The crowds had gathered early, and the queue stretched all the way out into the car park. The Taoiseach was due any moment at The Square, the iconic shopping centre in the sprawling south Dublin suburb of Tallaght. But those who waited patiently in a well-marshalled line were not here for Micheál Martin.
Rather they were waiting to get their hands on the bargains and the “few bits” that Penneys has to offer as the retail giant prepared to open its 37th store in Ireland. The arrival of the low-cost fashion outlet in Tallaght has reportedly been decades in the making and judging by the turnout it has been eagerly anticipated. Penneys will employ 300 people in a store located on the ground floor of The Square, occupying a 43,500 square feet space.
It was almost 32 years ago to the day that Martin’s predecessor Charlie Haughey was in the same venue, opening The Square, whose pyramid dome occupies a central place in the Tallaght skyline. Whilst much has changed about this part of Dublin since then there is one constant: Charlie O’Connor.
Just as he had flanked Haughey when the late taoiseach greeted the masses in October 1990, the long-serving south Dublin councillor and former Fianna Fáil TD was here to greet Martin as he arrived this morning. Three decades ago it is reported that 45,000 people turned out for the opening of what was then Ireland’s largest shopping centre.
Mr Martin’s arrival did not quite generate that level of excitement but there were dancers, loud music, and staff waving small Penneys flags. Thankfully, the dancers and Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody had concluded by the time Mr Martin arrived slightly later than planned thus avoiding any attempts that might be made to get the Taoiseach to exhibit his dance moves.
A succession of speeches followed, with the store manager noting that Tallaght had waited a long time for this day to arrive. It was, Mr Martin said when it came to his turn, a very important day for the community and the staff. Penneys has become a “retail institution for generations of Irish families”, he said, paying tribute to its commitment to more sustainable methods of clothing production by the end of the decade. Penneys has for years been criticised for promoting emissions-heavy fast fashion but has in recent times signalled a move away from these practices, prompting consumer fears that prices will go up.
But the Taoiseach was swift to thank Penneys for keeping prices at last year’s levels at a time of rising costs and energy bills, saying it would be welcomed by families. “Thanks, Penneys,” he did not say.
After the obligatory ribbon cutting and handshakes with staff, there was a quick walkabout of the store as the Taoiseach’s aides nervously and swiftly escorted him past the lingerie section only for Mr Martin to enthusiastically walk right back through it as he was brought to meet store management.
The puns and Father Ted references write themselves so we’ll spare you, save to say there was no immediate confirmation that this is in fact Ireland’s largest lingerie section.
Mr Martin appeared in front of the microphones and cameras a short time later to take questions. On a day he had followed in the footsteps of Mr Haughey it was another of his controversy-tainted predecessors who was on journalists’ minds.
Would Mr Martin give in to growing demand from within Fianna Fáil for Bertie Ahern to be readmitted to the party? For the first time, Mr Martin, who tried to expel Mr Ahern before he resigned a decade ago, seemed to be warming to the idea, saying it would be given “consideration”.
Not only that, it turns out Mr Ahern has been consulted frequently by the Taoiseach over the last 18 months after the Northern Ireland Protocol row erupted. He is not an adviser, the Taoiseach stressed, but there have been chats on the margins of events and matches.
All this was emerging as the hit song This Girl by Australian funk trio Cookin’ on 3 Burners and Kungs was blaring in the background, making it increasingly harder to hear Mr Martin hold court on Bertie, the cost of living, his Tánaiste’s musings on the tax and welfare commission and his own concerns about the growing nastiness of Ireland’s far-right protest movements.
As matters concluded, local Fianna Fáil TD John Lahart declared that he and Martin were off to buy socks. The Taoiseach took some time to exit the store, as he stopped and posed for pictures. But there was no evidence of Penneys bags in tow as he left. The “few bits” will have to wait for another day.