The familiar Clerys clock in Dublin’s O’Connell Street told more than the time. It was a meeting place for couples on a date, as well as a symbol of a shop, restaurant, ballroom and bar, a thriving business in the capital at the height of its success.
While the clock was the meeting place, romances, sometimes leading to marriage, began in the ballroom. I once heard a woman recall meeting her future husband at a dance in Clerys in the 1950s, the attraction, she said, being his brown eyes and Morris Minor car.
The big attraction for shoppers was the sprawling shop, with its varied choice and value for money in clothes and household goods, the brainchild of an enterprising Kerryman, Denis Guiney. It came into its own at Christmas, with a family visit to Clerys a must, not least for the Santa grotto and the atmosphere.
Likewise, on December 8th, when people from the country came to Dublin to shop, it was frequently the first call, a popular venue for a meal when the shopping was done.
Opened in 1893, it closed in 2015, as times and shopping habits changed. The building is to reopen as Clerys Quarter with retail outlets, office space, a hotel and a rooftop restaurant. At least the name survives, providing a link with a remarkable piece of economic and social history.
The golden years were when Denis Guiney was at the helm. Born in Brosna, Co Kerry, in 1893, he began his working life, aged 14 years, in a relative’s shop in Killorglin. He later moved to Kilrush, Co Clare, and Killarney, before joining Roberts, in Grafton Street, in 1917. He spent some time as a traveller for a woollen goods manufacturer and, in 1921, he opened his own shop in Talbot Street in Dublin city centre.
In 1940, he bought a bankrupt Clerys from the receiver and began business with a grand reopening sale. A dynamic businessman, he caught the mood of the time, providing value for money with a big turnover and small profits. It also specialised in clerical tailoring. Sean Lemass chose Clerys ballroom as the venue to make his famous 1955 speech, outlining his plans to create 100,000 jobs.
His life and business career are chronicled in a book Denis Guiney by Peter Costello, published by the Historical Association of Ireland in its life and times series.
Costello notes that Clerys of the 1950s was the shop most older Dubliners remember from their childhood.
“There were long counters of dark wood, with the glass-fronted cases behind them in which the clothes and goods were kept. The staff members were all dressed in formal clothes, the women in black dresses with white collars . . .
“Conversations about clothes or carpets were broken by the whoosh and clatter of the pneumatic cash system, as the change and receipt fell into the wire basket behind the counter. The tables in the main hall were piled high with bolts of cloth. The renowned bargain basement, that happy hunting ground for items one could not afford at the full price, was always busy.”
Guiney had a sharp eye for advertising and a stylish shop window to attract attention. But one display attracted a belt of a crozier from Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.
“Driving down O’Connell Street, his car stopped beside Clerys department store, where to his horror he saw nude models in the window,” writes John Cooney, in his biography of the archbishop. “A campaign was launched through the Conference of Convent Secondary Schools against the display of life-sized models in the shop windows of Dublin.”
Guiney, who lived in the Howth Road in Dublin, was married twice, first to Nora Gilmore, who died in 1938, and then to Mary Leahy, who outlived him for many years and remained active in the business. There were no children in the marriages.
He travelled to work by bus and transacted much of his business with visitors in an informal way, sometimes while signing the week’s cheques in the stock room. His coat was placed under the counter at the information bureau desk. Those wanting to find out whether he was in the shop checked with the desk rather than his secretary. He believed that having his own office would cut him off from the business and workforce. He would lunch in Clerys restaurant and later retire to the bar for a drink.
Denis Guiney died in 1967, having taken ill during his annual holiday in Ballybunion. According to his biographer, a lifelong regime of cigarettes and whiskey, as well as irregular and fatty meals, had finally taken their toll. President de Valera and former taoiseach Sean Lemass were among the large attendance at his funeral. Clerys closed for the day, with the flag flying at half-mast.