The Last Bend: A Personal History of Peter Henry’s Travelling Shop. By Vincent Henry

The stories in this book by Vincent Henry are based on real events and are as accurate, he states, as he could make them, with many factual accounts that document characters and happenings from the end of World War II to the beginning of the 1980s.


Two months after the end of World War II, my parents, Peter Henry and Elizabeth O’Brien, who had recently married, made a far-reaching decision. Responding to an advertisement in the local Westmeath-Offaly Independent, they purchased a grocery shop with attached living premises, in Clara, County Offaly, right in the centre of Ireland. A Protestant lady called Miss Poff sold the house, shop and sizeable garden to my parents for the princely sum of £900. This was money my mother had received as an inheritance from her father.

My father, who was thirty-two years of age at the time, had spent his working life farming but wasn’t particularly fond of that occupation. He was the eldest male in his family, but his younger siblings were eager to take over the farm and he was more than happy to venture into a new career in the grocery business.

‘The Emergency,’ as World War II was known in Ireland, was still in operation at that time. Each family continued to use ration books for basic necessities such as tea, bread, butter and eggs. Showing his entrepreneurial spirit, my father circumvented the letter of the law by securing basic foodstuffs from the surrounding rural areas. He dealt directly with local farmers, and as a result was able to provide a lot of basics over and above ration allocation quotas.

Thus began our travelling shop – or ‘the van,’ as it was invariably called.

Our little shop in Clara where it all began

From the 1900s to the 1980s the travelling shop was an important part of rural Ireland. Apart from bicycles, tractors and the odd motor car, for much of this time people living on farms and in villages travelled by foot or wooden cart pulled by a horse, pony or donkey. The travelling shop, initially a horse-drawn van and then a motorised vehicle, brought animal feed, fuel supplies and food to country folk.

From 1945 to 1985, our van was one of many that provided this service and was consequently an integral part of my family life. In a period of Irish life when times were hard and people had little, this shop on wheels visited the highways and byways of rural midland Ireland. Our van brought groceries and animal feed to farmers in the rural communities of Clara, Ballycumber, Durrow, Aharney, Daingean, Rahugh, Capincur, Rahan and Tullamore. Bottles of stout, ale and lager and a drop of whiskey were sold, even if such transactions meant that my father had to engage in a somewhat flexible interpretation of the law of the land. Butter smuggled from Northern Ireland during midnight hours and flour bags (bought in the local factory) for making sheets, also exchanged hands.

In some cases, money was the medium of exchange. In others, it was eggs, potatoes, country butter and empty bottles. The ancient Irish practice of bartering was alive and well between Peter Henry and his van customers, as credit was so important. Some people cleared their bill weekly while others built up a debt over a period of time, and kept a record of their transactions in a little red book.

A sample of goods and their prices taken from the red book above: The first five items on the left are margarine 2s 9d; peas 2s 3d; biscuits 1s 4d; peas 1s 8d; matches 3s 6d.The first five items on the right are butter 1s 9d; peas 1s 8d; tea 2s 2d; beans 1s 9d; jellies 3s 3d. (s= shillings. D=pence)

A cheque issued by Cathal Dunne paid to Peter Henry for goods purchased on 4 February 1963 to the value of 19 pounds and 16 shillings.

The van, however, was more than a vehicle selling goods. It provided social interaction with the rural community, bringing news, messages and gossip that my father and the customers enjoyed equally. The actual business could take ten to thirty minutes; the length of the stay in a household twice or even three times that, with chatting never-ending as gallons of tea were drunk. Farming, politics, religion and sport were discussed, sometimes very seriously, arguing and debating into the early hours.

Monday was egg day. As a licensed egg merchant my father’s travels brought him all over the west of Ireland, where he would purchase large quantities of eggs. He sold some locally and others in the Dublin area, the surplus being transported to his egg store on the South Circular Road in Dublin where the eggs were graded and subsequently exported across the water to England. From the age of seven, I travelled regularly with him to keep him company and lend a helping hand.

Tuesday through to Saturday were his days for grocery, alcohol, hardware and animal-feed sales. His working day began around 9am, often finishing beyond midnight. Sunday was the day for football and hurling games, so even on the Sabbath there was no rest for the van. As my father was a football and hurling enthusiast, the van must surely have travelled to every county football or hurling field in Ireland.

At a time in rural Ireland when motor transport was so limited, the van provided a very useful service for many locals who wished to travel to games. After its country travels on a Saturday, it was emptied, swept and tidied for the Sunday match outing. Come the Sabbath, after saying their prayers, Clara people waited outside our shop door with sandwiches in paper bags ready for take-off on the road to God-knows-where.

The van also catered for domestic outings such as visits to relations in Daingean and Rahugh. It facilitated our trips to holidays in Salthill, and the Kilbeggan races in June. It took the local drama group for performances in Cavan and elsewhere. Pigs were taken to the mart in the van if a customer got into a spot of bother. The van brought children whose parents didn’t have their own motor transport back to boarding school, and picked up others arriving from foreign shores. It took families to visit their loved ones as they recuperated in hospital.

Many volumes would be required to facilitate all the stories and the great characters encountered in the van’s travels. This book is merely an effort to recount some of the events and stories, and bring to mind the characters from those times. Many of these great people have been called on to their eternal reward, and changing times have forced the van, too, to pass away.

This story of the travelling shop is not unique to these parts of Offaly and Westmeath; similar stories can be told about every nook and cranny of rural Ireland. I was in the right place at the right time, to be able to experience first-hand the livelihood, personalities and enduring characteristics of some of these people, and to now relate some of these stories.

Available from Offaly History and online at


 Between 1979 and 2002 the population of the Republic of Ireland increased by 20%. Employment increased by 500,000. In that same period those working in agriculture fell nationally from 20% to 7%.

Money became more plentiful in the 1980s and ’90s. Farmyards, where a motorcar would have been regarded as an alien object in my father’s time, now had one car and sometimes two, as evidence of improved economic circumstances. Travelling to shops in the big towns became the norm.

In a grocery industry, with its notoriously bone-thin profit margins, it was inevitable that the days of the travelling shop would finally be numbered. The battlefield for business not only included the larger Supermarkets in towns like Tullamore, Athlone and Mullingar, but also the growth of grocery store-chains like Dunne’s Stores, Quinnsworth, and Supervalue.  What chance was there for a little concern like the van, travelling the highways and byways of rural Ireland to compete with such powerhouses?

 In rural Ireland the tractor and the bicycle were no longer the primary means of transport. Travelling to town was no longer rare but an everyday event. Living patterns were changing in other ways also. Not alone was the era of the small farmer coming to an end but the land of opportunity was calling, not alone from the U.S.A. and England but from the European Union, the middle east and Australia.

By the mid-1980s the customers who had shown both their appreciation and loyalty by continuing to shop in the van were now purchasing reduced amounts, with the large stores beginning to eat them up. In such a scenario something had to give. And it wasn’t going to be Ben Dunne, Feargal Quinn ,who would suffer. The traditional grocery stores in towns and villages throughout the country were forced to close their doors.

The poor old van didn’t stand a chance.