early 1970's hastened the demise of the town tailoring skills. George recalls how his boss reacted on seeing the first readymade suits which George had ordered for the shop. Made of shiny cloth material with narrow trouser legs they did not find favour with Sam Shaw who ordered them to be returned as "they will never sell". They were sold within a week leading to another order from George and the admission from his boss who was over 50 years in business "Hegarty, I have gone beyond it".
Up to the mid-1970's Athy was still a hive of business activity especially on Saturday nights with late opening until 9.00 p.m. George recalls many a Christmas Eve leaving the store with work colleagues at 10.30 p.m. after a long and busy day clutching Santa's toys secured at the last moment for his children Ivor and Anne. Stories of the same toys scattering around Leinster Street under the watchful eye of the local Gardai after a nocturnal visit to a well known watering hole are recounted with mirth and a wistful regret for times now past.