It is 50 years since Phyllis MacNamara took the helm at her antique shop Cobwebs in Galway city.
“Back then it was a derelict building that my father bought to save from demolition. My sister opened it first and I ran it for what was meant to be a week – which turned into five decades,” Phyllis says.
“A lovely little spot, it had no electricity – so we lit a fire every day – and you could see the hills of Co Clare if you leant out the half door.”
With “a weakness for buildings”, aged just 11 years old, she fell in love with an old Georgian house in Oranmore. “I told my parents I would live there when I grew up.”
True to form, the tenacious woman became chatelaine of the lovely Georgian pile shortly after her marriage to Michael MacNamara, an English solicitor. But the couple’s first visit to their new home was not all plain sailing: “We got a bit of a shock when we saw it, then the front door fell on Michael’s foot so we spent the day in hospital before we actually got a look inside.”
It was in such a state of dereliction the couple “had a stream of demolition people calling offering their services”, but she has been in love with the place ever since.
Phyllis’s antique shop on the quays in the City of the Tribes also went from strength to strength, hosting the likes of Barbara Streisand as clients, as well as many couples picking out a ring to cement their love. Phyllis says aquamarines are the most popular stones in her treasure trove, since Meghan Markle held her hand up to show off Princess Diana’s 30 carat whopper in her post nuptial spin in a vintage Jaguar.
“I’ve been selling as many aquamarines as diamonds, and as a sea swimmer, it’s like having the sea on your hand,” Phyllis says.
“I have loved the sea for as long as I can remember and the friendships, love and deep support I have received from female friends at the Silver Fins group that swim in Renville (at Oranmore) is phenomenal.”
Reading English and Fine Arts at Trinity, as one of the youngest students (having just turned 17 years old), Phyllis couldn’t believe she had “the good fortune to study what I loved”.
Although having met Michael at her family home when she was 15 years old and thinking “he was a bit odd dressed in a cardigan with suede elbows, but my mother loved him”, the pair met again at college, a time she describes as terrifying despite being a confident young Galway woman.
The pair became best – albeit platonic – friends until the sudden death of Michael’s father: “The intensity of it amazed me, knowing all the suffering he was going through was unbearable and I knew then I was in love with him.”
After marriage and a stint in the UK, where Michael worked as a solicitor, and she “did antiques seven days a week”, the couple returned to Ireland and their son James was born. The pair continued to meet every day for lunch while running their respective businesses.
“Then that Celtic Tiger came to Ireland, and Michael and I were busier than ever. I didn’t see it coming, I didn’t notice his weight loss at first but one Friday he came in and I knew he was having a breakdown,” Phyllis says.
She took Michael to the doctor, who said he had to stop work immediately, and she decided to stop working to care for him.
Phyllis recounts taking Michael to their special spot looking out over Galway Bay: “I remember saying ‘isn’t it really beautiful Michael’, but his reply was: ‘I can’t see it any more’. It frightened me, but I had no idea what was coming. I visited that spot where we sat every day for years afterwards and scratched his name on a stone; but I don’t think there is any one thing that makes a person take their own life.”
Phyllis herself considered suicide on two occasions amid the profound grief she endured following Michael’s death. Finally, a monk from Glenstal Abbey came to stay whose words: “You are in the darkest place a human can be,” Phyllis says saved her and began a road to recovery.
Slowly the light returned and, one day, after deciding to say “yes to everything”, Phyllis joined the RDS, where she met Jimmy McGing, who was also widowed young. They moved in together during the Covid-19 pandemic and tied the knot in August 2021.
“Today I don’t see money as success,” says the affable septuagenarian. “No amount will bring Michael back and I love being married again. What all of this has given me, is an extraordinary sense of empathy”.
A charming tour de force after half a century dealing in antiques and with adversity, Phyllis says one of her greatest joys is finding the perfect piece of jewellery for clients.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can freephone the Samaritans 24 hours a day for confidential support at 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alternatively, the contact information for a range of mental health supports is available at mentalhealthireland.ie/get-support.
In the case of an emergency, or if you or someone you know is at risk of suicide or self-harm, dial 999/112.