Clerys - and its clock - keeps ticking

Tue, Sep 18, 2012, 01:00

THE 1930s were not exactly a picnic for many people, but for Clerys department store, they were certainly happier times.

A 1932 promotional film for the store pans “the magnificent interior” of the building, declaring that “there are more than 50 departments, a township of shops” and 1,000 employees working hard to make sure that “Clerys have nearly everything you need”.

Today, it’s the internet that has absolutely everything you need – save the magnificent interior.

Architecturally, Clerys was always something special, even before it was Clerys.

It began life as the plate-glassed Palatial Mart or New Mart, one of the world’s first purpose-built department stores in 1853.

It was attuned to the desires of the upper classes and on a par with the grandeur of its European counterparts.

Department stores as a concept only dated back to the 1840s, so its then owners McSwiney Delaney Co were, to use more modern parlance, bang on trend.

The name Clery has been attached to the Victorian building since 1883, when Michael J Clery bought the Lower Sackville Street business for £32,000.

The 20th century was a more troubled time for the department store, with almost all of the building, save the facade, gutted in the Easter 1916 rising. This led to a rehousing of the business in a Lower Abbey Street warehouse for six years. In August 1922, it reopened on what is now known as Lower O’Connell Street.

The 1932 film reveals the Clerys of that era: “Men come from distant parts of Ireland to have their clothes made, they come for their favourite tobacco, or to be trained as golfers,” the cheery Pathé-style voiceover informs.

“Women come to have their hair waved and to shop in ideal conditions . . . Clerys always has some novel attraction to draw delighted crowds.”

These days, its basement contains sportswear and electronics concessions, but back then, it was bargain central: “You never know what you will find there, but you can be sure that whatever you find there is useful, interesting and a real bargain.”

Then there were the tea rooms, now something of a retro touch, then brimming with pristine newness: “Everything is smart, the service is quick and daint, the whole cafe is gay and lively. You could not have your tea or lunch in more pleasant surroundings.”

Denis Guiney, a Kerryman who ran the eponymous drapery around the corner on Talbot Street, bought Clerys out of receivership in 1941 for £250,000. At that time, Guiney’s had the bigger turnover but, despite the challenge of mid-century austerity, Guiney made a success of Clerys by pitching it as an affordable and dependable supplier of garments for both the Dublin middle classes and their country cousins.

Guiney died in 1967, though his widow Mary remained chairwoman of Clery Co (1941) Plc until her death, aged 103, in 2004. Its shareholders today are their relatives.

The company’s last set of filed annual results, for the year to the end of January 2011, showed that losses widened to €2 million. Trading continued to worsen.

Four-day weeks had already been introduced and opening hours curtailed in a bid to stave off losses in a sharply more painful trading environment.

Some 71 years after Guiney bought the company, Clerys fell back into receivership yesterday, with Gordon Brothers of the US poised to take over. It’s unlikely to be rechristened after its restructuring specialist owners – “Gordons”, after all, sounds like a cocktail bar. The Clerys clock continues to tick.