Ray and Maureen make an odd couple straight out of some tired sitcom: she’s the elderly Dublin shopkeeper with a pessimistic streak; he’s the exuberant gay blow-in with a fancy café next door. We sandwich in between them.
“Then out of the blue they come in and say, ‘Oh God Maureen, I hope you’re not going to sell your shop, we’d miss you.’ But you’re lucky if they buy a bar of chocolate off ya.”
Maureen McGuinness is one of those legendary Dublin characters. She’s been running her store, simply titled Maureen’s Shop, for 39 years. In the process, she’s become a Stoneybatter institution. Maureen’s a figure who earns equal parts admiration and disdain. Over the years, she’s cultivated a reputation that might politely be described as no-nonsense – there’s many a tale about her making a pointed comment to a customer or barring someone from the shop over a can of beans. But just as often, people share stories of her helping the community in ways big and small, whether that’s making deliveries to the elderly or vouching for people looking for jobs.
When you talk to Maureen these days, she doesn’t hold back on her bleak outlook on the neighbourhood. There’s no doubt that it’s contributed to her decision to sell the shop after 39 years. But today she’s all smiles, because she’s joined by her neighbour and friend Ray O’Neill, owner of Slice next door.
Ray and Maureen make for an odd couple straight out of some tired sitcom: she’s the elderly Dublin shopkeeper with a pessimistic streak; he’s the exuberant gay blow-in with a fancy café that might be described as having “notions.” And yet they’ve developed a strong friendship over the last couple of years.
Born in Roscommon, Maureen came to Dublin nearly 50 years ago. Unlikely as it seems, she started out as a darkroom technician in Temple Street Hospital. The radiologist recommended she study further, but in her own words she “freaked at the sight of blood.”
When she first moved to Dublin, Maureen lived in a 13-room bedsit which terrified her. Every night she would check the wardrobes, the cupboards, even under the bed before she went to sleep. It’s a far cry from the hardy shopkeeper who operates on the corner of Manor Place.
Eventually she started working for RTE, a job that quickly frayed her nerves. After her auntie fell ill, her father asked her how she could make more money for the family. That led to the opening of Maureen’s Shop. When Maureen is asked how she’s stayed open so long while others have come and gone, she shrugs her shoulders. “I just took it in me stride,” she says. “Just built things up.”
Ray is a more recent addition to the area. He’s the owner of Slice Café, which serves muesli as well as spiced carrot and walnut pancakes, not exactly in-keeping with the quintessential Dublin business which Maureen represents. Ray used to work in online advertising, but he yearned to do something more fulfilling.
“I was in Cork selling some landscape gardener advertisements in my car and it got to the point where he said ‘no.’ Normally that’s the point where you fight for the sale and tell someone why they need it and all that bullshit. But I didn’t. They got out, walked away from the car, and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m not into this anymore. I’m not getting a buzz out of it.’”
By chance, he happened to walk past Ballymaloe Cookery School. Two weeks later he handed in his notice and enrolled in the school. He soon became a chef and went on to run Slice.
“At first, it was a little daunting, moving in beside Maureen here,” Ray says. “I remember when we opened first, you weren’t sure of this young buck coming in, were ya? But we got to know one another, which is the basis of any true love. What was the point when you said, ‘Jesus, I’m really fallin’ for this fella?’”
“Never,” Maureen responds. Ray laughs but Maureen is quick to walk it back.
“Ah no, we’ve always had fun and been there for one another. I let him come in and feel at home. And I told him if he ever needed anything then ask me. That was it.”
“And we just have craic together,” says Ray. “I remember when I opened first, I’d get this phone call every single Saturday. It was this Irish diddly-eye music being played down the phone. Every single week! It got to the stage where I’d just answer the phone and hang up.
And it wasn’t till 18 months later that I came in here and she was breaking her shite laughing, and she was like, “Did you get that hug in the morning?” Because the song was called Hug in the Morning. 18 fuckin’ months she requested it on the radio and rang me from the phone in here and didn’t say a word about it. That was the start of our banter.”
Maureen likes to do what she can to help people in the area. She holds keys for the locals, accepts packages for residents and keeps a note of all the handymen working in the area. “If there’s anything I can do for people, I’ll do it,” she says. “But I find that young people coming in don’t want to get engaged in the area at all. I even do a paper round in the morning and I’d say out of five people I meet, I’m lucky if two say good morning to me.
“I think that’s the kind of contradiction with young people,” Ray says. They talk about keeping everything local but they just don’t follow through with it.”
“All the young people here, they finish their day’s work and they’re gone.” Maureen continues. “You’re lucky if you see them on a Sunday. You don’t know if they’re livin’ in the parish or not. And then out of the blue they come in and say, ‘Oh God Maureen, I hope you’re not going to sell your shop, we’d miss you.’ But you’re lucky if they buy a bar of chocolate off ya.”
Nothing is more emblematic of that than the bintags, something of a pet peeve for Maureen. “Now fair enough, you’re keeping somebody else in business, but even if you were to buy some milk or something else as well. They come in, buy the bintags and you ask if they would like anything else and they say, ‘Not at the moment.’ You’re like, ‘Oh… Well keep walkin’.’”
There’s great concern about the accelerated gentrification in Dublin City, something Stoneybatter finds itself at the center of. You’d think it would make Maureen anxious too, but more than anything she just seems frustrated that her shop is no longer a central part of the community. As she says herself, if Stoneybatter is going to get more outsiders, it would be nice if those people integrated more with the area.
Even the dreaded bintags, at least, bring in more of the younger crowd. On a Monday night, Maureen’s Shop gets an energy that’s sometimes missing. That rubs off on Maureen herself.
“Monday night’s the night!” Ray says. “Maureen sometimes has a bit of a session and the place becomes a dance floor. I’ve had a couple of personal parties in here. Just having my pals and family coming in to say hello and have the craic.”
Maureen loves dancing, and it isn’t long before Ray is asking her about her days in the dance halls, deflecting advances from potential suitors. At one stage, she even does a swaying little dance to embellish a story. It’s kind of surreal to see Maureen, one of the most legendary (if not infamous) women in Dublin 7, dancing with abandon.
It can’t be overstated how much levity Ray brings out of Maureen. She may roll her eyes at his jokes but there’s times when the disapproving mask slips and she flashes a grin. At one stage Maureen says she likes to live alone, but Ray is quick to interject. “Put in that she’s looking for a man to settle down with if there’s any readers available. Come on, it’s your time! There could be a gentleman reading this goin’ ‘she’s the one!’”
Maureen’s nonplussed. “Nah I’m happy out. I’ve had plenty of men through me hands…”
“So have I!” Ray cackles. “That’s why we get along so well, we have so much in common!”
Though she might get the cold shoulder from the young professionals in the area, Maureen still has a kinship with Stoneybatter’s youngest residents. It’s well known that she has a great fondness for children; one of her greatest joys is watching them grow over the years. “You build up a bond with a kid. They just get to know you,” she says.
At one stage Maureen proudly shows us a framed picture of herself and a girl of about seven, which sits on one of the shelves in the shop. “There was a little girl from Canada back in January, her daddy was in a film here. And she’d be screaming out me name from across the road. She was here for three months and she’d always call in in the morning and after school. We really fell in love with one another, the two of us.”
Last year Maureen decided to put her shop on the market. In her 39 years, she can count on one hand the amount of times she’s taken a holiday. She says she holding out on selling until she gets the right price, but you sense a certain unwillingness for her to give it up.
Maureen is a total workhorse, starting her day at 7am with a paper round and often not getting to bed till midnight. Even though Ray has been giddy throughout the conversation, there’s times where he can’t help but betray his concern. At one stage, Maureen stands on a stool to reach for something on the top shelf, and he’s instantly begging her to get down. Does he worry about her sometimes?
“Oh 100%,” he says, suddenly very sincere. “She does too much. Every day she does too much. But there’s no talking to her,” he sighs. “I’m forever telling her to stop doing these things, take a break. But you won’t listen, sure you won’t?”
“No sure I like goin’ on,” Maureen says. “I’m a workaholic, it’s in me system.”
“I keep telling you, you need to figure out what you’re gonna do if you do sell,” Ray says. “You’re not going to be one for sitting in the house all day.”
“No, I’ll get out and about. I’ll find things to do, but I’m gonna go on one long holiday first.”
“The Canaries, somewhere like that. Away from everybody. Nobody asking any questions.”
“Would you like me to come with ya?”
Maureen gives him a withering look. Everyone laughs.
Eventually, Maureen does too.
Maureen’s, 57 Manor Place, Stoneybatter
Words: Jack O’Higgins
Photos: Tristan Hutchinson