When a town shuts up shop

Picture: Maura Hickey



Irish Examiner, Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The closure of up to 100 businesses in Dun Laoghaire since 2008 has torn asunder the landscape of my youth, says Dave Kenny

It’s high tide at Sandycove as I start strolling into the past. A small girl is paddling on the tiny beach, despite the raw October weather. She’s wearing a padded anorak.

Two middle-aged women emerge from the waves like a pair of shrivelled, purple Venuses and splatter across the flagstones to their towels. Rainclouds are tumbling in over Dublin Bay and still bathers refuse to accept that summer’s gone. People swim here all year around. Generation passes its towels on to successive generation. Recessions may come and go, but Dun Laoghaire people will always have the sea.

The financial crisis has broken our town. Up to 100 business have closed since the boom-bust. Many were landmarks of my childhood. Today, I’m walking from Sandycove through the town’s main thoroughfare, remembering those businesses and what they meant to my peers and I.

The first casualty appears in Glasthule. The old Forum cinema is now a supermarket. Movie posters have been replaced with posters advertising deals on meat and veg.

The Forum was the epicentre of our youth. Live and Let Die, Star Wars, ET, Superman, Rocky I,II,III… all watched through a haze of smoke, over cardboard tubs of rock-hard ice cream.

The most important night of my life took place in The Forum. My wife and I went on our first date there, 20 years ago next week. The lucky thing. Now the Forum is a bland Centra, topped with apartments – a victim of the build-them-high boom.

Further down the road, I pass the door of what used to be a dress hire shop. I rented my Debs tuxedo there. I nearly had a heart attack when I brought it home just before the dance. It was appalling: all Liberace frills and elephant ear lapels. Not even the most desperate cabaret singer from the Noggin Inn would have been seen dead in it.

I didn’t have time to bring it back and can still the look of horror on my partner’s face when her parents answered the door to me. To this day, I’m convinced I heard someone say “Jesus, it’s Sonny Knowles”.

I move on. Across the road, my old school, Presentation College, stares dully back at me. It closed a few years back, just before the crash. Dun Laoghaire Tiger children, presumably, were above going to a non fee-paying school.

I stroll on through Summerhill Parade, where I kneeled beside a dying friend 20 years ago and past the People’s Park. I try to remember which front belonged to the Pierrot Snooker Club, where we played Asteroids and PacMan. Is it the shop selling Asian food?

I pass McDonald’s. It opened to great fanfare in 1979. I cut out a voucher for a free bag of ‘fries’ from Southside Newspaper and we cycled from school to taste this exotic new piece of oily Americana. Somehow, I managed to annoy a gang of Skins whose leader loafed me and stole my schoolbag. We later found it in the ornamental pond in Moran Park, drenched in wino pee.

The pond is gone now. So is the lawn bowling club it overlooked, with its ancient members playing elderly marbles in their whites. The trees surrounding it, where we swung doing monkey impressions for the bowlers, have been uprooted to make way for a new super-library. All that timber and grass gone to make way for more concrete. Just what the town needs.

The old Bank of Ireland building is still unoccupied. BofI moved across the road years ago and yet the buidling is still empty. I remember opening an account there with my confirmation money. I can still feel the thin blue deposit book in my hand. I ran up my first debts there too.

Between McDonald’s and Dunnes, there is a run of empty shops. I cross over to the shopping centre. A key scene in The Snapper was filmed on its escalators in 1993. The one where Mr Burgess shouts “I love you, Sharon!” You can just make out O’Connor’s Jeans Shop in the background. It’s closed down now.

O’Connor’s was the most important clothes shop of my youth. It had every style of jeans imagineable as it was dedicated solely to denim – a new concept back then. Prior to its arrival, my mother used to take me jeans-shopping to another place down-town which only had stock from the Bay City Rollers era.

I bought a pair of 501s in O’Connor’s and finally became fashionable.

I walk across the cobbles on lower George’s Street, to where Connolly’s shoe shop used to be. Connolly’s was quintessentially Dun Laoghaire. In the ’80s, people would arrive early at The Forum just to laugh at its advert, which was always screened before the main film. The same ad ran for decades, proudly ignoring fickle fashion and proclaiming the beauty of patent leather and buckles.

I got my first pair of Clarke’ Nature Trekkers in Connolly’s. They were brown with piping. They measured my feet in a metal machine that looked like an old credit card imprinter. Nature Trekkers were supposed to last forever. I saw myself splashing through pools and up forest ravines…

“You better keep those clean,” my mother would say, interrupting my day-dream, “or I’ll have your guts for garters.”

Yards away, on the corner, there’s a new toy shop. It used to be Knowles Electrical, which closed in 2011 after 47 years in business. Knowles was an institution. If it had a plug, it sold it (except for baths, naturally).

My mother recently gave me her old Knowles’ electric whisk. I can still taste the cream it whipped to fill sponge cakes for Sunday teas in front of Glenroe.

Finally, I come to the crossroads at Cumberland Street. There are more dead-eyed buildings here. The Cumberland Inn, once a landmark pub, is derelict. Across the road is the Dole Office. I remember the traffic between the pub and ‘the labour’ in the 1980s. I signed on there myself in 1995, when the Press shut.

It’s a fitting place to end this journey.

Dun Laoghaire is struggling. Towns across Ireland are suffering the same fate. The recession isn’t just ruining ‘businesses’, it’s demolishing landmarks and lives. Shops are not just places where you buy things. Alongside the shoes, jeans, books or veg, there are rows and rows of memories.

If a town has a heart, then its shopfronts are its eyes. Bright and inviting when open, dark and depressing when closed. Look into a blacked-out window and all you see is your reflection looking back at you.

It’s not all bleak, however. Recessions may come and go, but Dun Laoghaire will always have the sea to enjoy. And the ferry to Britain, for those who are young enough to take it.

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