Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Manning the pumps

Plans to remove the petrol station service from Dunleas Kia as part of a reconstruction at the dealership prompted me to recall the history of petrol retailing in Kilcullen, writes Brian Byrne.

The whole business of selling petrol has changed over the decades since motor cars first began leaving clouds of dust and exhaust fumes behind them, choking hapless pedestrians.

When motoring and motorists were still an unusual but a growing group, supplying their fuel required setting up some kind of distribution. As far back as 1896, the Locomotives on the Highway Act allowed owners of motor cars to keep 40 gallons of fuel at home, divided into tanks of 20 gallons each. This was often delivered directly to customers' homes, transferred from barrels to the tanks.

With paraffin for home lighting already being stored and sold by chemists, bicycle shops and ironmonger-hardware stores, local supply of petrol gradually came under their remit. Hotels also stocked it as demand grew, in the same way as they had provided feed for horses drawing carriages.

In Kilcullen paraffin had been sold from a number of businesses including Barbers bicycle shop beside where the bank is today, my grandfather's hardware shop, and Nanny Lawlors. Probably by other local businesses too. I have no actual information on whether these stocked and sold petrol in cans, but it's quite likely that my grandfather did, and probably Barbers, not least because they had their own vehicles to fuel.

When revisions to storage regulations mandated that petrol could only be carried or sold in containers not exceeding two gallons, the 'spare' tank began appearing on the running-boards of cars, to be swapped for full ones when they had been emptied into the car's own tank. Eventually stores of petrol cans — which were proving to be a serious fire risk — were replaced by tanks from which the fuel could be pumped, and from these eventually developed kerbside pumps.

One of the earliest of these in Kilcullen was at what is today Berney Bros Saddlery. Tom Berney Snr told me that the pump was likely there from the 1920s, and dispensed Esso petrol. "It was probably installed by my grandfather Peter, who was something of a petrolhead for his time. He used to drive a Swift car with a local clergyman, and they messed around with the suspension to improve the car's roadholding."

Jim Collins remembers operating the pump, which was used until 1950. "It was hand-operated, and Tommy Wallace or I would work it for customers." He recalls that there was sometimes a credit problem, and Wally would hide inside the saddlery when customers who owed money came looking for fuel.

Nessa Dunlea, originally an O'Connell, also remembers that pump, but for quite a different reason. "We used to roller-skate down the hill, and we'd grab the pump to stop us before we went further down where my mother might see us."

The nearest competitor to Berneys was Brennans at the bottom of the same hill. Donal Brennan says the Caltex pumps were likely to have been in place from the early 30s. They are visible in the picture above from the 1940s, when Brennans were also main agents for Massey Ferguson tractors.

In 1960, the garage and pumps were taken over by motor engineer JP Shortt, and after him by Kevin Ginnity around the mid-70s. Kevin sold the premises back to Brennans after a few years and moved up to a brand new site where Dunleas is now, selling Peugeot cars and Nuffield tractors. The pumps at Brennans were then removed as part of an expansion of the hardware business.

In my early memory, the main petrol pumps in town were across from the Hideout, owned by PG Dowling. In the picture above, taken in the 1930s, Thomas Orford Snr is on the left, with the pipe; the next man leaning against the Caltex pump is Jim O'Connell, while the man beside the Mobiloil storage is possibly Peter Fenlon. The young lad immediately behind the Mobiloil storage is my Uncle Tom Byrne, and directly behind him is Tim Orford. The lad at the back leaning on the window with his hand to his mouth is Billy Orford. The man leaning casually against the BP pump looking every inch the city slicker from Dublin, is Tommy Kennedy — father of RTE Nationwide presenter Mary Kennedy and Mary Orford's father's first cousin..

In this picture, taken around 1960, the PG Dowling pumps are now selling Shell product, and in the one below, with the business then being operated by the late Brendan Dowling, they have switched allegience to Jet petrol.

Jet was one of the first independent petrol distributors, and shook up the business at the time.

There are still people who remember the Hideout filling station opened by my dad Jim Byrne about 1960, designed in the shape of a thatched cottage. It attracted a lot of attention as motorists drove to and from from Dublin before bypasses. It was intriguing enough for Esso to feature it in an Irish TV commercial.

My own memories from doing shifts for pocket money was of an extraordinarily uncomfortable place to work in the winter, as the half-door didn’t help much in keeping out the elements. It was later replaced with a much more modern, and mightily more worker-friendly kiosk. And it did kick off employment experience for many youngsters in the village.

The aerial picture above also shows the Hideout station, and the car park excavated to contain it. Some years later, because the car park was proving an asset to the pub, Dad decided to double its size. This necessitated excavating my grandmother's garden behind. The day the digger moved in, another local businessman came over to have a look. "What are you building, Jim?" he asked. "Nothing, I'm making the car park bigger," Dad answered. I can still remember the man walking away, shaking his head at the folly …

The Hideout petrol operation went through a number of minor changes until the mid-90s, when my late brother Des sold the pub. He and his wife Josephine then upgraded the petrol forecourt and built a modern convenience store beside it. After Des's passing, Josephine leased the operation out, in recent years to Frazer Oil. Since last year, it is operated by Applegreen, who have further upgraded both forecourt and shop.

The O'Connor brothers opened their garage and petrol station in the mid-1960s at what is now the Link Business Park, and operated there until 1990. Liam O'Connor recalls that they started out with Shell petrol, and finished as retailers for Top Oil, sold by Tedcastle Oil Products. Behind the petrol forecourt, the O'Connors built up a well-deserved reputation for excellent motor service, with one of their top mechanics being a young Pat Dunlea.

Pat eventually went out on his own, and began a service and sales operation from a cottage on the corner turning into Logstown. In 1983 he bought Kevin Ginnity's business, Kevin deciding to sell when his wife Loreto became ill. Loreto was an enthusiastic member of Kilcullen Drama Group, and is particularly memorable for her portrayal of 'Big Maggie' in the John B Keane play of the same name.

Over the following years, Pat and Nessa Dunlea expanded the business, the primary interest being in car sales and service as a main Nissan dealer. When they began, the petrol brand was Maxol. That was later superseded by local brand Kilcullen Oil.

Following Pat's death in 2005, Dunleas of Kilcullen was acquired by Anthony Murray and Mark Grainger. Their planning application, currently being considered by Kildare County Council, will result in the end of Naas Oil petrol sales at their Kia dealership.

One reason why so many petrol sales operations closed down around the country was because new safety regulations made kerbside pumps illegal. Long before that, the Hideout filling station was the first local one with a drive-in forecourt, followed by the O'Connors and later by Kevin Ginnity.

The number of cars requiring fuel has massively increased across the country compared to three decades ago, but the number of petrol outlets has diminished substantially. In the ten years up to 2008, they were cut by half to around 1,100 stations.

I haven't been able to get a firm number for 2017, but anyone driving around the country will be very aware of the many recently derelict stations, sad-looking victims of motorways and bypasses. And of changing times.

It won't be completed in my life, but the day is inevitable and relatively soon when a solitary pump in the corner might provide petrol or diesel, and the rest of the service will be banks of fast chargers for electric cars.