In the past religious and class differences tended to keep apart Protestant and Roman Catholics socially and in the workplace and this segregation was fostered by a mutual suspicion which was self-perpetuating. Attitudes changed and a decision by Sam Shaw, Proprietor of Shaws Department Store in Athy over 50 years ago helped to break the mould.
I remember when growing up in Athy in the 1950's the female assistants working in Shaws who were the last in a long line of girls and young men who had come to the town from addresses all over Ireland to be apprenticed to the drapery trade. The girls, all of whom were of Protestant stock, lived over the premises where they had their quarters, quite separate from the men who had rooms at the back of the yard. A housekeeper was employed to provide meals and keep an eye on any inhouse activity which might not meet with the Proprietor’s approval.
In the mid-thirties Shaws was home to upwards of 20 young women, all of whom paid £25 per year for the privilege of undergoing a three year apprenticeship at the counter. It was only when they qualified that they become eligible for a wage which amounted to £6 per month. The hours were long with a 9.00 o'clock start, half an hour for lunch, finishing at 6.00 p.m. on weekdays and 9.00p.m. on Saturday. Indeed the Saturday closing time often stretched to 10.00p.m. if there were customers still lingering on the premises. Staff had a half day off on a Thursday which was the town’s early closing day.
The girls in the early 1940's included many who were to marry and settle down in Athy. Lucy Dobson was to marry Bob Bryan, while Ethel Donaldson married John Meredith. Florrie Bass who came from Wexford married local farmer Bill Hendy, while Mary Gunnell married John Hendy. Others who worked and lived in Shaws during the war years included Frances Dobson, Etta Eacrett, May Sinnott and Amelia Boyhan. Jenny Hegarty whose home town was Athy was one of the few locals working in Shaws who lived out. The girls generally spent their leisure hours playing badminton or participating in activities of the Girls Friendly Society in the Parochial Hall on the Carlow Road.
Everyone living in was required to keep to a strict 10.00p.m. curfew and woe betide anyone who without good reason sought to stay out any longer. For all that, life was very pleasant for the girls and the men who lived in around that time including George Bryan, Victor Leigh, Jim Boyd and Jim Leggett. Indeed one of the great stories of the time concerned Jim Leggett's unusual use of the pulley system within the shop which sent monies and invoices along a series of wires to the cash office from each sales counter. The money was put into a circular box which screwed into a holder and was then propelled overhead to the cashier who took out the money and returned the box with any change via the same route. Jim, obviously determined to liven up proceedings in the shop one morning sent his box whizzing overhead to the female cashier who duly reached up to unscrew the box and emptied out it’s contents - a dead mouse. It is safe to assume that the Proprietor, Sam Shaw, was not on the premises that morning.
Sam who lived in the Mill House opposite Hannon's Mill in Duke Street before moving to Cardenton was regarded kindly by his staff. Dissatisfaction however was always registered by him if a potential customer was allowed to leave the premises without purchasing. This to Sam Shaw was inexcusable calling forth a myriad of questions as to what had been shown or not shown to the customer.
At one time Catholics were not employed in Shaws. Unfortunately it is not always remembered that this practice ceased as early as the 1940's. I believe that the first Catholic to work there was Doris Ruddy, a daughter of the local Garda Sergeant who left Athy in 1945 to be replaced by my own father. Her brother also worked in the Mens Department of Shaws at that time.
The advertising slogan says "Shaws - Almost Nationwide" but to Athy people Shaws is a local institution which helped in no small way to break down the barriers between Protestant and Roman Catholic. For this we have to thank Sam Shaw who started a process of community integration over 50 years ago of which we are the beneficiaries today.