Maureen Cahalan hails from Loughisle in the parish of Ballinasloe. She remembers an eventful and happy childhood with her two younger brothers Francis and Gerard. She was the first child born in the household in 73 years, welcoming her arrival with great excitement were her parents and extended family.
She attended Raheen N.S., continuing to the Mercy Secondary School in Callan then went on to a secretarial school in Loughrea, and later she enjoyed life in University College Maynooth as a very mature student.
She gained her wings in retail at Curley Bros Kiltormer.
During a stint in Tuam working with a transport company a strike in the haulage business left her idle for four weeks, during that time her mother saw an advert on the paper for a trainee jeweller with secretarial experience and she applied on the instructions of her mother, who saw the horizon her daughter was destined for.
After three interviews, Maureen was successful in the position and received three months trial period during which she had to prove herself as a perfect seamstress with good use of the hands and mind were essential to this demanding role. She was made permanent and then she studied Jewellery making, design, and finishing jewellery through the National Association of Goldsmiths in the U.K. as well as attending workshops in Dublin, Limerick and Cork where she could see first-hand work in progress.
Maureen’s ambition and drive brought out her creative side and combined with her retail and organisational skills, she found her career niche. The transport company invited her back with the offer of a house, a car and triple the salary but this was refused as the job satisfaction felt by Maureen working with creativity in jewellery and learning every day, gave her more satisfaction than anything else in the world. Working for money is short sighted according to Maureen whereas job satisfaction and gaining experience through knowledge is much more rewarding and self satisfying.
In 1975, Maureen purchased her business in Main Street, Ballinasloe from jewellers who were retiring, where she has spent the past four decades and she continued studying every other year of her business life. She was a Member of the National Association of Goldsmiths of Ireland & the UK, (N.A.G.) Maureen was also a member of Registered Jewellers of Ireland (R.J.I.) and studied valuations and became a registered Valuer. The icing on the cake for Maureen was pursuing a course in Marketing which turned out to be of great benefit to her and her customers. Making the customer experience pleasurable has always been Maureen’s base line.
In 1985, she was the first lady to be appointed R.J.I. President of Ireland and during her 2.5 years in office, she brought two national conferences to Ballinasloe and a major golf tournament. During her Presidency, she travelled to the UK and to Northern Ireland representing Ireland at the Ulster Jewellers’ conference.
She found that her first visit to Northern Ireland missed the opportunity of extending the hand of welcome and lacked warmth. On returning she wrote about this to the President of the Ulster Jewellers and invited them to have bi-annual meetings in Dublin to start with and to continue in the North. This took place in Dublin which was a huge success with maximum turn out from Northern Irish delegates. This created a terrific bond between the RJI & UJ, as both had the same challenges and their mutual objectives transcended all politics and faiths.
To this day, Maureen harnesses very solid contacts with her Jewellery friends in Northern Ireland and while it was a worrying project to undertake it was well worth it as it removed fear and coldness and replaced these with respectful and solid friendships.
In the 1970’s and through the following years trends and trade remained the same, year after year. The John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979 was magical and electrifying for Ballinasloe as most of the Youth camped in the Fair Green and we had to engrave every possible medal, disc and piece of Jewellery for them with the date and their initials. It was such an exciting day, we were open until 10.30pm that night supplying and engraving, however the most exciting part of this for Ballinasloe was the excitement and upbeat camaraderie of so many young people. The joyful memory still lingers for Maureen to this day.
“When the 1980’s arrived the country was talking about a recession, when here in Ballinasloe we were used to full employment, factories setting up, schools, and two hospitals with training colleges. You would not get a bed in town in that period such was the demands from the commercial and medical sectors. We were doing well and appreciated this wonderful bonus which Ballinasloe had never seen in previous times” sates Maureen.
In her view - the 80’s was a mixture of many things apart from business, her daughter was born in 1983, her Dad passed away in 1984 and her mother later that year. Suffering from bereavement is a major shock to us all and Maureen will testify in losing both her parents, whom she adored and learned a lot from, left a huge distance in her life. However the arrival of her daughter Maire kept her happy and busy. Her son Andrew was born in 1985, so the 80’s for Maureen were busy and memorable in the circle of life. It was easy to cope as she had her best friend and wonderful husband Andy by her side to support in every aspect of their lives.
Andy also had trained in the jewellery business and was very successful in jewellery repair and manufacturing. It was a huge bonus and honour to have won the contract for the Eurovision Contest the year they used precious metal which was the year of Celine Dion’s win. That was followed by winning the design and manufacture of the Awards for the College of Art and Design in Dublin.
Cahalan Jewellers always did business on a very private basis with people in Government and RTE. Cahalans always supplied the awards for the Irish/Evening Press Marathon in its lifetime. So flying the flag for Ballinasloe brought positive attention for the town with goodwill being earned by all those involved.
The tempo of all the streets in Ballinasloe always fascinate Maureen as now people speak about all the shops that closed but it must be recalled “when many of those shops were private houses and with the boom of the 1980’s in Ballinasloe, every window on the ground floor of those houses was turned into a shop window and upstairs was rented rooms or flats. The residents of Ballinasloe have always been spirited and entrepreneurial too”, reflects Maureen.
“Then came the downturn for Ballinasloe before the real recession, when the factories moved away and the hospitals closed their training colleges and eventually our wonderful St. Brigid’s Hospital closed gradually week after week. We also lost the Convent Secondary School on Society Street, it moved to a larger site on Garbally Grounds. Then came the “Experts” who said planning permission should be granted for retail stores outside the town, which turned out to be another way to kill the town centre and only last year it was decided to close the Civic Offices leaving all decisions now coming from Galway city. The fact that we are treated as a border town with no one specifically interested in the progress and good of the town centre is very worrying and disturbing. Our town however has made good progress in the very recent past with shops beginning to fill up again with new business and hopefully this will continue but it will need all our collective support. There are a core of a few who continually and constantly push the town for all the right reasons, it has easy access from the motorway. The town has over 20 national bus drivers stopping through Ballinasloe every day and many train journeys too so it is a town that can facilitate any tourist or manufacturer that needs to be on the Motorway in three to five minutes”, states Maureen.
She feels we are lucky too with the expansion of all three hotels, restaurants, pubs, retailers and guest houses who have upgraded in the last few years too. “We have many benefits to our town but at times we find it difficult to hit the right note when we are promoting and telling people what we have to offer. There is nothing you cannot get in Ballinasloe so we need to sing the right tune that the town is very much open for business” opines Maureen.
Maureen set up Community Hearts in 2001 as a result of the kindness she received from her neighbours, customers and friends after the sudden and tragic death of her beloved husband Andy. Through Community Hearts, Maureen organises events and activities which support Ballinasloe’s local charities. In better times she was able to help fund the major charities outside of Ballinasloe but now, she concentrates on supporting charities nearer to home.
What has Maureen noticed since she is involved with so many organizations? “Well the lack of funding for them and the absolute need for such organizations who constructively contribute to local needs. It is very noticeable that many have got poor during this last recession and as a result, we have seen more charity shops opening in our town too which help greatly. The sadness of illness and death leave many within our community in dire straits which in turn leads to stress, which families can do without in their time of need. Community Hearts will always be a beacon of light proudly supporting Ballinasloe’s citizens”, states Maureen.
Main Street, Society Street, Dunlo Street and The Square in Ballinasloe were, and are the centre and fabric of our town, however she’s seen the trend that people do and like to shop online. Shopping online does and doesn’t affect Ballinasloe.
What does Maureen say about this? Maureen’s research in this area shows that couriers seem to deliver in one week and collect 95% of the parcels for return the following week. Maureen believes that this is because the shops in Ballinasloe are still run by their owners and are always willing to put items aside for their customers who can pay off by week or by month and this is something they cannot offer online. It is a great consolation to customers when they know they can do this in Ballinasloe. “Our town’s retailers have supported this business model for years. Customers appreciate flexibility and show this through their loyalty hence businesses survive because of this loyalty”, says Maureen.
“There is a huge future for market towns like Ballinasloe purely because of local, tourist and commercial needs. The Saturday Market in the Square is well established and the craft and home making market is growing in the town hall on Fridays. Having visited other EU cities through my work, it would be wise and pleasant to have the market square organized like a country market which could run most of the week. This is happening in many European cities but alas, not being an engineer I am unable to suggest how it can be done but it should be a consideration because positive activity puts a pep in people’s footprints drawing customers from the surrounding communities into our town of Ballinasloe”, states Maureen.
Specialist shops like Cahalan Jewellers will always thrive by creating and embracing trends and being prepared to keep up with the times and most importantly being able to allow oneself and your business to diverse. Diversity is the saviour for many businesses and to speak of her own, they are continually up scaling and up skilling by giving their customers what they want and need.
“We built a private engagement ring room, we went into partnership with an Antwerp Diamond Company which allows us to sell diamonds at better prices than nationally to our customers and above all guaranteed better and sourced quality. We also offer personalised service from our established network partners in customer repairs; be it watches, rings, bracelets or necklets. We repair any jewellery new or antique. We also carry a large range of antique jewellery, silverware and china. One of our specialities is sourcing any item our customers’ request at very competitive prices. We also can uniquely design a range of jewellery pieces and special gifts” explains Maureen.
Their stock of sports awards and sports medals are unbelievable in quality and price. Due to demand they branched out more by putting a wedding package together for couples getting married helping them with their arrangements locally, nationally or internationally. “Anything one can imagine is possible. It’s all about being focused and flexible!”
Ballinasloe Retailers who continue with their ambition and drive will establish themselves as role model examples to the rest of the country. The core principles handed down to Maureen and her cohort of retailers - through the generations are:
Looking to the town’s future, Maureen believes that after 40 years she has invested time to retrain herself in a new skill, trained her staff and also kept a positive outlook. “I also try to help others in our community and being nice to people because this is important to me. Ballinasloe and its surrounding community is welcoming and friendly, by building on this for example telephoning people spontaneously or writing them a note makes a big difference. Ballinasloe has a gifted tradition amongst its residents of looking out for each other. By harnessing this through positive relationships we can overcome any obstacle in our path”, enthuses the busy Jeweller from Main Street.
Working in the jewellery business has always been her passion. She wrote a successful book some time ago titled “A Note to Self”, which deals with changing lives. The book received great reviews and these touched her greatly. As well as training as bereavement counsellor, she facilitates youth groups with her main inspiration coming from continuous learning and serving my community.
She was invited to London recently to learn the art of pearl stringing by the Pearl Maker to the Queen for over 40 years in all aspects of Pearl wearing and Pearl Making. “It was a truly wonderful experience and I was honoured to have learned this wonderful skill”, regales Maureen.
As to her future “living life each day doing my best for my community and family and having no regrets will keep me happy and alive. Life is for the living and I intend to make the most of mine”, smiles Maureen.
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