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Dublin: 4 °C Monday 24 November, 2014

Column: Clerys is an O’Connell St icon – and the street has changed a lot

Dublin historian Pat Liddy describes the chequered history of the famous department store.

Pat Liddy

CLERYS AS WE know it appealed to many different types of people, at many different times. It has a very rich history and has stood alongside some of the most important times in Dublin’s history.

To transport us back in time, Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) was essentially a street of residences. But people started to open little shops at the bottom of their houses, because the nature of O’Connell street had changed with the opening of the bridge. There was an increase in footfall and people wanted to cash in.

In 1853, Mr Sweeney and Mr Delaney – who had a number of businesses – decided to buy a number of premises and knocked them down to build a department store. It is important to remember that while we are used to gigantic stores nowadays, this was completely new concept at the time. You didn’t browse the store like you do nowadays, shop assistants went and fetched what you needed for you.

At this time, women were free from chaperones and they were coming into their own. Department stores were social centres. They were a place you could meet and sit for tea and gossip – perhaps planning emancipation. The department stores were important places for women to gather, and Clerys thrived.

However in the 1880s, it all went pear-shaped. The Land Wars were happening, tenants wouldn’t pay their rents so the rich that were living up in Dublin were short of money – resulting in Clerys going into liquidation.

In 1883, Michael John Clery came along and with a few others and bought it up. He had very powerful partners such as William Martin Murphy, who owned the Dublin Tramway Systems and Independent Newspapers. He was a very powerful man and anti-union.

Larkin

Then in 1913 the Lockout against William Martin Murphy and his believers took place. If you joined the union you were locked out of your job, simple as that. In August 1913, people gathered to hear Jim Larkin speak on O’Connell Street, but the police were there also. Larkin went in disguise into the Imperial Hotel and he came out of the balcony over Clerys and spoke for a few minutes until the burly policeman pulled him out. It is kind of funny that Larkin appeared in the doorway of his chief antagonist.

The recent economic crash is not the first that Clerys has seen. The Great Crash of 1929 pushed Clerys into liquidation again. A successful business man on Talbot Street, Denis Guiney, bought the store for £250,000. He walked in and without having a look at the books he paid the deposit of £20,000 – the cheque is apparently in a frame somewhere in Clerys today.

In more modern eras – the 1950s and 1960s, while Roches and Brown Thomas were still looking after the upper class – Clerys was looking after customers who paid cash while the others really dealt in credit. Clerys also relied a lot on their rural customers. It wasn’t so long ago when December 8 was a big shopping day when people would come up to go Christmas shopping in Dublin.

Memories

With the recent fears that this iconic store could be closed, there have been a lot of people telling their stories of what happened under the Clerys clock. But actually that’s not the original clock. It was replaced in 1990.

Many would remember the series of suction tubes they had behind the counter where your money and change would be delivered upstairs only to have your five pence sent back down to you. It is these little anecdotes and memories that make Clerys so special to many people.

It seems that the era of the family run Irish business is over, almost. There was once a time when every shop in Grafton Street was a family run business. Now, I think, the only one is Weirs. Bewleys is no longer family run, and neither is Roches who had to sell to Debenhams. So it seems that the era has passed, which is a shame for the capital. It’s important to keep family businesses going as it gives variety to the city.

What with the advent of more shopping centres, people’s mobility and with the decline in O’Connell Street it became more difficult for Clerys. As long as O’Connell Street was going down then Clerys was going to go down with it.

It seems the day of big department stores like Clerys is gone. I think if the new owners want to have a future, they need to be sensitive to its heritage. The building itself is almost a work of art on the street and it calls for the nature of the building to be preserved and for the memory to be preserved. But it will have to find its relevance in the modern age if it is to survive.

Hopefully, with the regeneration of Clerys, O’Connell Street will soon follow.

Pat Liddy is a well-known Dublin historian, author and artist who has developed a unique walking tour service for Dublin. Covering the inner city and, by advance request, the coastal villages, waterways, hills and intriguing suburbs, the tours are compiled by Pat Liddy himself based on his years of experience, historical research and the collection of anecdotal and legendary stories of Ireland’s Capital City. For more on Pat Liddy’s Walking Tours of Dublin click here.

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

Read:It had everything from ‘a needle to an anchor’: Shoppers remember Guiney and Co>

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