On the 18th of August the Irish Postal administration, An Post, issued a stamp to mark an essential piece of Irish architectural history, Irish Shop Fronts.
To nobody’s surprise (at least of those of us in west Cork) it included Clerke’s in Bridge Street, Skibbereen, a traditional grocery with a lovely front and inside all the original shop furniture intact. The carved timber shopfront comprises pilasters with capitals supporting architrave, fascia board and cornice to give a pleasing, colourful classic appearance. The Clerke’s were an exceptional part of the town of Skibbereen and are also commemorated in a plaque on Bridge Street.
The Clerkes were a family of some renown in Skibbereen. Agnes Mary Clerke even has an indent on the moon, ‘Clerke’s Crater’ named in her honour by NASA. An astronomer and writer, Agnes was born in Skibbereen in 1842. When she died at the age of 65, she was one of the world’s most respected scientific writers in her field – no mean achievement for a self educated woman of her era. Her father, John William Clerke, was a bank manager in Skibbereen at the time of the Famine and was one of the founding members of the Relief Committee which set up a soup kitchen at the Steam Mill in Ilen Street. Although a lot of avenues were closed to her being a woman, she was finally made an honourary member of The Royal Astronomical Society in 1903 when ‘it was felt by her male associates that her membership … could no longer be postponed.’ Agnes died in London in 1907, where she lived, from 1877, with her sister and fellow author Ellen Clerke.
Look around any Irish city, town or village and you will find something that makes it unique: The shopfronts. With the exception of chain stores, each Irish shopfront is different. The beauty of these pieces of commercial art is that on closer inspection you will see beautifully hand crafted details which include carpentry, carved mouldings and corbels, hand painted signage, painted carved block letters, etched glass and tiling.
Irish shopfronts often consist of classical design elements such as hand carved corbels, columns and cornicing. The shopfront is usually harmonious in style, proportion and scale to the building where it sits. Each one tells us a story, of a business still trading after generations or of one consigned to dusty history, alive only in the memories of the local families it served and the tradesmen and artists who worked together to create it. Seeing one of these old, disused shopfronts gives us a unique insight into previous generations.
Irish shop fronts – new stamps coming out August pic.twitter.com/uTW2AxWPkZ
— MáireNíGiollaBhríde (@qualann) July 29, 2016
Irish shop fronts, by their very nature are colourful, charming and utterly unique and this has been reflected in the number of books, posters and postcards featuring them. While a great many have disappeared, lots have been preserved and restored, physically, or recorded on film, in books and on posters for future generations to appreciate.
In celebration of Ireland’s magnificent collection of local shopfronts, Ger Garland has designed four new stamps, featuring the following shops: Thomas Moran (Souvenir Shop), Westport, Co Mayo; The Winding Stair (Book Shop), Dublin City centre; Vibes & Scribes (Arts & Hobby Shop), Cork City; and Clerke (Grocer), Skibbereen, Co Cork.
Shopfronts are one of the many joys of West Cork and its characterful towns, Dunmanway, Bandon, Kinsale, Clonakilty, Bantry, Ballydehob, Castletownbere and, of course “Sweet Skibbereen,” you will find traditional shopfronts, hand painted and often with signage both in Gaelic and English. Rather than chains here you tend to find interesting shops run by people, Irish and the many incomers, with talent and passion to provide both visual interest and texture to our towns. They are an important part of what makes West Cork a place apart and remind both natives and visitors of an Ireland gone by.
Shop local and it stays local is the watchword in West Cork and long may it stay that way in this fine little corner at the toe of the Emerald Isle.