Clock is ticking on famous Letterkenny jewellery shop

AFTER more than a century in the heart of Letterkenny, a family-run jewellers is preparing to close its doors for the last time.
In 1869, Lance Ball’s great-grandfather Robert McCullagh moved to Donegal from Scotland, opening McCullagh’s, a watchmaker’s and jeweller’s shop at 52 Upper Main Street, Letterkenny.
McCullagh’s Jewellers has maintained a strong presence in the town ever since, welcoming countless customers to its shops in the Cathedral town, where a second branch was established in 1967.
Run by husband and wife Lance and Judy Ball, the elegant CT Ball Jewellers store will close its doors for good later this summer.
Mr Ball has worked in the family business as a jeweller since returning from England in 1971 with his wife and young family.
The couple now plan to step back from the day-to-day running of the business and – with their children not interested in taking over the reins – they have taken the decision to close.
Despite undergoing many changes over the years, Mr Ball, now 83, said he always strived to maintain the standards of quality and fair trading instilled in him by his grandfather and father.
“It is a sad day to close down the business that my great-grandfather started in this building 147 years ago. I have enjoyed my life in the jewellery industry and we have made many friends in the trade and with our customers over so many years,” Mr Ball said.
However, before settling down into the quiet life the couple plan to ‘give something back to the people of Letterkenny’, by selling off all their remaining stock at discounted prices.
“Everything has to go over the coming weeks before we close the door for the last time later in the summer,” he said.
While Mr Ball refuses to name a date, he hopes to vacate the premises before his 84th birthday in September.
His younger brother David, an Ophthalmic optician, retired from his practice – also at 52 Upper Main Street last year.
“Our great grand-father, Rober McCullagh, came to Letterkenny from Scotland. He was a watch-maker who also sold silver plated cutlery and China.
“In those days the watch-maker had his work shop in the main part of the shop and customers came in through double doors. Whenever a watch was brought in the owners details were entered into a big ledger. There were no telephones in those days and often the local bread man would be asked to collect watches on behalf of people who were living in outlying areas,” he recalled.
Saturday night was a particularly busy time in the shop and it was quite common for the jeweller to be ‘knocked up’ at 10pm at night to allow customers to purchase late presents.
Lance first entered into the jewellery business in 1953 when he was living in Manchester. Four years later he met Judy in her home town of Bridlington and they married in 1959.
“My father had asked me several times to come over and work with him but I enjoyed my job and we had three young girls,” Mr Ball explained.
At that time, Mr Ball’s father, Cecil T and his younger brother Robert G Ball, operated the family business at 52 Upper Main Street.
“In 1967 they purchased a second premises further down the street – the former Medical Hall – where they relocated a potion of the business. Eventually they broke up the partnership with Robert taking control of the new premises – which retained the McCullagh name – while Cecil’s name (CT Ball) went above the original shop at 52 Upper Main Street,” he said.
Within a few short years, Lance, Judy and their three young daughters Helen, Jeanette and Fiona moved to Ireland.
“The shop was old-fashioned. The shop front was granite and Burmese teak but they never got round to doing much inside,” he said.
Within a decade the couple opened a second outlet in Letterkenny Shopping Centre – a lease which they retained for ten years.
“There have been many, many changes to Letterkenny’s Main Street over the years. Speer’s Hardware was there before Brian McCormick Sports while Fox’s pub was next door to us. Dan McTeague’s family were across the road in the Cottage Bar.
“In those days the pubs used to make their own stout. The barrels would come down from Dublin and the pubs used to bottle the beer and put on their own labels. After the weekend all you would hear was a click, click sound of bottes being washed as the backs of the houses which had their own wells from the Sentry Hill area,” he recalled.
It was a time when there was two-way traffic along the Main Street.
“The pavements were much wider then and vehicles were that bit narrower too. Today, most cars are more like lorries,” he said.
Engagement rings remain the single most expensive item of jewellery on sale in the shop but it’s only in more recent times that some people could afford to buy engagement rings.
“Our rings are made from rolled gold. They were of a very good quality and you could wear them for twenty years without the slightest sign of ware,” he added.
However, younger customers today are more concerned about brand names attached to costume jewellery rather than on the quality of the product.
“It has ruined our trade. Customers come in nowadays looking for a designer name and that’s what they are prepared to pay for more so than the quality. It’s all about the name,” Mrs Ball lamented.
Lance added: “It’s been more difficult in the past few years, no doubt about it. Money has become tight and people have to think more carefully about how they spend their cash.”
However, before settling down into the quiet life the couple will offer its stock of jewellery, diamond rings, watches, clocks, china and glass at clearance prices before hanging up their cotton gloves for the last time.
“We have very loyal staff, many of whom have been with us for a long time,” Lance said.
Keith Stevenson and Rebecca Coyle continue to work in the jewellers shop today while Norman Spratt worked for both Lance and David Ball for more than thirty years repairing watches, jewellery and glasses. Margaret Wasson, who used to work for Lance’s parents, still re-strings beads while two of her sisters also worked for CT Ball.
“With our three daughters married and living in England we would like to spend some more times with them and their children but I have also got a list of jobs as long as your arm to do at home,” Mr Ball smiled.

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LATER this week one of Letterkenny’s most popular cafes, Cafe Blend, will close its doors.


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