Spring 2019

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The House of Erin

By Sarah Murray

 

THE HOUSE OF ERIN 

 

 

When I was twelve Mum opened an Irish shop. Our Irish dancing teacher Clare Connolly had the idea and asked if Mum would go in with her. Mum wasn’t Irish. She was from the small town of Stratford which lay just under the ubiquitous Mt Taranaki but when she married my Dad, a proud Irishman from County Cork in Ireland, she came to embrace his culture. The shop was a passion project and in the mid 90s, when it opened, there was a fervent interest in Irish culture. The boom of the Celtic Tiger, the explosion of Irish dancing into the mainstream with Riverdance and Lord of the Dance and popularity of bands like Boyzone, Westlife and The Cranberries meant everyone wanted a piece of Ireland. In Auckland Irish pubs were popping up around the city and for the first time in my life being Irish was cool.  

After much debate they called the shop The House of Erin. Unfortunately, the name was lost on most customers who walked around touching everything, leaving opaque fingerprints on the glass countertop, asking ‘So, who’s Erin?’ I’d cringe. But I’d been told to be polite when I was working so took my time to explain Erin was just another way of saying Ireland. On the day the shop opened, an Irish band was brought in to play traditional Irish music outside on the footpath  and our whole Irish dancing school came to dance. Green balloons tousled in the wind and Taytos – Ireland’s most revered crisp – were given to eager bystanders to try. The small but loyal ex-pat Irish community who had come out to support the venture were elated to have a little taste from home. ‘My god, there’s Taytos!’ I heard people say and they brought the chips by the boxful.  

The House of Erin was located in the newly redeveloped WestCity shopping mall in West Auckland’s Henderson. At first it was situated in Catherine Place, the courtyard just outside the sliding doors after the bustling food court. At the time it was one of the only available spaces left to lease but the problem was not many people ever ventured beyond the food court. So after a year, with excruciatingly low foot traffic, Mum and Clare were moved to the lower level of the mall where most of the other gift stores like Stevens and Living and Giving were already established.  

Originally called Henderson Square, the mall was rebranded, expanded and remodeled beyond recognition in the mid 90s to become WestCity. It swallowed up the former carpark to make way for more slabs of space all smoothed over with shiny white and grey flecked terrazzo style tiles. And native Ponga trees with furled fronds were planted in beds of smoothed rocks in an attempt to make everything feel a little less man-made. 

The shop front’s façade of the second House of Erin, the one on the lower level, was built out of small rectangular ragged grey stones, stacked up to the roof in a bid to resemble an authentic old Irish cottage from the 18th century. Inside, a sea of dark green carpet led you towards a circular counter which I took great pride in standing behind. You could always smell the heady mix of essential oils; lavender from the Irish Innisfree perfume they stocked and eucalyptus oil, which was kept in the drawer under the till and used to remove stubborn price tags from products. Everything had been imported from Ireland. At the front there were glass shelves fixed with tiny spotlights to catch the light and make the Waterford cut crystal glasses and vases and candle sticks glitter. Mum and Clare sold delicate Belleek china teacups with handles so fine it looked as though they might snap, and at the back they stocked a jewellery cabinet with a glass top containing gold trinity knot necklaces and Claddagh rings on cushy green velvet pads. What the general public were most interested in though, were the souvenirs: leprechaun figurines, keyrings with family crests, bookmarks printed with Celtic designs, and tin whistles. It was as if by spending time in the shop and purchasing something, customers had ticked ‘Go to Ireland’ off their bucket list.  

 

* 

A few months after the shop opened, Mum realised they’d ordered too many chips. The huge boxes consisting of about 50 individual packets of Taytos were not only taking up the whole back room of The House of Erin, they were stacked in tall towers in Dad’s office at home, in our hallway, our playroom. Mum and Clare had assumed New Zealanders would love the unique cheese & onion flavouring, like the Irish did, but it turned out they didn’t. And the excess chips were about to expire.  

For months we were given free rein to eat the chips; we had them for morning tea and crushed them between slices of bread in our marmite sandwiches at lunch.  I’m sure if I’d asked I would have been allowed them for breakfast too, so desperate was the need to finish them. If anyone came over, Mum popped open a couple of packets and poured them into a big bowl, and when we went over to a friend’s house or to Irish Dancing she made us take some to share. After a few months we couldn’t stomach them. The taste, once so sharp it made my eyes water, now seemed powdery and artificial. 

‘We’ll take them to sell at the Avondale markets,’ said Mum. She was so pleased with her idea she rang up Clare on the bulky portable phone. They chatted at length and decided that Fi and I, as well as the three youngest Connolly kids, would come along to help. None of us kids were happy about the plan. I didn’t want to get up extra early on a Sunday and I especially didn’t want to work in a market which sold vegetables and second-hand goods.  By comparison to fresh air-conditioned shops of WestCity, the Avondale markets were grotty and old.  

 

* 

Before the shop, Mum didn’t have a proper job. She was in charge of Dad’s books for his watermain business, making sure all his workers and any bills were paid on time. Mostly she looked after us kids – me and my sister Fi. Dad never said anything, but his life was impacted by the shop. Mum still did all the grocery shopping, the cooking, and cleaning but she was around less. On Thursdays when WestCity was open till 9pm, Mum and Fi were at work so Dad had to come home early, covered in the day’s tawny dirt, to look after me. Sometimes Mum left us a lasagna or stew to heat up but most of the time Dad would pull up in his dirty white ute and take us to Wendy’s – our favoured takeaway joint. Dad also had to foot the bill to cover Mum’s half of the shop’s creation. Mum came home with new quotes to show Dad for the store fit out and he’d shake his head in disbelief.  

‘The price of a small farm on the top of a hill,’ he said. His phrase for whenever something was expensive. But he always paid, always funneling money into Mum’s project. 

Mum had never worked in retail before the shop but she had an innate sense of selling and was always hunting out bargains. She’d had a bit of practice at the flea market held every Friday after school at Liston College, the local Catholic boys secondary school. Liston was parallel to our Catholic girl’s school, St Dominic’s, and Fi and I lived in fear that someone from school would see us flogging our old clothes. At the time I thought we must have been poor, but I think it was just a hobby for Mum. Whenever there was a flea market looming she would be brighter, and took glee in forcing us to clear out our clothes and toys to sell. She was a natural salesperson but all the other stuff, like what to stock in the shop and how much, was new to her.  

 

* 

The day of the Avondale markets was a Sunday. Mum woke us when it was still dark. Even though it was early she had blow-dried her thick highlighted hair into a sleek bob and applied a full face of makeup. Dad was already up and was loading the remaining boxes of Taytos into the open back of his ute. He always supported Mum in his own quiet way. I took my time getting changed and went downstairs to make some toast, putting the smallest scraping of granny’s homemade blackberry jam on it. There was no time to sit down so I put the toast on a thick slice of handy towel to eat it in the back of the car. When we got to the markets the stall owners were moving fast, setting up before the crowds came. Dad had pulled up alongside Clare’s silver van which was already parked up in a spot for sellers. He unloaded the lightweight boxes of Taytos in uneven stacks beside it and left with a smile, saying ‘Good luck girls’ 

The three youngest Connolly kids were leaning against their van sullenly but looked happy once they saw us arrive. Clare opened the boot of her van and put some boxes on display. She also got out a clunky portable CD player and put on the Riverdance CD – for atmosphere, she said. 

The Avondale markets was a weekly marketplace held on the crumpling asphalt carpark, in front of the Avondale Racecourse. The building which housed the event rooms of the racecourse loomed large in the background and was so unkempt it looked abandoned, but it wasn’t. It’s grimy oyster-hued exterior made everyone and everything in the market appear so much more alive and saturated in colour. Huge plastic trays of shiny round tomatoes glinted in the light, so ripe they might burst and yellowed potatoes still caked in dirt lay waiting to be bought. Produce like this seemed normal to me, but the market had a distinct Asian and Polynesian flavor so there were also items you didn’t see at Foodtown like green Bok Choy, purpled Taro and silver scaly fish heads. I scrunched my face up in disgust.  

People started crowding around Clare’s van eager to see what we had, but once we explained they were boxes of Irish chips, no one was interested.  We didn’t have any awning or stall table like the regulars so we were put alongside other makeshift stalls where people sold their wares out of the back of their car, or spread them piece by piece on a vibrant blue tarpaulin laid on top of the concrete. Mum handed out coin-filled money belts for all of us to wear. I got an old turquoise Air New Zealand one that jingled every time I moved. She told us to sell a box of Taytos for $20, which was less than half of what they were worth.   

‘And don’t let anyone barter you down,’ Mum warned.  

She got some large bowls out of the van, poured some chips in them, and told us to see if anyone wanted to try some. I walked around, politely asking people ‘do you want to try a Tayto?’  

A woman took one between her thumb and forefinger.  

‘They’re from Ireland,’ I said.  

Before she placed it in her mouth she said. ‘Which Island?’ 

‘Just Ireland,’ I said. ‘You know, I-er-land,’ I tried my best to pronounce it with an Irish accent. ‘Like where Irish people are from.’ I forced a smile.  

‘Oh!’ She laughed. ‘I thought you meant from one of the Pacific Islands.’ 

She ate her chip but didn’t buy any.  Hardly anyone did.  Most people were happy to try a chip or two but they didn’t want a whole box of them - the onion flavor was too intense. We sold a few boxes, relieved each time to see one go, but we were spending as much as we made on the piping hot mini cinnamon donuts and fizzy drinks.  After a few hours, the sun had come up and the market was bustling. Sales stalled. Most people walked straight past our chips.  All us kids took turns to lean against the van, complaining of sore legs and begging to go home. It seemed so useless – no one was going to buy these chips! 

There were still about 10 or so boxes left to sell when a tall Polynesian man in jeans, a t-shirt and jandals came along. Mum, who had taken over selling, offered him a sample.  

‘Would you like a chip, Sir?’ she asked.  

He took a handful of chips and ate them. While he chewed she told him how they’d come all the way from Ireland and were the most popular chip over there.  

‘What’s wrong with them?’ he asked, mid-mouthful.  

‘Nothing’s wrong,’ she said. ‘But they’re due to expire soon.’ 

‘I’ll give you $80 for what’s left,’ he said.  

Mum looked at Clare who nodded.  

‘Sold!’ mum said and shook his hand as if he’d just purchased his first home.  

The man took out his wallet and counted the money, in small notes, into Mum’s hand. She unzipped her money belt and put the crumpled notes inside. She looked hard at Fi and I as if to say ‘and that’s how it’s done’. I was just relieved it was over and we could leave.  

‘Okay’ she said, eager to get rid of the Taytos.  ‘Let’s help this man carry his chips to his car.’  

 

* 

Golden Sail Massage is now where the House of Erin used to be. Last time I looked the going rate was $25 for a neck massage and people sit hunched over with pinched faces as their backs and necks are pummeled in full view of passersby. Even Mum’s sales flair couldn’t save the shop. It had a good run though. They lasted seven years before it closed its roller door for good. While they never stocked Taytos again, they expanded with a second store in Glenfield mall for a time. But in the end it simply wasn’t making enough money. Interest waned. Mum and Clare’s passion of the Irish culture and the support of the Irish community wasn’t enough to sustain the high rent and gradual decrease of visitors to the mall. Retail stalwarts like Glassons, Life Pharmacy and Whitcoulls eventually left the site - the later forced into voluntary administration and the others perhaps affected by the rise of online shopping. Mum heard from other shop owners that when the once leafy Ponga trees started to die they were ripped out – their existence too fragile in the mall’s artificial ecosystem. In 2017 the mall was sold to new owners. Now, the darkened holes of empty shops stand out like missing teeth in the climate controlled corridors. If it wasn’t for those ragged grey stones from the shop’s storefront that remain, the ones they built when the shop opened, you would never know the exact location of where the House of Erin once was. Something still pinches inside of me whenever I walk past it.   

 

About Sarah Murray

Sarah Murray is a mother of two and a journalist who has spent over ten years writing for some of the country's best newspapers and magazines. She is currently completing the Master of Creative Writing program at The University of Auckland and is working on a collection of personal essays about growing up in a Irish Catholic family in West Auckland.