There’s more than one reason to have a shop than a place to buy your milk and bread,” says Siobhan Heaney, just one of the dedicated volunteers behind Roots community shop and café in Kilmeedy, Co Limerick. When Irish Country Living visits on what we reckoned would be a “quiet” Thursday morning, we see what she means.
“We had no shop for years and when this opened… Godsend,” says local woman Tess Geary, who is dropping in to get her daily paper and milk.
Meanwhile, Cody Bustin and Meadhbh McCarthy from nearby Monagea and Dromcollogher are sitting outside sipping Ponaire flat whites while waiting for their Roots’ signature breakfast baps.
“Before, if you wanted to have a sit-down coffee, you’d have to go all the way to Newcastle West,” explains Meadhbh.
Another pair taking a breather are friends Loretta Hayes and Maura Crowley, who had cycled 28km from Ardagh.
“This is our usual port of call; the coffee and the scones are to die for,” they chime. “It’s our favourite place to stop.”
It’s little wonder why. Since opening at the end of 2020, Roots has become the beating heart of this close-knit west Limerick village and yet this social enterprise punches far above its weight, with everything from produce grown locally in its community garden to a head chef who swapped Adare Manor for Kilmeedy.
The heart of the community
But first, a little history. Records show a shop in the village as far back as 1880, when it was operated by James and Ellen Gayer as a grocer’s, drapery and haberdashery. In 1900, John Joseph (Johnny) Geary married Mary Josephine Gayer and they continued to diversify.
An entry from 1905 shows a sale to Molly Griffin of toys, a doll, three pairs of boots, four yards of ribbon, two ounces of wool, a flannelette, two and ¾ yards of fancy lining, one apron, and two squares of soap.
Indeed, as the years went by, you could buy everything from butter to a bicycle there, while the shop also spawned a hackney, haulage and undertaking service.
In 1984, the business was taken over by Mick and Esther Ahern and remained in operation as a shop and post office until it closed in 2005.
Siobhan Heaney – who moved to Kilmeedy in 2007 and works for the local social housing body – saw first-hand the impact that its loss had on the community. “I suppose it rips the heart out of a village, doesn’t it?” she reflects.
“There are some people of an age who never learned to drive and the shop is the hub and the heart of a little village because it’s where you bump into your neighbours and you get a little bit of news and you pass the time of day and I felt as an outsider coming in that the village had lost a little bit of its soul.”
Siobhan stresses, however, that Kilmeedy had no shortage of community spirit and “having researched it, we felt that the only way we would be able to have a shop was to have it as a social enterprise.”
Making the dream a reality
The fledgling project received a huge boost when John Geary – a grandson of Johnny Geary, who runs the John Deere dealership in the village, but bought back the shop building in 2011 – agreed to give Kilmeedy community development group use of the premises on a peppercorn lease (a Euro a year) for 10 years.
Funds were needed, however, to completely renovate the building and as Siobhan had previous experience of the tender process, she was tasked with securing funding for the project, with LEADER committing €90,346 in 2018; about 50% of the total cost.
That same year, they also received €25,000 from the JP McManus Benevolent Fund, while €100,000 from the Town and Village Renewal Scheme 2019 paid for a kitchen extension and fit out, as well as new polytunnels, cold storage for veg and a cabin for the Kilmeedy Homegrown Community Garden, which previously was the site of a horticulture training course and now supplies the shop and cafe.
Other supports included mentoring and training through West Limerick Resources Ltd but Siobhan explains that the community itself financed 35% to 40% of the cost of the project through fundraisers like a Strictly Come Dancing event, as well as taking a loan with Clann Credo, which they have been paying off through income streams such as before/after school services that the community development group runs locally.
While there were a few bumps along the road, Roots finally opened its doors in December 2020.
“We were humming and hawing because we were in the middle of COVID,” says Siobhan, “and we were in a meeting one night and we said: ‘Really this is probably the time to open because our people need somewhere to go safely.’”
Bringing life back to the community
And they have not looked back since. While Roots relies heavily on local volunteers, it also employs two full-time staff members.
Shop manager Siobhan Hayes is from nearby Feenagh and has worked in hospitality for most of her career, most recently in a restaurant in Adare. She “jumped” at the opportunity to run Roots in February 2021, having been put out of work by the pandemic.
“I was at home and I didn’t know when our restaurant in Adare was going to open – it was in the middle of the second lockdown –so it was amazing. [One of the committee members] said it to me … and three weeks later I was here,” she smiles.
As well as managing the shop and the staffing rota (which consists of two part-time workers and volunteers ranging from TY students to more seasoned locals), Siobhan also bakes for the shop and sources as much local produce as possible; pointing out products like Ardagh honey, for instance.
“That’s literally only 20 minutes over the road and it absolutely flies – there’s people who come here just for our honey,” she says. But more importantly, she sees first-hand how much it means to the community to have a shop and cafe back in the village again.
“They tell us every day how much it means to them. They were lost without a shop here for so long and it just has brought life back into the community,” she says.
“I like to talk, so I love having the chats with them. And there’s people that come in here and they only come in for a chat … and that’s what they need, especially now after everything that has happened.”
From the manor to Kilmeedy
Recently joining the Roots team as the other full-time staff member is chef Aaron O’Brien from Castlemahon, who previously spent four years at Adare Manor.
So, why the move to Kilmeedy?
Aaron explains that he first fell in love with Roots when he came on board initially as a consultant.
“I always found it was a great vibe out here, there was a great community spirit, and you don’t see that a lot anymore,” says Aaron, who adds that another attractive factor was the access to fresh produce from the village’s community garden.
“I have a garden full of stuff 200 metres down the road, which is great and in a lot of places you don’t get that.”
With other local suppliers including O’Connor’s Butcher’s in Dromcollogher and Guiry’s free-range eggs from Knockaderry, Aaron offers primarily a takeaway dinner menu at present, with specials that change daily.
Recent meal offerings included Korean BBQ beef stirfry with noodles, roasted lemon Dijon chicken supreme with confit baby potatoes, mushroom and miso pappardelle or their signature “Roots steak box” with fries, crispy Cajun onions and pepper sauce.
That said, locals can also take advantage of the outdoor seating and – sigh – then there are the sweet treats, like a lemon meringue croissant or chocolate Nutella tart on the day that we visit.
“I want something that you won’t get everywhere else,” says Aaron. “It would be bad now if I didn’t use the high-end experience to bring something different here.”
Future plans include offering sit-in dining at the Áras Íde community hall and resource centre next door, where Roots has already held special afternoon tea events for seniors. For Aaron, the possibilities are endless.
“The Manor was the manor but we can do whatever we want,” he says.
Other plans include pop-up and themed events, as well as allowing local food producers to use the kitchen as a production hub. Further down the line, a purpose-built cafe may be in the offing.
There are, of course, challenges, as fundamentally it is a volunteer-led enterprise, which is fuelled by people’s precious time and goodwill.
Siobhan explains that other similar projects have gone down the lease route (ie put the day-to-day running out to tender), but if people are inspired to follow in Roots’ wake, they should make the most of the skillsets that exist in their own communities.
“Inevitably, somebody will have some experience that’s directly relevant to what they’re trying to do, whether it’s somebody who can do websites or somebody who has book keeping or accounting experience,” she says.
In Kilmeedy, Roots will continue to grow.
“It really has changed people’s lives for the better in the village,” surmises Siobhan. “On a day like today, there’s people sitting outside having their coffee, having their lunch, the sun is shining; it just has given some soul back into the village.”