It is said that a house is an extension of a person who lives there – a symbol if you like. So I turn to Mrs Kearins’ shop and residence on the corner of Dabee Road and Rodgers Street to discover her. After all, she lived and ran that store for over 60 years.
The building is a survivor, just as Irene was (92 years from 1916-2009 is a pretty good innings). Despite an extension or two it is still looking very much as it did when first built – 1921 according to Bruce Fleming. Timber construction, wrought iron roof, an awning roof extending over the verandah, held up by timber posts. Rylstone Council missed this little shop when it insisted in the 1950s that such awnings were a traffic hazard and should be removed, as they were along Angus Avenue. That bare oblong sign fronting the pitch roof probably had the names of previous owners, O’Brien, Mitchell and Goodman, but in 1999 Irene Alice Priscilla (Dot) Kearins chose to adorn the picture window with “I A P Kearins Confectionary Drinks etc 1947 1999”. That window by the way, was part of the extensions she and husband Mick completed in 1956.
In 2003 Irene and her shop featured in a Powerhouse Museum publication What’s in Store? A History of Retailing in Australia, where we learn about a woman who discovered that being a wife, mother (two school-age sons Terry and Lance) and home-maker, wasn’t going to give her the fulfilment she wanted. A mixed business with residence allowed her to be a stay-at-home mum and small business owner. She needed her husband’s permission of course and it was given, with the proviso she didn’t go into debt and didn’t ask him to help out in the shop. So she had her independence, as long as she fulfilled all her other roles. I don’t think much has changed for women, has it?
It was an unpretentious building and business that suited an unassuming but aspirational couple. When they married in 1938 in the Sacred Heart Catholic Church at Murringo, near Burrowa, Vincent Michael was a labourer and son of a farmer, part of an extended Irish Catholic family that had settled in the area in the mid-1850s. Irene Bowers, born in Essendon Victoria, was the daughter of a retired labourer and was engaged in “domestic duties” (such a vague title) at Parramatta. At the time, she converted to Catholicism. In Kandos, Mick started his 28-year employment with the cement works, where almost immediately, though not for long, he took on the role of Union Rep for the AWU (Australian Workers Union).
After living through a depression and war, Irene like most of her generation, was frugal and cautious, with a core belief: save till you can afford it. Thus the extension to the shop didn’t happen till they had acquired materials piece by piece, storing them in the shed. They were simple store furnishings to Irene’s design: a long counter and timber box shelves lining the walls to hold stock. The travelling salesmen obviously thought her a good risk and extended credit to her to get established. Perhaps she didn’t tell Mick.
Many locals remember visiting Mrs Kearins’ shop as children, to buy lollies and ice blocks. However her business was more substantial than that. An early advertisement encourages readers to “make up your daily or weekend order from our groceries, vegetables and produce”, gives the phone number 112 and lists some available items: biscuits, confectionary, home remedies, soft drinks, tobacco and cigarettes. Clearly Irene was offering a good range of items, especially for locals on the eastern side of town.
Irene would have felt quite comfortable using her own initials in that piece of advertising on the window. After all she had been a widow for eight years and it was the 1990s. But Irene was a woman of her time and saw nothing amiss, when Mick was alive, in signing her name Mrs V M Kearins, as she did in her letter to the Australian Women’s Weekly, 16 June 1954. It was in response to a pommie writer defending the English Grand National after it was called “a brutal so-called sport” by an Aussie writer. “Be more tolerant Mrs Martin,” writes Irene. “Maybe your English racing is better, who knows? – but surely everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.” It is a rebuke both mild and sharp.
Besides a house, we can also understand people from the objects they value. Luckily Irene donated a number of these to the museum, where she volunteered for many years. One item was a pink tuille hat decorated with small pearls – a special occasion hat (Don’t bother looking “tuille” up – they’ll say it’s French armour or a tasset. In my memory it is a fine netting, popular in the fifties). Perhaps Irene wore that hat as mother of the groom. Or perhaps to the opening of the CWA rooms in 1959. She wasn’t, I discovered, a founding member of Kandos CWA (1945), though she was involved in it for many years.
There is also a painting of Kandos at the museum, painted by Irene. It is rich in colour, a view from Rocky Mountain, of Kandos and the Dabee hills. Did she paint plein air or from a photo? What other paintings did she do? In any case it is a bird’s-eye view, suggesting I think, a free spirit.
Featured photo is a painting by Irene Kearins of Kandos and the Dabee Hills, held in Kandos Museum (photo by Mike Oakey; courtesy of Kandos Museum)