Clonakilty's vibrant women mean business

March 23rd, 2017 11:55 AM

By Southern Star Team

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When Shay Hunston visited Clonakilty as part of his People of the Wild Atlantic Way photographic project, he realised there was an unusually high number of women in business there. Sue Dukes spoke to some

A VISITOR’S first impression of Clonakilty would be that of a bright, small town, brimming with sleepy old world charm – a place that generates a faint sense of nostalgia for a time when this was how small towns used to be, before trade was clawed away by outlying retail parks, creating vacuums in town centres.

Clonakilty’s colourful centre buzzes with enterprising sole traders who combine unique niche markets with a solid foundation of business sense and community spirit. 

When fashion photographer Shay Hunston visited Clonakilty as part of his People of the Wild Atlantic Way project, he was surprised to subsequently realise there were a greater percentage of women amongst his portraits than he might have expected, and wondered if this was a significant factor in the town’s dynamics.

Clonakilty, an award winning town with a history of enterprise and sporting achievement, has instant visual appeal. It is also a welcoming multicultural and multi-ethnic community. The Chamber of Commerce has developed a strong working relationship with the Town Council, a common sense that is reaping unprecedented success. Their networked slogan is what’s good for the town is good for business.

It’s a progressive, friendly town, its aesthetics perfect for business. The tight, physical pattern of streets enhances the close community spirit, and the widening of pavements has added enormous benefit to casual shoppers. 

The inspirational sense of unity in Clonakilty is surely enhanced by the women in business who have their own unique take on life and who have grasped the opportunity and run with it.

Women have a unique opportunity in the business world, they say. Even those starting off working life with a career path have to re-evaluate when family commitments take over. Several of the women interviewed suggested that it was this welcome ‘space’ that allowed them time to think of new ideas, to change direction. 

Instead of seeing back-to-work as the end goal, some women actively pondered on innovative ways to be both breadwinner and Mum. One shop owner said: ‘When you get into family and kids, life becomes a juggling act, it changes your perception, with school and your children’s needs eating into your space – but it also gives you time to think, to make things happen.’

The women of Clonakilty agree without exception that they consider themselves ‘women in business’ rather than businesswomen. They resist the tag that twists perception towards that hard creature on TV wearing a striped suit and 8-inch spiked heels. 

Men and women, they insist, have their different strengths, and women are really good at casual networking and engaging with clients, which is perhaps why many independent traders in the main street seem geared towards women shoppers.

Many of the traders historically had roots or connections with West Cork but those who moved into the area say they would not wish to move away. They love the vibe here.

Shay Hunston, when embarking upon his photographic initiative, said he was ‘blown away’ by the positive attitudes flying in Clonakilty. His stark yet compelling black and white photographs, proudly displayed in shop windows, have generated a dialogue of their own, another consolidating factor in the community network. Selected portraits now form part of an exhibition of his work currently showing at Cork Airport until March 31st, after which it will be relocated to the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery. 



Clonakilty Bookshop


GERALDINE Cullinane is home grown, her grandparents being in business in Clonakilty since 1935. Her parents started the bookshop in 1988 and it has been running ever since. As an ‘independent’ bookshop they are able to stock and order to accommodate their customers’ needs and promote books by local authors. Despite the threat of e-books, business is stronger than ever because people have a love affair with real books.

Geraldine believes sole traders keep town centres open. But if you do start a business, she argues, you need to be passionate about it, so do something you really enjoy. To succeed you will need commitment and resilience and tenacity. She says there is a warmth between the women business owners in Clon, and that the traders’ co-operation makes Clon unique. ‘The business owners work together, and recommend each other if they can’t supply what the client wants,’ she says.



The Olive Branch


OLIVE Finn fronts the whol foods business she runs jointly with her husband, and they love what they do. They have been trading in Clonakilty for 13 years, having left a life of street theatre to ‘grow some roots’ with their children. They ‘live the lifestyle’, being fair traders who refuse to compromise integrity towards small growers and suppliers, by undercutting with unfairly marketed produce. They believe that modern business is too cynical, that people should buy ethically and locally, where possible.

They have recently expanded their premises, adding space to accommodate fun and informative in-house events that not only impart nutritional and health education, but add to the community spirit. She thinks people have a care of duty towards their own health. Olive feels it is the community spirit that makes Clon’s heart tick. ‘Clon is strong on old-fashioned shopping, and people love it,’ she says. Life in Clon isn’t fast and frantic, and she particularly loves the atmosphere of Spiller’s Lane, ‘a community within a community’.



The Flower Basket


GIVE us bread, but give us roses … Anne O’Neill has been selling flowers in Clonakilty for 25 years. The shop also offers other small gifts for special occasions such as births, weddings, anniversaries, hospital visits. Anne chose to work with flowers when lifestyles improved enough to allow for the provision of the small luxuries that add quality to life. She says giving flowers is giving joy.

Anne moved to her present premises as it offered buyers the chance to stop vehicles outside the shop. She is always open early, putting flowers outside to attract passing trade, but a large percentage of her custom is repeat, telephoned orders being delivered all over West Cork.

She said Clon has a great community, and one of its strengths is in disseminating information. The Chamber of Commerce publishes a newsletter which is made available to the whole community, not just the ones who support it financially. This deliberately inclusive action underscores Clon’s unique trading ethics. 




Bella Donna


OONAGH Croke O’Donoghue started the business in 2007, specialising in occasional wear for weddings and special events. She gave up her job as a full-time sales agent to have children, and started the business to be in closer contact with her family. She said being at home with children gives a woman time out to reassess what is important in her life.

‘Starting a business is exciting but scary,’ she says. ‘It’s hard to start with, and might take several years before it becomes viable, but if you have an idea, go with your gut feeling.’ Being your own boss provides spiritual freedom and time, as well as a necessary income, she feels. She thinks women have a special ability to communicate with customers.

She ‘loves the buzz’ in Clon, the traders’ network, and there is no one-upmanship, she says, adding: ‘We bounce off each other, and work together when there is a crisis, like the flooding.’



Michelle Mitton shop


MICHELLE opened her design-led gift shop in 1999. She believes that the emotional payback from ‘a gift and a card’ is greater than the financial outlay. It took several years to get the business to its present level of success. She says it’s been hard work, but uplifting. She is a director of the Chamber of Commerce and a dynamic and proactive campaigner for the town.

With a degree in fashion and roots in theatre costume and set design, she has a talent for picking gifts that ‘appeal’ to the gift-shopper. Fate sent her to West Cork, she says, and suddenly she got it: the peace and quiet. But it’s hard being a retailer these days, she acknowledges. People want the best of both worlds, the experience of browsing in independent shops, but also everything large retailers offer, like cheap goods and automatic refunds.

Her main advice to people setting up in business is ‘listen to the customer’, that’s how an independent survives. She believes women have a unique place in the business world. They might start with a career, but when family and children step in things change; life becomes a juggling act between their needs and your own personal space. ‘But you have time to think, to make things happen,’ she says.



Kerr’s Bookshop 


TRISH Kerr returned to Ireland with her family after many years living overseas. Jobs were scarce, so with a degree in business and a huge love of reading, she made the decision to open a book shop in Clonakilty. It was a daunting and quite terrifying decision at the time, but twenty-five years later, she knows it was the very best decision. Clon is a wonderful place to live, she says. It has good schools, a young, growing population, and a friendly feel. There is a palpable sense of community, pride and spirit.

Her advice to traders is: Get involved in your business association and your community. Stay with it – it’s hard work for a few years. Put service to customers above all else, and follow it up with good stock, well displayed, in clean, warm premises. Be ‘West Cork’ friendly and helpful to all.

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