Back in the day before house phones, never mind the mobile variety, Clerys clock had a cultural significance all its own.
his was an era where a “one-night stand” was unthinkable, for women at least, and “courting” was mostly a well-ordered ritual that began tentatively with an invitation to go on a date.
Girls or young women would not venture into a pub alone in those days, so after exhausting other possibilities, one side or the other would extend the invitation to “meet under Clerys clock” on O’Connell Street, Dublin.
Sometimes – oh, the sheer embarrassment of it – you could be left waiting in vain
Walking past the long facade of the country’s best known department store on summer nights, even when social norms were changing, you knew that the elegantly dressed women and men leaning against the stonework and staring into the middle distance were awaiting someone who they only half-remembered from a slow dance in the darkened ballroom.
Love stories may have “began in Zhivago’s”, as the nightclub maintained, but they got serious on Dublin’s main thoroughfare under the famous clock.
But sometimes – oh, the sheer embarrassment of it – you could be left waiting in vain. If you stood and watched you would see prospective lovers glancing furtively at the gold hands of the overhead clock. When they slid past 8pm on the double-sided green face, with the time told by Roman numerals, a frown of concern would become obvious.
Then, when it got to 8.15pm you knew you had been “stood up”, or at least it was too embarrassing to remain and you strode purposefully into the night, alone.
In the documentary Under Clerys Clock, Ann Ball from old Cabra, who met her husband, Brendan, under the clock said: “When I was stood up, I spoke with everybody else who was stood up at Clerys.”
Indeed, there were stories that smart, young men who didn’t have a date hung around under the clock in the hope of such a possibility and striking it lucky with some “wall-flower” whose beau had either forgotten his date or was caddish enough not to turn up.
The lovelorn were even celebrated in a 1989 song by the Radiators from Space, the lyrics of which went:
Under Clerys clock tonight at eight
I want to wait, oh God he’s late
He’s stood me up
The next bus to An Lár
is his for sure
Ten minutes more I know
will bring my love to me
The love that does not have a name
But for many others there was a happy outcome – the other party did turn up and some couples even ended up on the altar and after such an unlikely romantic start went on to spend their lives together.
The imposing building was developed in tandem with the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853 and was reportedly the first purpose-built department store when it opened in Sackville Street as The New Mart by McSwiney, Delaney and Co. Thirty years later it opened as Clery’s and was also owned in its day by William Martin Murphy.
Razed in the 1916 Rising, it was re-built and re-opened in 1922, when the first Clerys clock was installed on the elegant facade.
The store went bankrupt in 1940 and was taken over by Kerry-born retailer Denis Guiney, who re-launched it with great success. After his death it was run by his wife Mary and gradually ownership shifted to extended family members, before going into receivership in 2012.
It was later taken over in highly controversial circumstances by the Natrium consortium, which in turn sold it on in October 2018.
It has been undergoing extensive renovations ever since and is now to reopen as the centrepiece of what is called the Clerys Quarter.
As to the clock, the current double-sided timepiece was installed by the famous Cork clockmaker Stokes, in 1990, to mark the Guiney family’s 50 years of ownership.
Nor was under Clerys Clock just a meeting place for lovers.
In the days when people met in the city centre it was a noted landmark for city and country folk alike.
And on big match days in Croke Park you would see men waiting anxiously for the promised ticket for the game, and like jilted lovers, they too were sometimes stood up.
The store will reopen as the centrepiece of what is called the Clerys Quarter
The long-running restoration of the old department store has finally been completed and the reopening of the building, planned for sometime before the summer, will be marked with a free exhibition of artefacts, mementos and images, some dating to as far back as 1847, before the famous Clery name went over the door.
The exhibition runs from January 18-30 and will be free to the public.
The newly restored Clerys clock will also be unveiled as part of the celebrations.
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