For someone like myself who grew up in Athy in the 1950s the names Bradburys and Shaws are names which feature in treasured memories of 60 years ago. I have previously written of Tom Bradbury and the extraordinary impact he had, not only locally but also regionally on the world of baking. Shaws is a name synonymous with shopping in Athy. Yet strangely the Shaw story is one which had its origins across the county border in the Laois town of Mountmellick. The County Laois town drained by the Oweness River, a tributary of the River Barrow, was founded in the early part of the 17th century and owed its early development to the Loftus family. Before the settlement had reached its first century it had already established itself as a major centre for members of the Society of Friends. The Quakers, as they were commonly known, arrived in Mountmellick with William Edmundson in 1659, just five years after the first Irish Quaker meeting had opened in Lurgan. The Penal laws restricted Quakers, Roman Catholics and Dissenters alike to involvement in industry and commerce and it was largely due to the enterprise of the local Quakers that Mountmellick became known as the ‘Manchester of Ireland’.
It was the marriage of Henry Samuel Shaw and Annie Smith which saw the establishment of the Shaw business which next year celebrates it sesquicentennial. It was just fifteen years after the Great Famine when the newly married couple opened up their business as drapers in the County Laois town. Henry Shaw, a native of West Cork, had earlier worked for the Quaker family of Pims, while his wife Annie who was originally from Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, had worked for the local firm of Smiths as a dressmaker.
The small drapery business benefitted from the strong work ethic championed by John Wesley on his many visits to Ireland. John Shaw and his wife were believed to be members of the local Methodist community, which in its early years was still part of the Established Church. Their business prospered and in 1890 the Shaws purchased a boot and shoe shop in what was then Maryborough. Called ‘The Boot Mart’, it dealt exclusively in footwear but as part of the developing Shaw enterprise it extended the business into drapery. Within two years however Henry Samuel Shaw died and his eldest son William then became a driving force in the business with his mother Anne. There were two other sons, Henry and Samuel, and it was the latter who in his time would drive the Shaw enterprise forward to become one of the largest family drapery businesses in Ireland.
In 1904 the Shaws purchased four thatched houses on the main street of Maryborough and this was the location until some weeks ago of Shaws Department Store in Portlaoise. It was there that the Shaws specialised in the early years in hand tailored garments.
Athy people have always associated Shaws with the South Kildare town. It was here that the developing drapery enterprise which in later years had branches ‘almost nationwide’, had its headquarters. The driving force behind the advancement of the firm was Samuel Shaw or Sam as he was better known. Sam, the third son of Henry and Annie Shaw, the founders of the firm, was sent to Athy in or around 1902 to serve his apprenticeship with Alexander Duncan of Duke Street. Four years later he went to London to learn the tailoring business and on his return to Ireland some years later Sam Shaw worked in the Portlaoise shop with his brother William. In 1914 as war clouds gathered over Europe Duncan’s Department Store in Athy was sold and the purchaser was Annie Shaw who had opened her first shop in Mountmellick exactly 50 years previously. The tragic death of William Shaw, just weeks after he married in 1929, left Sam Shaw effectively in charge of the Shaw drapery business. He would continue to be involved until his death in 1980, during which time he skilfully contributed to the growing success of Shaws.
Shaws stores are now to be found in Athy, Carlow, Portlaoise, Mountmellick, Waterford, Wexford, Roscrea, Fermoy, Limerick, Tralee, Dun Laoghaire, Castlebar, Drogheda and Ballina. It is a family firm, although now under aegis of a company formed in the 1930s.
Athy is no longer the headquarters of the Shaw enterprise, the management focus having shifted to Portlaoise some years ago. However, for Athy people Shaws is still seen as an Athy firm. It is after all the anchor tenant in ‘shopping Athy’ and many people will have memories of shopping, not only in the Athy branch but in many of the Shaw branches which are to be found in three of the four provinces.
To mark the sesquicentennial of Shaws stores I am gathering material for a written account of the Shaw story. All of us have memories of shopping in Shaws and of dealing with the staff, many of whom spent a lifetime working behind the counter. I would like to hear your memories, good or bad, of shopping in Shaws. Let me have your stories for possible inclusion in a forthcoming publication dealing with the history of one of Ireland’s most famous family drapery stores.