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Cork Independent


Supermarket sweep

Thursday, 17th January, 2013 12:00am

When I was born, supermarkets were unknown in Ireland. Of course, they were not unheard of. They were known as far-off phenomena, more suited to the Godless life of larger societies but, nonetheless, sprinkled with a fair amount of fairy dust.   The first true supermarket had been opened in New York City by an Irish-American named Cullen as far back as 1930. And in England, Sainsbury's had opened their first self-service shop (nothing so vulgar as a supermarket) in 1950. Tesco opened its first supermarket, in Surrey, in 1956.   Here, things moved at a slower pace and eventually, as the country marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, Dunnes Stores opened the first true supermarket in 1966. It was at Cornelscourt in south County Dublin and was ugly enough, with sufficient parking, to be the real thing.   Self-service had crept in already, of course. Ben Dunne had introduced this revolutionary idea to his first store, in central Cork, way back in the 1950s. And H Williams (remember them?) were doing something similar by 1966. Their general manager, one Pat Quinn, wanted to open a full-blown supermarket at the new Stillorgan Shopping Centre but permission was refused. So he left and started Quinnsworth. Dublin got two supermarkets in one year.   But at this stage, the only 'multiples' were old-fashioned chains with counter service, tradition and a certain pride. They seemed very superior to the brash, new, brightly light supermarkets. The two best known examples were the Monument Creameries and Findlater's.   'The Monument', as it was called in our house sold milk, butter and cheese and I remember it as being all tiles and white marble, with old-fashioned scales and fine displays of biscuits. It used also sell a form of cooking chocolate that came in lengths of what appeared to be a chunky brown dado rail.   The first Monument Creamery opened on Parnell Street in Dublin in 1919, just opposite the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell, hence the name. At the peak of its success, there were 36 Monument Creameries around Dublin but by 1968 the business was forced into liquidation. By now, the chain of grocers established by Findlater's over a century before were struggling to survive and despite a flirtation with self-service, probably ten years too late, this fine old chain had disappeared before the decade was out. It belonged to an era when people - housewives as they would have been then - went 'marketing'. This did not mean the dark arts of selling but the procurement of sustenance.   You would take a stout basket and do your rounds. Butcher, baker, creamery, green grocer, fishmonger, general provision merchant. And possibly a visit to your wines and spirits merchant, which was very often a pub. The basket, however, would be used to collect only the lighter items or those that were required urgently. The rest would be delivered, very often by a youth on a specially contrived bicycle with a vast basket to the front and his employers name boldly written in white on black but, partially obscured by the rise and fall of bony knees. These young person were referred to as 'messenger boys', something that my father used as a term of opprobrium, for any kind of uncouth young man, well after the species had become extinct.   Or your order was dispatched by van. We had our groceries delivered every week by Findlaters. This was rather a grand custom which was in inverse proportion to the family fortune but it was splendidly convenient, especially as my somewhat luddite parents didn't have a car. 

Every week the Findlater's van would roll up, maroon red with gold lettering on the side, and as the driver unloaded the goods I would poke my head into the back to see what everyone else was getting.   I regret to say that I once stole a small bottle of tonic from the Findlater's van. I was seven and I didn't like it at all.   At that stage, of course, I didn't realise that it needs gin to make it taste okay.

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