After well over a century, McCuskers shop is set to close it's doors before the end of the month. Owners Paddy and Barbara McCusker have been running the popular Earl Street store for 36 years.
Iconic is as good a word as any to describe McCuskers of Earl Street — especially when talking about it's stunning shop front, a modern-day link to yesteryear.
McCuskers been part of Dundalk life for so long that its current proprietors have been unable to pinpoint exactly when it first opened — it was at some point between 1898 and 1903. Either way, it is a well over a century old and the business has enjoyed the kind of longevity few can dream of.
First opened by Peter McCusker, it has remained a fixture on Earl Street throughout the 20th century and to this day. Over the years, the small newsagents has also been home to a bookmakers, a hairdressers and a small library.
It has never been a licensed premises, but that didn’t stop McCuskers being known for years as ‘the pub with no beer’.
“We used to open on a Sunday morning,” Paddy McCusker recalls. “It was great craic. It was mainly men coming in for the papers. The average day, they’d come in for an hour. It was like a Men’s Shed. It wouldn’t be a days work at all.”
The heartbeat of the shop is Barbara McCusker, Paddy’s wife and for 36 years the face customers were greeted with as they came in for newspapers, groceries or latterly, gifts.
“It was a real drop-in shop. People would come in from the country and they couldn’t be hawking stuff around town with them – so they would leave it here,” Barbara says.
“We’d put seats out for the older people and there’d be a cup of tea, all that kind of thing. It really is a home from home for me – and probably for the customers too.”
It felt like that for many – especially regular patrons who were in no hurry to go home. However, once McCuskers installed their first phone line, the shop became less of a safe haven for some husbands out collecting the Sunday papers.
“Once we got the phone in, the wives would be ringing,” Paddy recalls. ‘Tell him his dinner’s ready!’ came the orders down the telephone.
McCuskers will close its doors for the final time on Saturday, April 28th. Barbara started helping in the shop at just 21, soon graduating to running McCuskers full time. It has been a part of her life every day since.
“It’s very emotional,” she says about the prospect of no longer taking her place behind the counter on a daily basis. “People are coming in and reminiscing. They are nearly more emotional than me. I’m trying to hold myself together. I have very mixed feelings about it. I don’t want to let it go.
“It’s almost like somebody they’ve lost,” Barbara continues. “You build up a bond with people. I would consider a lot of the customers friends now. They tell you things they might not tell other people.”
The shop has been in the McCusker family since the very beginning. After Peter’s death, eldest daughter Margaret took over, before handing the reins to her younger brother, Paddy.
With help from Paddy’s wife, Kathleen, the shop continued to thrive as one of the town’s most beloved businesses.
Paddy’s death led to Kathleen taking on help in the form of Barbara, Paddy Jnr’s future wife. Thirty-six years later, fresh from moving from a office job to a seemingly temporary position in retail, Barbara’s love for her work and her time in the shop is evident every time she speaks.
“I had every intention of going back to the office. It was a whirlwind and it was a learning curve for me. I had guidance from Paddy’s mother and from Paddy.“I didn't think I’d still be here 36 years later,” she says. “But I loved it, and I still love it.”
For many, both young and old, McCuskers is a treasure trove of delights. What makes it stand out from the usual newsagent fare is its range of Irish gifts, something Barbara drove and developed over the years.
The shops deals with up to 25 suppliers and this is “not bluff”, as Paddy puts it. These are gifts you wouldn’t find in a garage or supermarket.
“Back in the 1980s, we’d get a lot of American tourists,” Barbara (below) recalls. “We were known as the Irish shop.”
Visitors came from all over — Australia to Iceland, New Zealand to Russia — but alas the flow has slowed to a trickle and next week the door will close for good.
“We really want to thank the people of Dundalk,” Paddy says. “And our staff. We're proud of Dundalk, we really are. We decided things can't go on forever. The time is right.”
So how did McCuskers stay the course for so long? “The joy of it,” Barbara says.
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