Project Main Street, Castleisland: The Island Centre

Project Main Street is a collection of digital photographs of Main Street, Castleisland and its outskirts taken by Castleisland District Heritage on 6 July 2020 as part of an initiative to document the history of the buildings that line the famous ‘street between two fields.’[1]  The project is a work in progress.


In August 2020, Castleisland District Heritage relocated from the town’s Carnegie Library to a unit in The Island Centre, Main Street.  This presents as an appropriate place to commence the work in this series.


The Island Centre
by John Roche


A snippet of news in a letter written by John Roche, my grandfather, on the 11th October 1869 gives us an insight into the beginnings of what is now ‘The Island Centre’ in the middle of Main Street, Castleisland.  The letter was to his brother J J Roche, then a journalist with the New York Times and New York Herald who would later found, with two other journalists, the New York Press Club, in defiance of newspaper bosses.[2]  The snippet alluded to another of their brothers, Maurice, my grand-uncle:


Maurice didn’t get the site he sought for building but he has acquired a good site across the street next to the police barracks.[3]


We can reasonably assume from this remark that work started in 1870 on what was to become an impressive three-storey twin building that nearly a century later, when all houses in town got a number, became numbers 49 and 51 Main Street.


It was indeed a very good site with large street frontage and a back entrance 100 yards down Old Chapel Lane, as it was then known.[4]  A feature of the back entrance was two round stone pillars, still intact, the only ‘relic’ of the original structure preserved by the new owners.


We have no idea how long construction took but the finished product was an impressive building that facilitated two business houses for the succeeding generation.


The Island Centre, Castleisland: John Roche (above left, and right of image) pictured with Kathleen Dowling (née O’Rourke) and her son, Thomas, in front of the two surviving pillars built by John’s grand-uncle.  In the centre, an artist’s impression of O’Rourke’s by K Shanahan, courtesy Kathleen Dowling


Maurice Roche, known thereafter as ‘Maurice the Building’ or ‘Maurice the builder,’ had a thriving business there through the next 40 years until his death in about 1915.  He was then in his eighties.  As best we can ascertain, he developed a general hardware and horse equipment store in No 51 and meal/flour, seeds and farm feeds in No 49.


Consistent with his family tradition, he seemed to have been very horse-proud.  Family lore has many stories of incidents involving his large, strong and extremely well-fed horses.  With a large, spacious back yard, he had stables and a number of top-class horses which he engaged carting from Tralee port and delivering meal, flour and a variety of goods to other merchants, bakeries and family shops.  It was said that the average cart-horse brought two loads from Tralee in a day but Maurice’s horses brought three.  I still remember a number of family stories about how his horses got ‘out of control’ in the hands of less experienced horsemen.


My father (his nephew) asked him one day why he needed to have his horses so well-fed and he replied, “If it pays to feed them at all it pays to feed them well!”  He wasn’t for turning.


The property later fell to his brother John, my grandfather’s family.  Two nieces, my aunts Nora and Hannah, took over but it was a very difficult business for two young ladies to master in those times.  Hannah later married Tommy O’Rourke who opened a butcher’s shop in No 51, and Nora a ‘Boarding House’/Restaurant in No 49.


Their move into business in the main street of Castleisland was succeeded by very troubled times.  The First World War was then running its grizzly course, to be followed by the War of Independence, the Civil War and later the Economic war.  The latter was disastrous for the butcher business as beef became worthless, and the government of the time issued free beef to the poor which by now was a huge section of the population.  Unless a butcher got a slice of government contracts, the business was no longer viable.  This happened to the O’Rourke business, forcing its closure, but they later reopened as a shop and restaurant and were very successful.  Mrs O’Rourke’s meat pies were a very popular dish for hungry countrymen on the big Castleisland fair days.


Nora Roche sold her business in the 1940s when she married a Tralee man, and the new owners were Dan and Mrs Shanahan, who also opened a shop as well as a successful restaurant.


I might digress here to tell a related anecdote that followed the sale to the Shanahans.  The backyard was now, for the first time, divided by a wall.  Up to this time an old man named Jim Hickey, who lived in an old thatched house in the bog near where the ladies grew up, used to stable his ass at the back of No 49 on his weekly trip to town with his wife Julia to collect their pensions.  Jim was a reputable poet and, finding his situation dramatically changed overnight, he penned a little ditty, but sadly I can only recall a couple of verses.


Mrs Shanahan – can I come in?
I humbly beg your pardon.
Will you let me pass with my little ass,
Down to your lovely garden.

The day is cold – and I’m getting old,
To walk I am not able,
My little ass has neither hay nor grass,
May I put her in your stable?[5]


The O’Rourke and Shanahan businesses continued side by side until circa the 1970s when the next generation of both families moved to various parts of the world.


Up for Sale in 1986: 49 and 51, Shanahan’s Restaurant and O’Rourke’s


The Ring family purchased both houses and so kept ‘the building’ intact as one structure.  It was rebuilt as ‘The Island Centre’ in the 1990s.


The Island Centre


The Island Centre shopping arcade was officially opened by RTE presenter Pat Kenny on Sunday 12 June 1994.[6]   A number of existing and new businesses filled the arcade, including fashion outlets Razzle Dazzle, Casual Encounters, Frank Coffey Shoes and The Out Back.  Other outlets were Stitches, A Slice of Life and the Curiosity Shop.  Lee Records, Martin Cleary Photography and Bodywise represented businesses from Tralee.[7]  Located at the front of the arcade was (and remains) The Treasure Chest gift store and at the rear, The Green Door Restaurant was open for food and refreshments.[8]


Nos 49-51 Main Street: The Island Centre opened in 1994.  Its construction coincided with that of the River Island Hotel built on the site of three derelict buildings at Lower Main Street.  In the centre of the above image, a 1995 advertisement for The Treasure Chest which celebrates 27 years in business this year, and signage from the rear of the building, a reminder of past trading


In the not too distant future, however, loomed the economic slump brought by the Celtic Tiger, and the centre became more attractive as an administrative centre.  Sliabh Luachra ADM Offices opened there in April 1998, and rooms were used for meetings such as the Castleisland Parent & Toddler Group.[9]  Castleisland Youth Centre (KDYS) had offices for about ten years before relocating to Hussey’s Corner, Lower Main Street, in 2013.


Today, a number of businesses and organisations occupy the building including (ground floor) The Treasure Chest, Direct Teachers, Pat’s Barber Shop, not forgetting Castleisland District Heritage.  The first floor is occupied by Kelliher O’Shea, Chartered Accountants; Irish Host Family Ltd and offices of Kerry County Council.  Kerry National Roads Office is located on the second floor.


[1] Castleisland District Heritage reference IE MOD/C92.  See for further reference to Con Houlihan.

[2] It is ever since the biggest press club in the world and J J later became a vice-president for life.

[3] The barracks site is now occupied by The Country Market Restaurant.

[4] It is better known today as Convent/Mart Lane.

[5] There was much more to the verse but it has been a permanent regret that Jim’s poetry wasn’t rescued when he passed away in 1950.

[6] Kerryman, 17 June 1994, ‘Castleisland’s new ‘Island Centre’ draws huge crowds.’  The Island Centre Administrator in 1994 was Joanne O’Leary, later of JLT Tiles.

[7] Martin Cleary Photography also operated at 1 The Mall, Tralee; the Castleisland outlet was located in unit 4.  A Slice of Life (Monica O’Connor) relocated to Main Street in 1999, and has since moved again to a premises nearby.  The Old Curiosity Shop also relocated onto the Main Street some years ago.

[8] Noreen Ring (Treasure Chest) won an award for best shop front in the Castleisland Tidy Towns 1994.  The Kerryman, 5 February 2004, carried a photograph and review of The Green Door Restaurant.  The Green Door Restaurant (Margaret O’Rourke) relocated onto the Main Street in recent times.

[9] Sliabh Luachra ADM (known from 2003 as Sliabh Luachra Local Development) relocated to premises at The Craggeens in 2012.