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From Titanic to the age of TikTok – Irish travel agent to close after 113 years

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Marie Grenham will retire on December 31, writing the final chapter in a fascinating travel tale

When John Grenham established his business 113 years ago in Athlone, Co Westmeath, he sold shipping tickets alongside groceries, hardware and drinks in his pub. Many journeys were one-way, and departures filled with sadness. Emigrants, in particular, were often seen off with ‘wakes’ in the pub.

“The world is a smaller place now,” says Marie Grenham, John’s granddaughter. “Nowhere is too far to go.”

The third generation to run the family business, she is to retire next December 31, seeing Grenham’s come to a close.

John Grenham’s original business combined a bar, grocer, hardware store and travel agency

Marie’s earliest memories of the shop involve popping in after school, listening to customers and browsing brochures instead of schoolbooks.

The pages “were exotic, for faraway places you’d only dream about. People were coming in and out, asking about different ways of travelling and different destinations,” she says. “As the years went on, they explored more and more.”

The family lived on the premises, and she came fully on board in the 1970s, taking over when her beloved father, Tommy, died in 1999.

For many years, her main tools were the phone (landline, of course), and Telex. “Lourdes was huge,” she says, and most trips to the UK and near Europe.

But radical changes came too. Ryanair, which launched in 1984 with just a single airplane, “changed quite a bit,” she says — over time, blowing open the way people booked and airlines sold flights. Beforehand, a Saturday-night stay was often required to get the best airfares, for example. “Ryanair came in with a bang and hadn’t anything like that.”

A letter from the Cunard White Star Line in 1936

She’s worked through the arrival of the internet, from Telex to TikTok and the advent of AI — a world that seems light years from travellers’ cheques and the JWT set. But still, generations of the same families come back to book. There remains a role for the travel agent, Marie says.

“They like the interaction across the counter. They trust you… if anything happens away, we’re always on the other end.” Since Covid, when many people who booked travel independently had difficulty with refunds and cancellations, she’s seen an increase in business — especially for complex trips like honeymoons, cruises or family holidays.

“We see that down here in the country… people said, ‘Well, for the security, I am going back into the travel agent… because we could be spending hours on the internet checking this, that and the other and getting confused. With you, we’ll have the chat, and you’ll guide us and you’ll know what we like — and with our budget.”

“OK, the internet is there too. But thank God, it’s a good time to go out on a high, with health and the whole lot.”

Grenham Travel in Athlone. Photo: Grenham Travel

Marie’s is just one story in the head-spinning world of travel. And before bringing it to a close, she has left several months to facilitate existing bookings and vouchers. When I put it to her that this is a thoughtful touch, she says, “I was brought up that way with my dad.”

“Since the announcement, it’s like living with a celeb,” her sister Pauline says.

One customer, local author JP Burke, even wrote a poem – hailing a leader and team that worked extra hard to make people’s dreams come true / And they brushed all thanks and praise aside — saying, ‘That’s what we do.’

More info: (090) 649 2028; grenhamtravel.ie

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