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They say all good things come to an end, and for the many women who purchased their shoes at Cahill Brothers in Hill Street, it really is the end of an era following the closure of the landmark Newry shop in May.

Cahill Brothers has been present on Hill Street in Newry for 127 years with Declan McChesney at the helm for 47 of those, changing the shop from selling "work boots and wellington boots" to the absolute best in ladies footwear. The Cahill's, his father's uncles came to Newry from Castleblayney in 1894 to open their shop.

Declan's family home was Ardmaine on the Fullerton Road in Newry, now a nursing home and as he says with a hint of a grin "I'll probably end up back there in the full circle."

Declan McChesney is quitting Cahill Brothers after 47 Years. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
Declan McChesney is quitting Cahill Brothers after 47 Years. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

School

Talking about his early years Declan said "I was born there, went to school in Newry, because the shop was in our lives all the time. I was working in the shop from 10 year old. I never got to know Doctor Who, because I was in the shop on a Saturday working, while all the rest of my friends were watching it.

"I went to the Abbey in Newry, I hated the Abbey, and the Abbey hated me, both with an equal passion. The Christian Brothers believed that if they hit me hard enough, they would win. And I used to think no matter how hard you hit me you will never win, and to the very last day when there was a certain psychopathic Christian Brother met me in the corridor, and he hemmed and he hawed and he looked at me, and he said Declan McChesney - my only failure, which meant that I was the victory. So, I may have done terribly badly in my exams, but I won the social row which to me was the most important.

"There was a nice headmaster, we got on very well and he used to plead with me 'Declan don't aggravate them, you know, they're only waiting for you to aggravate them'. And there was a couple of lay teachers Tommy Keane, ex Civil Rights and Owen Cahill. English, French, Spanish they were my subjects."

Those teachers were nice to him and he excelled but the rest was a different story. "They made me do Irish for A Level, and I wouldn't even have known the days of the week. Just because he said I want you in my Irish class, so as I can control you and wouldn't allow me to do English when I was first in the class. That was the Abbey for you. They hammered me." said Declan

His parents wanted to get him out of the Abbey so they got him into St Malachy's in Belfast and they got him into Blackrock College in Dublin but it wasn't to be. "I went to both interviews and both interviews, opened up with 'He's not coming here unless he gets his hair cut' so that was the end of it, I wasn't going to either of them - And the worst part of it all is that I found out afterwards I would have been in Bob Geldof's class in Blackrock - Another opportunity missed." said Declan.

Leaving the Abbey with very, very few qualifications he went off for the summer and found work in a burns unit in a hospital in Essex which he loved, heading on to the Isle of Wight Festival afterwards.

Declan came home from the festival and straight to bed after a wonderful time and no sleep in 4 days only for 'knock knock knock' on his bedroom door and his parents telling him he'd been accepted into two colleges Coleraine and Bispham outside Blackpool to do Hotel Management. He went to Blackpool but very quickly learned it was not for him, though modest as ever he says "I did get six out of five for my Mayonnaise. I was superb at making Mayonnaise."

Life began in Dublin

There followed a spell in the 'college of knowledge' in Belfast where he did Business Studies but studying wasn't for him and he found himself back in the shop in Newry for a while before heading off to Dublin. "And that's where my life began." Declan explained "I worked in Arnotts store in Dublin City Centre. I was the first person ever to working in Arnotts with a beard, and all of that, but my eyes just opened. I loved Dublin. There was a bunch of guys. There used to be a shop in Newry, Scott and Scott's, Brendan Conway. I lived with Brendan Conway, myself and a couple of other guys from Newry. We started off in Herbert Place, which was a great area for the ladies of the night, to walk, and we became really friendly with them because we were meeting them coming home all the time and getting on really well with them. Nice people. There was no judgement on either side. Then we moved out to a place called Ailesbury Road which was awfully posh and we had an apartment there."

Declan show his colours and his pride in Hill Street during the 2019 Pride in Newry parade. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
Declan show his colours and his pride in Hill Street during the 2019 Pride in Newry parade. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

There followed a move to Dún Laoghaire "I was fed up working at retail, I wanted a car. I wanted a company car, and I became an agent for a company based in Leixlip and then I was really released. I was just travelling travelling travelling, having an absolute ball. And then, the job of the Levi's agent in Ireland came up, and I applied for it and I got to the last two and I was told that I was probably going to get the job." explains Declan, though it wasn't to be!

Called back from Dublin

A letter arrived from his father looking him to come home and he certainly was reluctant to come back to work in the family business. "It was just not at all what I wanted, Dublin spelt freedom and Dublin spelt a great job at the top end of the fashion game, everything and I was back in Newry, and I was pushed into the shoe shop and Cahill Brothers which sold work boots and Wellington boots and that was not for me."

Declan arrived back to Newry in 1974 from a Rugby International in Edinburgh "horrendously hungover horrendously shaking and horrendously full of fear of this new stage in my life."

"I didn't want to come home, It was just terrible, broke my heart, but filial duty - only son! I had to come home and I went into a very dark period of my life, that might have lasted almost 10 years. Because living in the North, and working on Hill Street in the troubles, It was horrendous, bomb scares, bombs. I could tell you stories that could make your hair stand on end because of the murders in Hill Street. And then we got burnt down. Everything, everything that could have possibly happened anybody in their business career, happened to me in those 10 years." adds Declan.

Nevertheless for better or worse the move had been made and Declan soon made the shop his own and made the move to ladies shoes "Anybody who knows me for a long time, knows that I just love femininity. In the good old days, in the early 70s, everybody went to Mass. We were chucked out, you had to go to Mass whether you wanted to or not. So I went to Mass and in those days people dressed up for Mass.

"Now there was one lady who I see at Mass on a Sunday morning and she was exceptionally elegant, and I loved the way she dressed. I loved everything about her. And when I started to be the buyer I used to buy for her all the time - she would wear that, she would wear that, she would wear that, and 10 years ago she was in the shop and I told her the story. She was my idol for a long time." adds Declan.

Declan's father was regarded by those that worked for him as a man who was severe but fair and did everything by the book but for Declan it was difficult at times."There was no such thing as an excuse so I learned a certain work ethic that ensued, I never missed a day anywhere where I worked. It just wasn't in me to do that. I pushed through on the dark days. My only thing was that I wasn't married and was quite young free and single but I would spend a lot of my time travelling. I got the same holidays as everybody else, but it wasn't enough for me to go to Ibiza or to go to Benidorm. I was away off to Africa or India or the far east or whatever, just got to hell away and learned from the experience of that."

Happiness

In 1982 he met his wife and things changed from then. "I met Mary Anne and we were a slow starter in our relationship, and then became quite solid. And once you have somebody in your life, it made it easier because the whole focus was work and then when you had the focus on a relationship, it didn't become secondary, it became more tolerable and happiness came with that."

A life in Shoes

Declan with legendary musician Mickey Doran back in 2012 when he called into the shop. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie
Declan with legendary musician Mickey Doran back in 2012 when he called into the shop. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Explaining how his work developed Declan says "The way business used to be was that a man would come to my shop with a suitcase and I would pick out of the suitcase. And then things got really big and somebody would come to the Ardmore Hotel and do a show there, and I would go and pick shoes there. And then it got really really big and I went to Belfast. Then I went to the shoe fair in Blackpool, and I thought God I'm abroad now, bang, this is really something. And then I started to go to Earls Court in London and buy at Shoe Fairs there. There's where you had to make that decision. Hey I am buying for Hill Street, not Kings Road, you had to remember, but the very interesting thing that happened was that I saw a side of the business where you were further up the line and bringing more to the business."

On the road

Expressing an interest in going out on the road he ended up selling for Rombah Wallace and remembers well his first shop visit Jimmy Flavin's in Youghal, Co Cork.

It just mushroomed from there and as he was travelling he spotted a brand called Marco Moreo from Italy that he thought had huge potential and took it on. "Now this was my own, this was sink or swim, and there were two main shops in Northern Ireland, at the time, one was Bishop's in Coleraine and the other was McKillen's in Ballymena." explained Declan.

"So I went out with my Italian brand, and I drove straight up to Bishop's and I walked in the door. 'Morning I'm Declan McChesney from Marco Moreo' and of course, Bishop's were right up at the very top, sitting at the right hand of God, and they looked at me 'You don't see us without an appointment. Make an appointment and if we have any room we'll see you soon.' - 'Sure that's no problem at all. It's just that I happened to be up this way and I was in McKillen's and they absolutely loved the shoes, and they bought a load of them, so I thought I would just pop on up the road.' to which I got a 'Just hold on a second. I'll have a look at them' and they bought them. And what did I do - I jumped straight in the car and drove back down to Ballymena and did the same thing. And then I was able to go into any shop and say they're in Bishop's and they're in McKillen's and they're in Cahill Brothers in Newry and I did really well with that brand and that would be 30 years ago."

Brands come and go and Marco Moreo went off the boil for a while so Declan needed something else. "I went looking for different brands and the very funny thing, It's a hard one to explain. I was a wee guy from Newry buying, but then I was also a game keeper. I was also selling to shops. We used to go to these big Shoe Fairs in Dusseldorf and in Milan where you saw the big big guys doing the big shows and they were it. But then I suddenly realised I was one of them! At one stage in Milan, I had four stands, selling different products to people, and I just transitioned from being the wee guy who was overawed with the man and a suitcase coming into my shop, to having four stands in Milan. And you felt like Declan McChesney who'd gone into the water paddling and suddenly, the water was up over my neck, but you weren't gonna let on you were out of your depth. You developed the stroke that looked like you were swimming, but you were literally drowning!

Cahill Brothers Staff

Declan McChesney with his wife Maryanne and their staff Eileen Treanor, Pat McQuaid and Madonna Shevlin on Saturday 8th May 2021 the last day Cahill Brothers Shoe Shop traded on Hill Street. Photograph: Liz Boyle
Declan McChesney with his wife Maryanne and their staff Eileen Treanor, Pat McQuaid and Madonna Shevlin on Saturday 8th May 2021 the last day Cahill Brothers Shoe Shop traded on Hill Street. Photograph: Liz Boyle

Declan believes he has been extremely, extremely fortunate with his staff and remembers three in particular, Madonna, Eileen and Pat. Wife Maryanne also has been very involved in the shop "I couldn't have done it and it wouldn't have lasted without her, because she is a book person which I am not, you know, and she just kept the thing perfect." Speaking of the staff Declan said "Pat worked for my father, left for years, had her life, had her children and she came back to me. She started with me the day my daughter was born, my daughter's now 30. She retired, only in the past year. Then Madonna, a unique and enigmatic person came to work for me, part time from school. I think her eldest son is 42 so that would give you an idea how long she worked for me, and then we have a lovely, lovely lady Eileen Trainor who came to me when a girl was going off on maternity 22 years ago" Declan also mentions the two "young ones" Sinead and Martina who started about four years ago and worked with him up to the end.""

The Decision

Being of 'a certain age' and with health issues rumbling in the background as well as the pandemic lockdown Declan knew that now was the right time for him and his wife Maryanne to close the shop. Declan said "I was so emotionally connected to Cahill Brothers, because I'm third generation, and anytime anybody mentioned retiring it was as if somebody stabbed me with a blade of ice, it hurt that much.

"But we went into the first lockdown and I remember I went into the shop. We closed on the Saturday and I went in on the Tuesday and I packed away every single shoe and handbag in the shop, so they wouldn't get dirty, and everything would be in proper order for when we came back, and as I turned to walk out the door, I looked back at the empty shelves, and the empty shop, and I actually found hands on my shoulders, and it was my mother, my father and my grand uncle's who owned and started the shop, and they were saying to me, we didn't close during the Spanish flu, we didn't close during the 1916 Rebellion, we didn't close through two world wars. Why are you closing now?

"And I actually felt it quite strongly. So I came home and for the first time in my life, my work life, I had time off, and I've never, ever, ever had time off. The weather was beautiful and living down here in Rostrevor we were able to go up the mountains and down to the beach and everything there was no problem - And I tasted freedom. And then we were back in in June, and I have the two jobs of the agencies and the shop, and I was leaving here one morning at seven o'clock, in August to set up my Dublin show for the big Dublin Shoe Fair and I was driving along the seafront in Warrenpoint and a little voice in my head said, you don't need all of this - It's time for the shop to go.

"Well that was in August I'd reached a decision. And then in November, a pain started to develop, physical pain, and I knew right, I need to do stuff here."

Declan adds "It was very difficult, but the enforced closure diluted the decision and my health and everything. And there comes a time when you realise, no, this is the right time and Maryanne and myself, and my children, all totally agreed, the time was right. She would have preferred earlier. But for me, the time was right, and I'm very strong in that belief and I'm quite happy with that."

McWhirters

Cahill Brothers, Hill Street, Newry.

The late Garry McWhirter's family will be moving McWhirter the Jeweller on to Hill Street and Declan is extremely happy that another local family business is going into his shop.

The great outdoors

With more time on his hands Declan is looking forward to more of the great outdoors. He has missed it terribly as he has a brace in place after breaking his leg " I'm getting my brace off on the 9th of June, and on the 10th of June at half five in the morning I'm walking up the Fairy Glen, to hear the dawn chorus and as long as I'm outdoors I'm really happy." As well as the great outdoors he loves gardening, red wine, reading and of course the crack.

What he will miss

When asked what he will miss the most Declan said "It's the simplest answer in the world, the people the crack, the chat, chat, chat.

"My knowledge of Newry is so rounded because day in, day out I'm meeting people and hearing what's going on and whose cat has got a boil on his bum and, you know who has bought that house up there, who's happy, who's sad, my involvement in people's lives, I will miss that terribly.

Declan McChesney turning the key to Cahill Brothers Shoe Shop for the last time on Saturday 8th May 2021. Photograph: Liz Boyle
Declan McChesney turning the key to Cahill Brothers Shoe Shop for the last time on Saturday 8th May 2021. Photograph: Liz Boyle

"That's number one. Number two is buying. I loved buying style. I had so many Christmas mornings in the shop because cartons and cartons would come in from Italy and France and Spain and everywhere and I would be opening all this lovely stuff I bought six months ago. It was just fabulous seeing that stuff, gee that's just beautiful - No more of that."

Shoe Agency Work

Declan is working towards being completely fit and able when this is all over and is looking forward to getting his hair back. Regarding work he will still keep very much involved in the business of shoes. "I will continue with my shoe agency work. The only difference would be that Maryanne will no longer have the shop around her neck when I'm away, so we will travel round Ireland together, Thelma and Louise, and we'll do our work and we'll stay in nice hotels, and we'll have a nice time. And that will be two and a half months in late February, March, April and late August, September, October, and then we have trips to the factories in June, and in December and then we'll have the Fairs to go to in Milan and all of that. So, five month of the year there'll be occupation."

Hearts on Hill Street

One thing he is definitely going to do is keep in touch with Newry "I promised myself every now and then I'm going to go up to Newry around 12 o'clock on a Saturday. I'm going to walk around Hill Street and Monaghan Street and see everybody and say hello to everybody and I'll go and see Lianne and have a cup of coffee with my great friend Lianne and do this and that and just meet the people and remind them that I'm still alive - I'm not gone and my heart is still on Hill Street."

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