The rise of the Irish high street - and the fall of a retail icon

HISTORY: Commodity Culture and Social Class in Dublin 1850-1916 By Stephanie Rains Irish Academic Press, 226pp. €39

HISTORY: Commodity Culture and Social Class in Dublin 1850-1916By Stephanie Rains Irish Academic Press, 226pp. €39.95

When the Shopping was Good: Woolworths and the Irish Main StreetBy Barbara Walsh Irish Academic Press, 286pp. €29.95

WHEN WB YEATS complained of those who fumbled in the greasy till, how much did he really know of his city's thriving shopping culture and the dynamic urban visionaries who created it? Contemporary Dublin is still rooted in the 19th-century commercial inheritance he so despised, an inheritance symbolised by the gargantuan department stores, or "monster houses", as they were disparagingly known, that ruptured the mid-Victorian skyline. Of these, Clerys, Brown Thomas and Arnotts survive. Others, such as McSwineys or Pim Brothers, are ghosts in the modern city's commercial topography, or allusions in Irish literary memory: Kate O'Brien recalls, in Presentation Parlour, how her elderly aunt's parrot would cry out "Damn Switzers!" when the household bills were laid out on the table to be paid.

In a fascinating account of commercial Dublin in the 19th century, Stephanie Rains describes the city’s buoyant commodity culture in the context of a tangential technological and social evolution that characterised Irish Victorian experience. Her book is the story of the tram lines criss-crossing the city’s retail districts; the spread of the new suburbs to north and south; the impact of electrification; the railways that ferried Irish shoppers to the emporiums of Sackville Street and Moore Street. It is the story of the architects, clerks and advertisers who created Dublin’s distinctive shopping districts, and of the shop girl, that “icon of modernity”, as Rains sees her, who defined the new social and gender protocols of the fin de siècle.

The history of Irish trade in the later Victorian and Edwardian eras is inextricable from the history of that much-neglected entity the Irish middle class, which shopped and shop-kept as passionately as its continental counterpart at the bon marché. By the early 20th century, Rains suggests, Dublin's bourgeoisie had effectively boughtitself a cultural presence that was both national and imperial, in strategic anticipation of home rule. On one hand this meant keeping pace with accelerating national pressures, pushing protectionism and the manufacture of Irish goods in the face of laissez-faire and international competition. On the other it meant a staggering response to the lucrative drives of imperialism, leading to orgies of consumption quite overwhelming to read now, in the midst of our new austerity aesthetic.


Indeed, the heady details of Irish shopping excesses in the past provide this book with its most vivid moments of colour. The international fairs of 1865 and 1872 – conspicuous Victorian displays of manufacturing swagger – were astonishing enough, but they pale beside the extravagance of the Ierne Bazaar of 1895, with its 12m-high water chute, or the International Exhibition staged at Herbert Park in 1907, where the re-created Somali Village exhibit (complete with “authentic” villagers) so enthralled JM Synge. In 1904, at the height of the Russo-Japanese war, Switzers’ Christmas show had a tiny railway transporting shoppers through scenes of a frozen Siberia towards a miniature of Moscow at night, with a model Kremlin and – yet more bizarre – a little Santa driving an electric car filled with presents.

Rains shows Irish cultural and social history at its best, engaged with political narrative and theoretical paratext but dominated by neither. This is a vibrant, thorough book, boosted by its author’s attentiveness to the spectacular and often surprisingly moving images of Dublin’s retail history, like the devastating 1894 fire at Arnotts, which lit up the city centre from Nelson’s Pillar to the river, or the blasted shop-front of Clerys in 1916, its giant plate-glass windows melting into the street.

EMOTIONAL SCENES also feature in Barbara Walsh's account of the fortunes and, eventually, failings of the iconic Woolworths empire in Ireland. Sadly, the chain did not survive the economic realignments of the late 20th century in the Republic, though it lasted longer in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that every branch there was bombed at some stage during the Troubles. Today, Ireland’s Woolworth stores are extinct but far from forgotten: everyone over a certain age surely has the same fond memories of daredevil teenage pilfering and hanging around the pick’n’mix counter on cold winter days after school.

There have already been studies of Woolworths’ grip on consumer Britain and the kind of class politics the brand inspired there. “We shall have to walk and live a Woolworth life hereafter,” Harold Nicolson lamented after the ravages of the second World War. But the Irish narrative is well worth treating separately for its national nuances, visible in everything from labour legislation to censorship. The chain’s American founder, FE Woolworth, was, after all, Irish by extraction, and perhaps a God-fearing Co Down inheritance lay behind his practice of secretly visiting his shops to spot-check for cleanliness. He opened his first Irish branch in 1914, on Grafton Street, and watched as Woolworths multiplied throughout the country’s regional market towns, overcoming even the resistance of Galway’s civic fathers, who feared it would lower the tone of Eyre Square.

The later sections of this book embrace anecdotal recollections of a Woolworth life in Ireland, generously retrieved by Barbara Walsh from former employees, who tell of a warm social network leading from shop floor to dance hall, counter to cafe. The result is an elegy of sorts for a lost world of Irish shopping and, indeed, a lost lexicon of words, such as “haberdashery” and “drapery”. A trivia note for the schoolchildren who hung around the sweet counters on those frozen winter afternoons: the pick’n’mix arrived in Irish stores in 1967. Likewise, former teenage pilferers may be interested to know that the first items ever shoplifted from an Irish Woolworths were two jars of brilliantine and a couple of combs.

Eve Patten lectures in the school of English at Trinity College Dublin and is author of Samuel Ferguson and the Culture of Nineteenth-Century Ireland, published by Four Courts Press