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Last Round for Family Milk Delivery Business

November 4, 2019

by Ryan Morgan

After nearly a century of service, one of south Armagh’s most iconic family businesses came to an end last week. Local milkman, John McShane, performed his final deliveries to shops on Wednesday and to homes on Thursday last. The business’s closure marks the end of an era that extended back three generations through his father, uncle and grandfather.

The decision reflects the demise of the profession across the board, following the ceaseless growth of supermarket chains that price small independent delivery firms out of the market in what John refers to as a “relentless price war”. He also cites vast changes in people’s work/life balances as undercutting the preference for home delivered milk.

Gene, John’s father and former long-time proprietor of the business, recalls a time decades ago when business was booming. This surge was largely driven by the absence of refrigeration in many local households at the time, which warranted the daily delivery of perishable foods such as milk. According to Dairy Crest, the leading British dairy company, up to 94% of milk was home delivered by the 1970’s. Back then, Gene was conducting between 300 and 400 deliveries every day. Indeed, some years he would work seven day’s a week, with only Christmas Day off, in order to meet the huge demand for the service.

Gene himself was born and raised in Cross Square to a family steeped in the tradition of dairy. In the 1930’s, his parents would sell their cattle’s milk to their neighbours “straight from the cow’s udder.” When appetite began to build for the family’s milk, his father took to the Square with his horse and cart, delivering his product to families throughout the Crossmaglen area.

Eventually, Gene’s brother Patsy took over the deliveries, and with a new generation of McShane’s came a new way of doing business. As their customer base continued to grow, Patsy purchased a lorry to keep up. This new and quicker form of transport enabled him to sell his milk throughout the wider south Armagh area directly from the former Armagh-Down Creamery in nearby Newry.

A young Gene McShane pictured with his son John who then took over the milk delivery.

In 1963, Gene himself returned from England and joined the ranks of the family firm. Despite a heavy workload, he thoroughly enjoyed his work and provided a valuable provision to his community at a time when well-stocked stores were few and far between. So strong grew his vocation for the job that one Christmas Eve he went beyond the call of duty to ensure his customers didn’t go without. Following heavy snowfall through the night and the absence of any gritting service to clear the roads, Gene’s lorry became punctured on the Tullydonnell road near Garvey’s pub at 3am in the morning. Not wanting to let his loyal Silverbridge customers down, he spent hours lifting rocks from nearby ditches to elevate his lorry far enough off the ground to retrieve the spare tyre underneath deeply buried in snow. With Gene’s work ethic, it wasn’t long before he was on his way.

By the turn of the century, it was time for another generation of McShane’s to take the ropes. Following his father’s hip replacement in 2003, John began his 4am wake-up calls to keep the business afloat. After the closure of the creamery in Newry he began to intake his milk from Fane Valley, a Northern milk cooperative. While John tried “to keep going and going” with the deliveries, earlier this year he decided it was no longer viable or profitable to continue, as supermarkets continued to reduce their prices to force out any form of competition.

Nevertheless, from their humble beginnings selling milk amongst their neighbours on the Square, through to their glory days shipping it throughout much of the locality, the McShane’s will long be honoured and remembered as a Crossmaglen institution.  They are acknowledged by those who knew them and bought off them as having provided a vital and respected service to their community which will not be forgotten.

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