Clifden bookshop an important chapter in town’s growth

The Irish Times
TRADE NAMES: The Clifden Bookshop has been busy turning over new pages in the development of its business since setting up shop over a decade ago

MAIN STREET, Clifden, is wide, lovely and very busy. The proclaimed capital of Connemara serves a wide hinterland and has a livelier-than-most cultural life.

Proof of this is in the thriving life and business of the town’s bookshop. Packed with books and customers for the seven days a week it stays open, this is a bookshop devoted to books as one of life’s necessities. It is also something of a barometer of social change in Connemara.

The Clifden Bookshop may be a newish enough institution on Main Street but the time-worn business cred of the building Nicole Shanahan and Clodagh O’Neill chose to set up their shop in 1997 gave it a venerable niche from the beginning.

Clifden/An Clochan was founded by John D’Arcy in the early 19th century. D’Arcy was a man who saw the need for a commercial centre to serve a community living in poverty while surrounded by great natural beauty and many resources. The design plan was a classic 19th century oval with three main streets – Market Street, Main Street and Bridge Street – along with a market square and the first house was built in 1809. By the 1820s Clifden was growing fast.

The story of the bookshop’s premises on Main Street follows the town’s social development. Brendan O Scanaill, a local historian of no small repute, says that in its early 19th century life it was a private house with, most likely, a small business going on as well. By the early 1900s it had become a bike shop run by the Meehan family; Brendan’s seen the pictures showing it as “a single storey thatched house with a rusticated and thatched porch over the front door”.

In the 1930s this became the property of the Lavelle family who rebuilt it as today’s two-storey house. A small drapery on the ground floor became a souvenir shop but by the 1940s it was run as a hotel with small bar. In the 1980s it became The Weavers’ Workshop, selling tweed made on the premises along with pottery and other work from craftspeople.

The Weavers’ Shed, in 1997, was sold by the Lavelle family to become The Clifden Bookshop.

The Clifden Bookshop is today run, with infectious enthusiasm, by Nicole Shanahan and Maura O’Halloran. Nicole Shanahan, who grew up in England’s Lake District, has roots in the area going back to a great grandmother in Cleggan and long childhood holidays. Maura, from Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, came to the town with the man she married, Aidan O’Halloran, and joined forces with Nicole in 1999.

Nicole Shanahan, in the beginning in 1997, saw a need quite different to that spotted by D’Arcy: Clifden had tourists and book readers a-plenty but nary a bookshop to serve them. “It started with a leap of faith and love of books,” Maura says, “plus we’re in a great trading position in this house, on the sunny side of the street, with the art galleries beside us and good footfall.”

The fact of it being a listed building with an enduring picture window onto the street is not incidental to the pleasures of The Clifden Bookshop.

Before The Clifden Bookshop became reality, local and visiting book lovers had to travel 50 miles to Galway city or 40 miles to Westport. The bookshop, Maura says, “had already become an accepted part of the place when I joined in 1999 and had a hard core customer base. A lot of people enjoy shopping in a small book store and we gave them that as well as personalised service.”

These characteristics have seen the business grow and change with what is a developing community. Art supplies, in an area long beloved of artists, have become an important part of the business and the range of books, particularly a lively modern literature section, continues to grow to meet a demand for writers from Khaled Hosseini to Joyce Carol Oates with “the usual classic suspects like Dumas, Forster and Orwell” always in demand. “The people of Connemara read very widely; we’ve an ordering and mail order service they like to use and we’re open seven days a week except for Sundays in February and November.”

Clifden has “changed remarkably in the last 10 years, the skyline alone is testament. The winter population is about 1,800 but in summer months that swells to 6,000 or 7,000. A lot of that’s due to the expansion of hotels and the building of apartments and second homes. Clifden’s always been a positive place and people now take pride in how the place looks: there is lots of colour and flowers around.”

The bookshop reaps the benefits of change that has seen emigrants, their children and even children’s children return to Connemara and Clifden. “Especially from the UK. Many say they didn’t have the opportunity to read Irish literature or history and now want to acquaint themselves with the likes of Eugene McCabe or Flann O’Brien, with local history too. The tourist season is longer too. It runs from February almost to Christmas, which is good for us because we do a lot of local guides and history. We’re a sort of tourist office as well, which is wonderful, and there’s definitely a surge in sales of travel books as Connemara people travel to wider and wider parts of the world.

“Books on leisure and hobby pursuits have become popular, and family finance books sell well now that people retire earlier and have more leisure time. We have to keep in touch with seasonal changes – at Christmas and other school holidays a lot of Clifden’s young people are home and buying books. We’ve a poetry section as big as any in a Galway bookshop. I’ve a personal love of poetry and it sells well here, from all time stalwarts like Yeats to lesser known poets.”

Clifden “has everything” according to Maura O’Halloran. The evidence, including the proposed nearby openings of Aldi and Lidl, is all around. Then there’s Clifden Arts Week, each September; a 10-day period during which “we expand our poetry and drama sections hugely. Because the Connemara Gaeltacht’s on our doorstep we sell a lot of Irish books and get a lot of people coming to us to sell self-published or small publishers’ books. Writers and poets drop by to sign their books all the time, which we love. It broadens our range; we’ve such a cornucopia of books here!”

The recession is not a problem for the bookshop: “People want a good read these days. We did really well too during the last two rainy summers! This is a very vibrant bookshop and it’ll be here for a long time to come.”

With both women rearing families in Clifden (Nicole has two sons, Maura two sons and a daughter) they may even have ensured the next generation’s tenure of The Clifden Bookshop.

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