It must have been a very proud day for Paddy O’Neill when he opened the doors to his new shop on November 18, 1949.
But he could scarcely have imagined that 70 years on, after unimaginable changes to life in Donegal and the wider world, that his shop at the heart of Ballyshannon would still be going strong.
Paddy died at only 57 years of age but his son Pearse was more than ready to step up and run the shop, having worked there from an early age. 56 years later and he is still behind the counter. He has been joined by his own son Rory who also started helping out in the shop during his childhood and has been there in a full-time capacity for the last 12 years.
The shop has of course undergone many changes, particularly with renovations carried out 10 years ago. However, the essence of the local shop and the allure of jars of sweets and delicious ice-cream are as strong as ever.
Rory O’Neill said: “It was always known for ice cream. My grandfather started it with an Italian machine. He had to go down to the creamery every day to get the milk to make it.”
And while ice cream is much more widely available nowadays, O’Neill’s is still a popular stop off for those in search of that perfect summer treat.
“We have people coming in from Belleek and Bundoran just for our ice cream,” said Mr O’Neill. “It’s nice to still be known for it.”
Indeed, each year when the ice cream machine is brought out for St Patrick's Day, people have been known to queue for half an hour for their first O'Neill's ice cream of the season.
The other firm favourite in O'Neills is the quarter of sweets.
“In the picture of Dad outside the shop you can see the old weighing scales,” said Mr O’Neill. “We still have them and still use them. Young and old people come in for their quarter of sweets.”
In wider society there has been a major shift in shopping, from huge supermarkets and major chains to online buying at the touch of a smartphone. O’Neill’s has withstood all of this, without doubt because of the warm welcome and excellent service extended to everyone. In the fast pace of today’s world, something as simple as taking time to talk to people is more important than ever.
“People still come in and stand chatting for half an hour,” said Mr O’Neill. “You could have someone who would come in and stand half the day and that is great.
“Some people mightn’t see anyone from one week to the next. They know they will always meet someone they know here. They can come in and get all the local news, find out what is going on.”
The O’Neill family are looking forward to celebrating this milestone anniversary with their customers.
“From myself and Pearse, thanks to all our customers for their continuous support throughout the years,” said Mr O’Neill. “Saturday for us is about showing them that we appreciate them. There will be tea, coffee, finger food, and you never know, we might have some free ice cream too. We usually put the machine away at the end of summer but we kept it out for this.”
Siblings of both Rory and Pearse who grew up in the shop are also going to be there for Saturday’s celebrations.
There will no doubt be much reminiscing and many a story shared as family and customers reflect on 70 years at the heart of Ballyshannon.
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