O'Flaherty (Flaherty), May (1904–91), bookshop owner, was born Mary Angela Flaherty on 14 May 1904 in Youghal, Co. Cork, one of at least five children of Thomas Flaherty, a Royal Irish Constabulary sergeant, originally from Co. Kerry, and his wife Catherine (née Drummy), from Kilmichael, Co. Cork. At the time of her birth, May’s father had just been transferred from Youghal to Dublin, where his family soon joined him. The Flahertys were living on Arran Quay in 1911, later moving to Ellesmere Avenue, North Circular Road; May O’Flaherty was still living in the area in the late 1940s. Little is known of her early life except that her youthful passion for horse riding left her with a preference for tweedy attire. She enjoyed bridge too, playing late into the night.
Having been let go from her job as a saleswoman in Leons of Grafton Street, an upmarket furrier’s, she inadvertently bought Parsons of Baggot Street Bridge, a general store, at auction in May 1949. Her intention had been to drive up the price on behalf of the vendor; instead, her £3,400 bid won out. Happily, she was so taken by the shop’s canal-side setting that she assumed the ninety-nine-year leasehold. With a floor space of 25 sq. ft, Parsons sold mainly newspapers (particularly the Irish Times), tobacco and confectionary, as well as pails and nets for children fishing in the Grand Canal.
She began stocking a small number of books after a year. There was local demand, as the area had developed into Dublin’s bohemian quarter during the 1940s, its rundown Georgian townhouses divided into rental apartments accommodating writers, artists, students and civil servants, while the affluent suburb of Ballsbridge lay immediately south. She read little, but literature appealed to her snobbish side. At the suggestion of one of her regular patrons, the poet Patrick Kavanagh (qv), she contacted Oxford University Press with a view to sourcing quality books, inaugurating a fruitful thirty-nine-year relationship. Buying also from the booksellers that clustered around Dublin’s quays, she stocked educational works, dictionaries, religious tomes and classic novels. Over time, she increased the range and quality of her books, which steadily took over the shop, selecting titles recommended by her more informed habitués.
Initially, Kavanagh was the most important of these advisers, Parsons having quickly become integral to his daily routine after O’Flaherty took over. He arrived once the shop opened, not for the books, but for the horse racing reports in the newspapers, which he read on a stool that was reserved for him, strewing pages on the ground; in good weather, he sat in the doorway, almost blocking entry. By waiting for him to initiate their conversations and by never disagreeing with him, O’Flaherty humoured the uncouth and cantankerous Kavanagh, who, in turn, treated her with atypical courtesy. Regarding him as a savant capable of great insight, wit and spirituality, she also felt sorry for the perennially hard-up poet, affording him a leeway permitted to no one else, though she was taken aback by his habit, latterly, of harassing some of the teenage girls that worked for her. He could borrow books from the shop and, in time, started taking his breakfast there, sometimes washed down by a noggin of Scotch provided by her; he might also shave, dispensing with any lathering and letting his stubble fall to the floor.
As she had hoped, Kavanagh’s presence drew in other creatives, most notably the writer and playwright, Brendan Behan (qv), who, from the early 1950s, appeared at lunchtime for a prolonged browse, finishing a book over several days; she lent him money when he was short. Behan would regale those present with witticisms and songs, while restraining himself somewhat, hardly ever showing up drunk. He charmed an initially apprehensive O’Flaherty, who would normally have enforced more decorum. Brian O’Nolan (qv) completed her trinity of Dublin literary ‘characters’: her most unobtrusive patron, he consulted the Oxford English Dictionary and even occasionally bought a book. Hence, Mary Lavin’s (qv) declaration that ‘one met as many interesting writers on the floor of the shop as on the shelves’ (Irish Times, 5 Dec. 1988).
Unsurprisingly then, prominent writers, artists, academics, journalists, politicians and clergy flocked to Parsons, which also served as an open house for local residents. Finally, there were the aspiring young talents, whom she converted into loyal customers by allowing them to buy on credit. She enjoyed seeing the likes of Hugh Leonard (qv), Michael Hartnett (qv), Peter Costello and Adrian Kenny mature into established writers. A shameless name-dropper, she revelled in her varied clientele and tried to get them talking to each other, such interactions tending to go either splendidly or disastrously. Indeed, many of the literary regulars were not on speaking terms, Kavanagh and Behan most conspicuously, but they all largely behaved themselves in her presence.
Parsons’ transformation into a bookshop reached fruition with the arrival in 1954 of Mary King (1911–95), as one of O’Flaherty’s assistants. Born on 4 September 1911 in Moyard, near the village of Letterfrack, Co. Galway, she was the eldest of seven children of Martin King, a farmer of Moyard, and his wife, Catherine (née Nee), originally from Ballinew, Cleggan, Co. Galway. Despite being raised in a remote part of Connemara with little access to books, she was a keen reader from an early age through the influence of her parents, who were the only locals to get a newspaper. She devoured novels by Annie P. Smithson (qv), Charles Kickham (qv) and Patrick Sheehan (qv). Aged about twenty, she came to Dublin to work as a childminder for a family in Rathgar, remaining until all her charges reached adulthood. She read whenever possible, progressing to the modernist catholic fiction of Graham Greene and Francois Mauriac, and worked in a library in Rathgar prior to joining Parsons as one of four store assistants.
There, she spent much of her working day buried in a book, albeit alert to anyone needing help. Her down-to-earth manner balanced O’Flaherty’s hauteur, while her wide reading allowed her to chat eruditely with customers. Although some customers detected tensions between Parsons’ presiding duo, any flare-ups stayed in-house. They were a study in contrasts: O’Flaherty wore the latest fashion, King dressed plainly; O’Flaherty talked politics, King literature; O’Flaherty was interested in people, King in books; O’Flaherty was chatty, opinionated and always pushing for a sale, King quiet and laid-back, more profound yet also an excellent gossip; O’Flaherty favoured wealthy customers, churchmen especially, King lent a sympathetic ear to struggling creatives; and if both women were religious, O’Flaherty was dogmatic and judgemental, whereas King was broad-minded and later an ardent supporter of the reforming liberalism of another Parsons regular, Garret FitzGerald (qv).
During the mid-1950s, Parsons benefitted from the greater availability of affordable literature, mainly in the form of Penguin paperbacks; Behan’s celebrity and the growing critical appreciation for Kavanagh helped too. More shelves went up, and the shop became known as Parsons Booksellers, and later as Parsons Bookshop. Its range extended to include academic texts, art and architecture doorstoppers, and literary and current affairs periodicals. King determined most of the stock orders, calibrating the shop for a high brow cultural catholic readership, though there were also glossy magazines, romances, detective stories and children’s books.
Following Kavanagh’s death in 1967, O’Flaherty planted a shrine to him in the middle of the shop showcasing various of his works and a photograph of him. By then, Behan and O’Nolan were dead also, and if the new generation of ‘writers-in-residence’ that succeeded them was less colourful, its principals were, in King’s view, more industrious: these included Paul Durcan, Seamus Heaney (qv), Brendan Kennelly (d. 2021), John Banville, Ben Kiely (qv) and Maeve Binchy (qv). O’Flaherty held that the shop peaked in the 1970s when it was considered to have Dublin’s best selection of books, including obscure scholarly titles; it developed a specialty in books on architecture.
Parsons opened at 8.30am each morning with O’Flaherty arriving at 10am (following morning mass at St Mary’s church on Haddington Road) and locking up between 6pm and 6.30pm. She took up her station behind the cash till with shelves of Penguin paperbacks and a magazine display to her right. King stood in the corner stewarding a bookcase of art and hardcover books, the most expensive of which were wrapped in cellophane. A browser’s paradise, the interior (which reminded King of a Connemara shebeen) was never painted; customers trod its creaking floorboards in a cloud of dust, perusing dog-eared books arranged in no obvious order. O’Flaherty, who knew exactly how to set her stage, without necessarily seeming to, ensured that the literary and religious works in the main display window on Baggot Street were attractively arrayed and sported suitably eye-catching covers. She also lured customers by keeping the door open, no matter the weather, calling in passers-by that she recognised.
Aidan Higgins’ (qv) observations that O’Flaherty’s store was as ‘hygienic and orderly as a catholic convent’, her books ‘dull and predictable’, offsets the more roseate reminiscences (National Library of Ireland, MS 44,781). Averse to stocking anything that hinted at lewdness, for long she reacted with outrage to requests for authors such as James Joyce (qv), John Donleavy (d. 2017) and Edna O’Brien, some of whose works were in any case banned in Ireland prior to the late 1960s. Apropos of her customers, she cooled towards Maeve Binchy and Leland Bardwell when they published mildly risqué novels, decried Terence De Vere White (qv) for leaving his wife for another woman and took time to accept Frank O’Connor (qv) because he was divorced. She sought to divert book buyers towards more moral offerings, the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin being a particular favourite.
But once the strict system of censorship ended in the late 1960s, she did stock formerly banned titles. She also began to sell Joyce’s work, albeit on one occasion enclosing a catholic truth pamphlet in a sold copy of one of his works. She trimmed her beliefs to her business instincts, turning a blind eye to the more controversial books that King slipped onto the shelves. And if she remained a feisty upholder of church and state, O’Flaherty’s conversational jousts with her more irreligious customers were conducted in good humour. The artist Owen Walsh laughed that she tried unsuccessfully to proselytise him every time he walked through the door; regardless, his portrait of her took pride of place on the wall behind the shop’s till.
Parsons was never particularly profitable, though it made enough for O’Flaherty to pursue her love of foreign travel. Business was suffering by the 1980s, however, because the increasingly office-dominated and car-choked Baggot Street had been denuded of pedestrians and nearby residents. The shop then began losing money once the British bookshop chains moved into Dublin in the middle of that decade. Furthermore, the customer profile grew noticeably older while O’Flaherty, slowing with age, struggled with the growing paperwork and with the book trade’s switch to computer-based accounting and stock control. In April 1989, she sold the leasehold for £156,000, having spent years rebuffing offers from property developers. The bookshop’s closure on 31 May 1989 drew considerable media attention, seen as marking the end of a literary era for Dublin. In 2004 a plaque commemorating Kavanagh was erected on the wall of the building that formerly contained Parsons Bookshop. Much of what is known of Parsons Bookshop derives from the published research and reminiscences of one of its customers, the writer Brendan Lynch; his correspondence with assorted Parsons regulars is in the National Library of Ireland.
Living latterly at 3 Willow Bank, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, O’Flaherty’s health declined rapidly in retirement, and she died in Our Lady’s Manor nursing home in Dalkey, Co. Dublin, on 27 March 1991. Her remains were interred in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. In her retirement, King read to blind people and assisted in the Catholic Library, Merrion Square. As a resident of the Baggot Street area from the 1960s, it pained her to have such a close view of the destruction of much of Dublin’s historic architecture. She fell victim to this process in 1992 when a property developer evicted her from her apartment in Herbert Street. Thereafter, she lived nearby in Verscoyle Court, Mount Street, before dying in St Vincent’s Hospital, Co. Dublin, on 22 June 1995. Her remains were buried in Ballinakill Cemetery, near Moyard.