Since the Friday before last, many have felt the need to tweet farewell to a Dublin landmark they never knew they had. The liquidation of the company responsible for managing Clerys Department Store, a long standing presence on O’Connell Street, was announced early that morning. The store’s closure means 130 people are out of work, while the property itself has been sold on at a profit.
Outside the store, former staff who had lost their jobs were visibly distressed, and rightly so and, as of today, 120,000 people have signed a petition urging the new owners to meet with workers. The cynical and premeditated nature of the liquidation of the store has been uniformly condemned in the Dail, with opposition leaders Gerry Adams and Micheál Martin taking the opportunity to score some easy points. There have been vague commitments made to altering Irish Company Law. However, any real, potentially significant indignation has been somewhat overshadowed by mournful reverence for the store.
Similarly, columnists have been quick to label the owners as morally pungent and to point out, after the fact, that the state does not protect workers from bare faced greed. Though an article celebrating the return of the “iconic” building into Irish hands was hastily deleted, the media response has been confused.
Amidst reports on the protests outside the store and the finer detail of the liquidation, the Irish Times published ten facts we might not have known about Clerys. The list, which bore a striking resemblance to another list of things that had escaped our attention published in the Independent in 2012, contained the standard anecdotes about the store’s proud origins, how its windows melted during the Rising, and that it was in Ulysses.
That such pieces appear when Clerys is in the national consciousness suggests a readership, either real or imagined, who view the store as a cultural icon, but in a vague and noncommittal sense: at best, “Ten things you didn’t know about that you might now give a cursory google”; more likely “Ten things you may not have known last week when you weren’t particularly bothered.”
Having generously placed myself in the former category, I looked into a few of the items on the lists. That James Larkin spoke on the balcony seemed like a slightly arbitrary detail, especially seen as the building was the Imperial Hotel at the time. Similarly, the fact that Sean Lemass launched his economic development plan in the ballroom in 1956 didn’t seem significant in itself.
Though these are inconsequential, throwaway pieces they represent a problematic notion of cultural engagement. Proliferation of similar sentiment from politicians in the news reports to PR companies on Twitter suggests it has some currency. “Clerys is 162 years’ old and the idea that it might be closed for 12 months is unthinkable, particularly coming up to the 1916 centenary,” Labour TD Joe Costelloe was reported to have said at a protest on Monday. Amongst the proliferation of solidarity for the staff on Twitter there were even a few non-professional accounts engaged in similarly bland eulogising.
Both papers published testimony from disgruntled former employees and tenants, but also from those lamenting the fact that the historic, five storey Georgian building opposite the GPO would be empty for the centenary of the rising and how the whole thing had cast a shadow on the annual Bloomsday celebrations. “Shocked Workers have little to re-Joyce about under Cleary’s clock” ran another Independent headline.
The emotional distress on the staff’s part is undoubtedly tied into an identification with the place in which they work, which is something we are unlikely to understand with our ten factoids. Gordon Brothers have speculated on the different components of the Clerys brand by splitting the ownership of the historic property, which is now likely to be redeveloped, and the running of the store, in which employees clearly took pride in working for, into two separate ventures. A singularly enterprising and piece of modern business practice, by all accounts.
These awkward and superficial attempts to place the events in a wider cultural and historical context negate their immediate effect on those directly involved. They carry a rather ugly implication, that this sort of thing is not meant to happen this sort of establishment. It is rare that large scale redundancies are portrayed as being damaging to our collective cultural identity.
One wonders whether the Ilac Centre’s demise would be similarly devastating.