Saturday 27 May 2017

City changed utterly by decline and sudden fall of an iconic department store

Clerys closed the doors of its O'Connell Street premises for the final time in June. Liam Collins recalls its glory days

ICONIC: Staff and supporters during a protest outside Clerys on O'Connell Street, Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath
ICONIC: Staff and supporters during a protest outside Clerys on O'Connell Street, Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

The year 2015 was marked by the sudden and controversial closure of Clerys department store and the iconic building which has dominated Dublin's O'Connell Street for 162 years.

During that time it had only a handful of owners and witnessed momentous changes, with Sackville Street becoming O'Connell Street, the destruction of the store in 1916, the failure of the original owners in 1941 and the bright new future masterminded by a wily Kerryman, Denis Guiney.

At 5pm on Friday, June 12, 2015 the 460 workers and concession holders in Clerys were called to a meeting at the bottom of the iconic staircase which dominates the ground floor, to be told Clerys was closing with immediate effect.

The store, which opened on its current site in 1853 as McSweeney & Delaney, was acquired by Michael J Clery in 1884. According to Grattan's Dublin Commercial Directory it had "beautifully appointed showrooms", "large stocks of richly made clothes" and "a widespread and influential clientele."

It stood on a block of Sackville Street, which also included the Imperial Hotel, owned by William Martin Murphy. Crucially it also stood at the terminus for trams coming from the suburbs on both sides of the city.

Both Clerys and the Imperial were left in ruins in 1916. For the next six years Clerys took up residence in a warehouse in nearby Middle Abbey Street as the façade and a purpose-built department store were rebuilt.

By the 1930s, when the board was headed by the Dublin physician Sir Christopher Nixon, Clerys had a footfall of 15,000 a day, rising to 40,000 at Christmas time, with 53 different departments and a Grand Gallery at the top. When cruise ships, like the SS Paris docked in Dublin, the wealthy passengers were brought by special buses to do their shopping there.

Clerys was in financial trouble by 1938 as the owners over-extended their borrowings and went into liquidation in October 1940. The Receiver, Eustace Shott of Craig Gardiner & Co, sold it to Denis Guiney of Guineys in nearby Talbot Street for £220,000.

Rejecting a challenge to the sale in the High Court, Judge George Gavan Duffy declared: "Mr Guiney's methods were unorthodox and direct - he consulted no Valuer or brought in no accountants, yet he knew the cause of Clerys' distress and believed he could cure them. This self confidence and the absence of express advice might seem reprehensible to the more cautious operators who follow the beaten track, but he was risking his own money and not the money of his critics."

In the years that followed Denis Guiney, originally from Brosna, Co Kerry, became the most successful retailer in the city and ran Clerys until his death in 1967, when control was assumed by his widow Mary Guiney and after her death by accountant Arthur Walls, whose wife Pearl, was a niece of the Guineys.

By 2009 it was turning over €70m, but sustaining losses which could no longer be borne by the shareholders, who were mostly relatives of the extended Guiney family.

It was sold in 2012 to US private equity firm Gordon Brothers, who paid €15m in cash and absorbed a further €26m in losses. There was much surprise that the revamped store re-opened after catastrophic floods which destroyed the basement and lower floor in 2013.

In the days before June 12, 2015 Gordon Brothers sold the Clerys building to a company called Natrium, which comprises D2 capital, run by Dublin financier Deirdre Christina Foley (43) and Cheyne Capital of London, for €29m. The Clerys operating company OCS Operations was put into liquidation the same day after the High Court was told it had lost €4.3m over the previous 30 months.

The result was the loss of over 460 jobs, at a cost to the state of €2.5m in statutory redundancy payments and heavy losses sustained by concession holders, which is still the subject of litigation.

It is believed the new owners plan to open a "mixed-used" development in the building, with retail on the ground floor and a hotel and other amenities on the upper floors. Formal plans have not, as yet, been lodged.

Sunday Independent

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