A Boutique that Defies Expectations
By Alexandra Cavallo
Mary Dougan, old enough to have “gained a little wisdom” (and that is as candid as she was willing to be about that particular topic), is a self-proclaimed weirdo. The owner of Cloud Cuckoo, an artfully cluttered boutique situated in the heart of Armagh, Mary was quick to declare “well, we don’t call it Cloud Cuckoo for nothing.” And indeed, they do not.
The genesis of the store’s unique name, like the funky establishment itself, contains quite an off-beat story. The phrase “cloud cuckoo” dates back to Aristophanes’ The Birds, in which two men attempt to escape the petty squabbling and travails of man by leaving the earth to reside in the clouds. Their idea, of course, was ludicrous. Hence, the term “cloud cuckoo land” (Mary chose to drop the “land” when naming her shop) as well as the more commonly used (but rarely understood) expression “it’s for the birds.” Mary explained that the name was so fitting because her own decision to open her store seemed, initially, equally foolish and bound to fail.
When Mary, a schoolteacher with absolutely no business experience, first moved from her hometown of Galway to Armagh with her husband and two young sons in tow, she had no intention of opening a shop in her new town. A “blow-in” (a term Armagh locals use to designate residents who were not born in the city or, as Mary wryly commented “don’t have at least four generations of roots in the Armagh soil”), Mary explained she opened her charming yet rather dauntingly jumbled shop in the winter of 1980 on a bit of a whim. In a town and during an era ravaged by political and social unrest, the prospects for a new and inexperienced business owner seemed dim, at best.
Mary bought a small space on Ogle Street, on a block completely shut down for the previous fifteen years due to the constant threats of bombings and various forms of domestic terrorism. Mary’s shop was one of the first to emerge on the newly re-opened block, and for the first tenuous months, she was not sure just how long her own doors would remain open.
However, against all odds (and the predictions of skeptical friends and neighbors), Cloud Cuckoo survived. It didn’t just survive; it flourished. Business has been good ever since. When asked what Cloud Cuckoo started out selling, Mary grinned mischievously and admitted, “whatever we took the notion to sell.”
The store is a veritable Chinese pu pu platter of merchandise, offering customers an assortment of items from leather-bound journals, feather boas, and antique cameras to sterling silver flasks, an ancient wooden keg, and even one lone gorilla costume. Alongside such treasures sits an exquisite collection of antique and contemporary jewelry, and a fair amount of tschotskes to suit any window shopper’s fancy.
As eclectic as her wares are the steady streams of clientele. Mary boasts a wide range of customers, both regulars and purely inquisitive first-timers to Cloud Cuckoo. She’s proud to have enough merchandise to meet the needs of any browser whether they are a young tourist or a weathered local. A typical parade of customers might include a pre-teen couple perusing tongue rings and a family of four whose youngest member leaves the shop happily clutching a Russian matryoshka doll. Another customer, Mary Carr, a middle-aged woman, admits, “I first came in because [the shop] looks so attractive, and she sells so many things. Now I know that if I’m looking for a gift, I can always find something.”
Mary Dougan and her co-worker and friend Marie Dalzell (who has worked in the shop almost from the beginning) truly enjoy their work. “We have a good laugh and we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Mary acknowledges, pausing and then adding with a wink, “or our customers.”
Mary’s candor has earned her a large number of fans (or at least notoriety) in the town as Cloud Cuckoo’s owner can attest to being acquainted with quite a large number of Armagh’s population. She adds that lately there seem to be less familiar faces with a growing immigrant population and a shrinking local population as families leave Armagh for greener pastures. Her own sons have long since left to seek careers in larger cities.
For all her quips and witticisms, however, the heart of Cloud Cuckoo beats steadily and sincerely. Mary says that, truthfully, she opened Cloud Cuckoo because she had a desire to do something for the town she claimed as her own so many years ago. “Deep down I wanted to do a service for the town, to give something back to it,” she mused, leaning back against a glass case of vintage jewelry and silver cigarette cases.
And this quiet and honest sentiment is just what makes Cloud Cuckoo so relevant, and so distinctly Irish. A store and an owner who refuses to yield to modernization and a franchised feel, Cloud Cuckoo and Mary Dougan stand as representatives of the last vestiges of old Armagh. Mary admits that she is apprehensive, and a bit sad, at what she sees as the future of Armagh. Changes must be made, but “we don’t want quick fixes,” she says.
Armagh is a city that seems poised on a threshold, uncertain as to what direction it fancies to head. A city rooted in a rich and powerful history, Armagh may pay a heavy toll for modernization. Mary, a “blow-in,” yet wholly devoted citizen, ponders the same question. She worries about the impact of the Armagh City Council’s new renovation program for the city. Mary says that these plans include white lights, street furniture, and the widening of walkways, which will further restrict and impede the flow of traffic and access to parking. Cutting off access to customers, the plan, she fears, could serve as a death sentence for local shop-owners.
Armagh is striving to join the “modern” world but, as Mary puts it, “in the modern world people don’t walk, they drive.” She, and many of Armagh’s business owners, fear that further restrictions on the availability of space for through traffic will drive customers away and out of town, to shopping centers on the edges of town with easy access and readily available parking lots.
With her characteristic dry wit, Mary voices her own misgivings about the renovation plan the council has in store for Armagh. “It’s like dressing up your grandmother as a pole dancer and then being surprised when the punters [customers] don’t come,” she quips in reference to the ramifications of infiltrating Armagh with chain restaurants and interchangeable mega-marts. She believes that such changes could suck the soul out of a city whose very appeal is the sense of history and character one feels strolling Armagh’s cobbled streets. Mary says, “it’s killing the golden goose to get all the eggs.”
Like many of citizens of Armagh, Mary feels strongly about preserving Armagh as a historic site. “Regeneration should be about preservation and restoration,” she asserts, and Armagh just “can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is Armagh or a 21st-century town.” The problem, as Cloud Cuckoo’s owner sees it, is that many of Armagh’s residents feel the same way but are hesitant to voice any objections against the city they are so fiercely devoted to.
“Sentiment can often give one rose-colored lenses,” she muses, noting that sometimes a place has to be viewed through the “eyes of a stranger” before any real change can be achieved. In the end, Mary is unsure of where Cloud Cuckoo or its home of Armagh are headed. Ever hopeful and optimistic, never beaten down, like the Irish as a people, she is sure her town will manage to survive. “We’re here with one foot in the clouds and one in Armagh,” she says, and it is unclear as to whether she refers to herself or the city. Perhaps there is no difference.
Story by Alexandra Cavallo
Photos by Laura McKean-Peraza
Video by Alexandra Cavallo, Megan McGovern, and Laura McKean-Peraza
Web Design by Megan McGovern