THE building that houses Lismore’s current shop has been a commercial premises for over 120 years. It started life as a tailor’s at the end of Victoria’s reign with living space above and a big house at the top of the slope behind for the owner. At one time much of it was used for storage but for many years now it has been the island’s only general store.

It wasn’t always so. Lismore is unusual in that there is no centre as such and its settlements of various sizes are scattered throughout.

The school is just up the brae from the car ferry slip and waiting room whilst the other aids to life such as the community hall, shop, museum and cafe, fire station and church are strung out along the main road with only a few houses for company. The lighthouse is at one end and the passenger ferry at the other, the rest are in-between somewhere.

During Victorian times, as islanders became less self-sufficient and acquired tastes for luxuries such as tea, which they couldn’t grow themselves, the roll call of townships that had general merchants listed is extraordinary. Most of these are now abandoned – it is odd to stand among the ruins in what are now hidden and out of the way places, and imagine the bustle of craftspeople – cobblers and dressmakers – and the shoppers coming and going.

The current shop being in the centre of the island, it is interesting that the “friendly” rivalry between the north and the south, which appears strongly at the yearly agricultural show and the sports day, is measured by being north or south of the shop.

It is part of the fabric of the island. It sells almost anything from toilet rolls to paint brushes, baked beans to houmous, post cards and potatoes.

After 23 years the tenant was seeking to retire in April of this year and a long campaign was held to find a successor and retain this vital amenity. March of course brought in the unknowable and unimaginable.

Although a new shopkeeper had been found, the shop “closed” under the same management but remained “open” for our version of click and collect.

If you emailed or phoned before 12pm with your order, it was processed and left in a small horsebox outside (with hand sanitiser by the door) that same afternoon for you to pick up. One day I emailed at 11.50am and my order was ready for picking up at 12.25pm! Volunteers delivered the boxes of groceries to the elderly or the sheltering.

Finally, restrictions were eased and the new shopkeeper opened up with all the palaver we are now used to – the hand sanitiser, the masks and the one way system. The ordering facility had been good in the circumstances but what a joy to actually see the stuff you were looking to buy.

But the shop hasn’t only been a place to buy things, it’s also been a crucial hub for social interactions.

The elderly man coming in every morning for his paper, the twice-weekly shopping trips for those using the community “granny” bus and for everyone just catching up on the gossip. Now masked semi-anonymous people hesitate in the doorway glancing around to see how many people are already inside and carefully enquiring as to whether they may come in.

On a Saturday morning though, with cars, tractors and vans parked haphazardly in the road outside and masks removed, the craic goes on.

Rosemary Barry