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Christmas at Clerys: A century of bittersweet memories

How much for a bag of toy soldiers?

Santa abseils past Clery's Clock Source: PA WIRE

THIS CHRISTMAS WILL be the first in living memory that Clerys on O’Connell Street will not be opening its doors to the people of Ireland.

After 162 years, which featured three major recessions, two world wars, demolition in the 1916 Rising, two changes of venue, a sometimes brutal surge in competition, and three separate receiverships, the iconic department store finally ceased trading in June.

For countless Dubliners, Clery’s was synonymous with the festive season. If you got a pair of socks or bought a new couch some time in the last half a century, chances are you’ve taken part in one of Ireland’s oldest and most venerable traditions.

Here’s a look back at some of the Christmas magic that has happened under the clock and on the other side of the doors of Clerys, over the best part of the last 100 years.

Bring the Kiddies – 1922

clerys27Nov1922 27 November, 1922 Source: Irish Times archive

The original Clerys building on O’Connell Street (then Sackville Street) was famously destroyed during the Easter Rising, but the company kept operating from a location on nearby Lower Abbey Street.

The new building, on the same site as the original one, opened during the summer of 1922, calling itself “The Shopping Centre of Ireland,” and boasting a live orchestra every afternoon.

For its first Christmas, Clerys offered a bazaar, “Model Canadian village” (complete with a reindeer sleigh), and Santa Claus himself.

As this 1932 video advertisement noted, “Every week there is something new, something to see and to talk about.”

Toyland, the treat of their lives – 1940

The company went into receivership in 1940, and was bought by Kerryman Denis Guiney for £235,000. After some high-profile legal wrangling between Guiney and the company, the change of ownership was officially registered in 1941.

Clerys, however, “under the personal supervision of Mr Denis Guiney,” always made a point of emphasising November 1940 as its birth date.

For Christmas 1990, the company (by then under the management of Guiney’s widow Mary), held a “sale of the century,” to celebrate its 50th (not 147th) birthday.

clerys1941_nov24_dec_19 Clerys advertisements, 24 November and 19 December 1940. Source: Irish Times Archive

The first Christmas of the Guiney era, 1940, saw a spectacular addition – Toy Land. Comprising “Santa’s kitchen,” the “Witches’ Well” and a performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

The one-shilling admission fee per child would get every boy and a girl a present from Santa.

A “cuddley doll” was on sale for five shillings and 11 pence, and a box of toy soldiers would set you back 1/6.

The big ticket item at Christmas 1940, however, was a large train with engine, signal, and a set of rails, all for “eight and eleven” – 51 pence.

1985 – Brendan Grace and the Artane Boys’ Band

Skip forward 45 years, past the death of Denis Guiney in 1967, the decimal changeover in 1971, and mounting competition from the likes of Arnotts and Switzer’s.

Thirty years ago, at the height of the 1980s recession, Clerys publicised its late opening hours (until 8pm) in the days leading up to Christmas.

And management attempted to get shoppers in the door with the attraction of an in-store appearance by comedian Brendan Grace, a performance by the Artane Boys’ Band, and free gift wrapping.

2002 – Roaring back

Clerys had something of a mini-revival at the start of the century, and during the height of the Celtic tiger.

Here are the hordes flying through the doors on 27 December 2002.

00047095 Source: RollingNews.ie

2007 – Free breakfast

For what would turn out to be the final Christmas before the recession hit in 2008, Clery’s offered a free full Irish breakfast to the first 100 customers in the door for the winter sales that year.

Some waited outside from 7 pm the night before:

90100002 Source: RollingNews.ie

And got deals like a €1,699 bed, on sale for €1, when the store opened on the morning of 27 December.

90100014 Source: RollingNews.ie

The following year, Clerys launched their Christmas sales in a big way, having Santa Claus abseil from the roof:

Santa abseils past Clery's Clock Source: PA WIRE

To the delight of Dubliners and visitors below:

Santa abseils past Clery's Clock Source: PA WIRE

In 2012, Clerys went into receivership, and barely managed to avoid shutting down, although Guiney’s on Talbot street ceased trading for good.

Two years ago, things got even worse, with torrential rain causing flood damage to the store, which had to close its doors for four months, before re-opening just in time for Christmas.

Clerys reopens - Dublin Source: Niall Carson

Read: Clerys may be gone, but Clerys Santa will still be here this Christmas>

Read: Clerys staff want the store’s closure to leave behind a legacy>

WATCH: Inside Clerys department store in Dublin – in 1932>

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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