Monday 26 September 2016

Even as a boy, Clerys seemed like it belonged to another era

Published 13/06/2015 | 02:30

Clerys
Clerys

Like many a small boy I remember gazing in wonder as my mother's order for a new pair of shoes was put in a plastic tube and sent whizzing off through a maze of brightly polished brass suction pipes that ran along the high ceilings of Clerys department store.

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The assistants were all men, of a certain age, and the atmosphere was one of restrained politeness. They were serving rather than selling.

Like Nelson's Pillar and the cars parked in the centre of O'Connell Street, Clerys even then symbolised an era inexorably coming to an end.

While Arnotts in Henry Street was the shop of choice for native Dubliners, Clerys was where the country folk descended, whether by buses from the newly built suburbs they had colonised, or by trains on December 8 when Christmas began.

Clerys got its name from Michael J Clery, who purchased the Dublin Drapery Warehouse in Sackville Street, Dublin, from Messrs McSweeney & Delaney in 1883. He remodelled it and pitched advertising towards the new wealth of the medium-sized farmers and professional classes.

It was a world that came crashing down at Easter 1916 - a century ago the store was left in ruins by the shelling that ended the East Rising.

Only the façade survived, and for six years Clerys took up residence in a warehouse in Middle Abbey Street while a new, purpose-built department store was constructed.

In 1941, a successful Kerry draper called Denis Guiney, who was turning over £1m in his shop in Talbot Street, bought Clerys from receivership for £250,000.

The board of Clerys, headed by Sir Christopher Nixon, went to court but failed to stop the sale.

Guiney, who refunded country people their rail fares if they spent over £5, turned over £54,000 in his first week and was becoming the most successful retailer in Ireland.

During his era, Clerys hosted nightly dances and "I'll meet you under Clerys clock" became a common refrain, taken up by Maureen Potter, who had her finger on the pulse of the city.

When Denis Guiney died in 1967, his wife, known only as Mrs Guiney, ran the store until well into her 90s.

In many ways, she stayed too long. After her death, the store was controlled by members of the extended Clery and Guiney family, but a succession of managers couldn't change the image that had once been its major selling point - but was now a deterrent, in progressive modern Ireland fleeing from its past.

It was no longer cool to shop in Clerys.

Profits were falling, trading conditions were getting difficult and young people, who flocked to Penneys across the street, would not look in the door of Clerys.

Brown Thomas in Grafton Street and Arnotts in Henry Street were cool and chic, Clerys was stuck with its frumpy rural image.

I remember as a young reporter calling to Mrs Guiney's house, a large red-brick edifice with rabbits hopping about its gardens, on the Malahide Road, Raheny.

It was around 1980, and the annual rumour surfaced that Clerys was going to be sold. I got inside the front porch. Mrs Guiney offered me a cup of tea but gracefully declined to comment.

Now, all those years later, the rumour has finally come true.

Irish Independent

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