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‘Beacons of modernity’: Department stores, modernity and the urban experience in mid‐twentieth century Ireland


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This paper explores the spatiality of several Irish department stores with a view to presenting new insights into questions of modernity and identity in the mid‐twentieth century Irish city. We propose that shops like Cashes, Munster Arcade, Amotts, Brown Thomas, McBirneys, Clerys and Switzers were sites that enrolled consumers into certain kinds of cultural identity, offering opportunities to develop modern tastes and perform modern senses of fashion as sites where notions of ‘the modern’ were represented and articulated, as arenas where Irish people ‘met’ modernity in ordinary and tangible forms. The paper considers the cultural geographies and histories of this widely neglected part of the urban experience in twentieth century Ireland.
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‘Beacons of modernity’: department stores, modernity and
the urban experience in mid-twentieth century Ireland
Keith Spiller and Denis Linehan
Departments of Geography, University of Durham and University College, Cork
This paper explores the spatiality of several Irish department stores with a view
to presenting new insights into questions of modernity and identity in the mid-
twentieth century Irish city. We propose that shops like Cashes, Munster
Arcade, Arnotts, Brown Thomas, McBirneys, Clerys and Switzers were sites
that enrolled consumers into certain kinds of cultural identity, offering opportu-
nities to develop modern tastes and perform modern senses of fashion as sites
where notions of ‘the modern’ were represented and articulated, as arenas where
Irish people ‘met’ modernity in ordinary and tangible forms. The paper consid-
ers the cultural geographies and histories of this widely neglected part of the
urban experience in twentieth century Ireland.
Key index words: Modernity, department stores, identity.
[…]For Dublin can be heaven
With coffee at eleven
And a stroll in Stephen’s Green
There’s no need to hurry
There’s no need to worry
You’re a king and the lady’s a queen
Grafton Street’s a wonderland
There’s magic in the air
There’s diamonds in the lady’s eyes
And gold-dust in her hair
And if you don’t believe me
Come and meet me there
In Dublin on a sunny Summer morning
(The Dublin Saunter)
Imagine that you are about to walk through the revolving door of an enormous depart-
ment store. What do you feel? Are you exhilarated by the thought of the possibilities wait-
ing on every floor? Intimidated by the salespeople and the price tags? Overwhelmed by
the vast array of clothing choices? Or maybe a little of each.
(Halbreich, 1997:14)
Irish Geography, Volume 39(2), 2006, 143-158.
144 Spiller and Linehan
As a little boy you were brought in by your mother and there was always a wonder-
ful smell, ‘cause inside the door was always perfume and cosmetics and there was
warm air, so you had a warm comfort feeling, and then there was buzz and atmos-
phere, colour and retailers, I suppose at the times it’s like we are all magpie: mag-
pies are attracted to things, so colour was the big thing, you were walking to what-
ever was eye-catching. (Bob
This paper will explore the history, spaces and cultural politics of several department
stores in Ireland. Drawing on urban and consumption literature, and the memories of people
who worked and shopped in these stores, the paper will consider the links between
consumers, the department stores and the urban experience in an Irish context. In Ireland,
shops like Cashes, Munster Arcade, Arnotts, Brown Thomas, McBirneys, Clerys and Switzers
offered opportunities to develop modern tastes and perform modern senses of fashion. These
stores were recognised as landmarks in the urban landscape and were often the main
attraction on city streets (Brady, 2001). Along with urban dance halls and cinemas they were
relatively unrivalled as spaces of modernity and consumption in the Irish city. These stores
were at the height of their influence during the middle of the twentieth century, and for many
Irish people they remain nostalgic sites. We focus our analysis between the years of 1920 and
1960, because this is an era when Ireland enjoyed its first tentative steps towards
independence and consequently during this time much debate was engaged as to a ‘true’ Irish
culture. The cities of Dublin and Cork are our focus as these were the two largest cities in the
Republic of Ireland throughout the twentieth century. Of all the commodities sold in Irish
department stores the paper focuses upon fashion clothing. Household furniture and/or other
similar goods could also have been a focus, but fashion was something our interviewees
talked about freely and enthusiastically. Other topics were breached but did not produce the
same results. Moreover, fashionable clothes offer insights into expressions of modern culture
(Jervis, 1998) and in Ireland this proved no exception, as Irish consumers routinely took their
lead in how to become fashionable from department stores and their advertisements (Gronow,
1997). Fashion allowed Irish consumers to publicly display themselves as affluent, modern
and desirable, something not always welcomed, as we will discuss. While previous work in
Irish Cultural Studies has addressed questions of modernity through, for example, the work
of James Joyce (Kiberd, 2002), the social history of consumption in the Irish city has been
rather neglected. The potential of reviewing consumption in this context can be viewed, in
Joyce’s Ulysses, when he comments on the wonders of the Irish department store. As Leopold
Bloom gazes into a Brown Thomas window he describes:
High voices. Sunwarm silk. Jingling harnesses. All for a woman, home and houses,
silkwebs, silver, rich fruits spicy from Jaffa…Agendath netaim. Wealth of the World
(Joyce quoted in Haverty, 1995:45).
Other commentators have also noted some of the gaps in explorations of Irish histories
(Kearney, 1988: Graham and Proudfoot, 1993; Kiberd, 1995 and Johnson, 1995) and for
instance, Deane (1997:17) suggests, ‘there is little mention, for example, of the decisive
influence of the technological media and popular culture generally on contemporary Irish
life’. Expanding the criticism further, Graham and Proudfoot (1993) argue that Irish historical
geography has been dominated by the landscape in the context of ‘grand’ theories and
deserted its ‘special relationships between people and place’ (Smyth, 2001:17). Nonetheless,
liberated from such dominant concerns a new social and cultural history of spaces such as
railways, theatres, cinemas and dancehalls has appeared over the last decade in Ireland
(Turnock, 1998; Dudley, 2002; Fitzpatrick Dean, 2004; O’Connor, 2005).
In some ways the history of urban space has become more important in contemporary
Ireland, primarily due to the rapid and dramatic changes the country has undergone in the last
15 years – as succinctly amplified by all that is the ‘Celtic Tiger’. For what was once seen as
‘unremarkable’ now seems more extraordinary in view of untold social and economic
changes. It is possible to detect in some recent historical research a new interest in the
tangible experience of urban life, for example through identity, sexuality, symbolization or
suburbanization (Nash, 1997; Ryan, 1998a; Whelan, 2001; McManus, 2002). This new urban
history of Ireland has made effective use of previously unexplored events in constructing a
more ontological view of Irish urbanity and its absorption of modernity. Moreover, this work
has relied on theories and methodologies incorporating varying degrees of memory in
unlocking the complexities of the past. As Legg states, ‘memory can challenge dominant
interpretations of the past and stress the local and particular (2004:105). Memory, and
particularly local memory, has the potential to offer a rather more ‘bottom up’ interpretation
of the past (Radstone, 2000; Bornat, 2001). ‘Doing memory’ or unearthing personal thoughts
is not without its problems, as conflicting sources are often in evidence in how memory
undergoes degrees of liminality. Memories are fallible and reconstructed (Bartlett, 1932), and
of course can be suppressed. As Bennet (2003) explores, ‘sense memories’ can be triggered
through reliving emotions or traumatic experiences and as Andrews et al. (2006) note, there
may also be concerns as to ‘what issues surround data quality’ from oral histories. The
inspiration behind this paper derives from Bhabha’s (1994) Third Space, or as Soja (1996),
perhaps in this instance more aptly, describes, ‘thirdspace as an-Other’, for what we attempt
to uncover are the meanings and thoughts that have remained in people’s minds between the
binaries of tradition and modernity as Ireland moved into its postcolonial present. Bhabha
(1994) considers the ambivalent emergence of old traditions combined with a colonial
everydayness when reviewing the ambiguous and complex possibilities between ‘cultural
positioning’ and its ‘enunciation’. As Bhabha stresses, disturbing the past may give some
indication in understanding how ‘something comes to be repeated, relocated and translated in
the name of tradition’ (1994:37). The paper begins by considering the urban, social and
economic contexts that shaped modernity and consumption in post-independence Ireland. We
then review some department store advertisements as evidenced through archived
newspapers and magazines and following this, we attempt to gain some insights into store
windows and store interiors through what Jackson might call the ‘ethnographic moment’
where empirical work fills the void often left by an over-reliance on ‘analysis of discourse
and representation’ (1995:1875). We speak here of reminiscence and oral histories, an
amalgamation of methodologies with ‘surprising potential’ (Bornat, 2001; Andrew et al.,
2006). In the final section we examine some examples of the tensions between Irish
modernity and Irish Catholicism.
The paper is based on 5 focus groups and 20 individual face-to-face interviews. In the
interests of anonymity, all interviewee names have been changed. The focus groups
comprised exclusively of department store customers, whereas the individual interviews were
evenly split between those who were department store customers and those who had working
Beacons of Modernity 145
146 Spiller and Linehan
or family connections with the department stores (e.g. store workers, store managers, store
general managers and store owners). Fractionally more men than women were interviewed,
although the age range of those interviewed was 65 to 91 and, reflecting Irish demographic
trends, those over 80 tended to be women. We did not have any predetermined gender, age or
working-related preferences in those we interviewed, instead what dictated who we
interviewed was those who responded to our invites for interview. Invitations to interview
were initiated through an array of channels; ranging from historical associations, religious
societies, nursing homes, ‘cold letter writing’ and through friends and acquaintances. Most
interviews took place in the interviewees’ homes or occasionally at a convenient venue. All
interviews were taped and transcribed, with the exception of two in which the interviewees
preferred not to be taped. We have attempted to give equal focus to both consumers and store
owners or workers in order to highlight how consumption shaped and was shaped by the
department store experience.
We also consider department store advertisements from this period in order to convey a
sense of ‘the time’ – a snapshot of the past. Advertisements, like photographs, can capture the
essence of the history (Crang, 1997; Rose, 2000) and advertisements were brought to each
interview and focus group. Indeed, the interviews began with a discussion of some
advertisements in an effort to animate memory and also to add some context to twentieth
century Irish urban experiences. Of course, as Andrew et al.(2006:171) state, ‘because
respondents are still alive, they are able to reflect on contemporary meanings’. Nonetheless,
the advertisement provided a link from the present to the past. Advertising was a ubiquitous
entity in mid-twentieth century Ireland that played an underlying role in the Irish urban
experience, and hermeneutically, the advertisement’s layout, content, composition and
arrangement offered indicators as to the reasoning behind the image. For instance, the
advertisements allowed insights into what stores sold and the ranges they held. We initially
applied a content analysis to advertisements in twenty five different Irish newspapers,
periodicals and magazines, and in an attempt to give equal focus to the vast amount of print
from the era we examined specific publications at ten-year intervals. For example, if viewing
the Irish Times from 1921, we restricted the further years of analysis to 1931, 1941 and 1951.
To further enhance our coverage, we attempted, where applicable, to limit each publication to
a year ending in a specific digit, i.e. if the Irish Times was 1921, 1931, 1941, 1951, then the
Irish Independent was 1922, 1932, 1942, 1952, or the Irish Tatler was 1923, 1933, 1943,
1953. This we reason gives a good cross-section of the era, however there are exceptions to
this approach as occasionally, particularly in the periodicals, publications simply ceased or
are missing from the National Library files. In these cases the nearest date was analysed.
Additionally, department store archival records could possibly have furthered some of this
work. However, when approached, all current department stores informed us that access to
their records was not possible.
Consumption and the Irish Department Stores
Historical Irish urban experiences have a tendency to be read through the lens of slum
dwelling or post-famine – for a popular example consider McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. While
we are not disputing these accounts, there was also an urban culture which celebrated a
heightened sense of affluence. As Costello and Farmar (1992:22) suggest:
though Ireland at this date [1850-60’s] is often thought of as passing through some
terrible post-famine depression in Dublin there was[…]little to remind people of the
hungry years. Life had returned to normality and to a great measure of real pros-
Beacons of Modernity 147
Moving such thoughts into the twentieth century, evidence of lifestyles conducted in the haze
of prosperity and over-indulgence abound, as Doyle’s The Spirit of Ireland (1935:19-20)
demonstrates when he recounts his experiences of the Dublin Horse Show in 1932:
There is nothing on earth like those Horse Show Week Dances, a phantasmagoria of
lights, laughter, mischief, and reckless gaiety […] lean hunting girls who could
speak to Galway without using a telephone, and their bronzed men-folk; an Irish
peeress or two, with the Irish predominating triumphantly over the peeress; sleek
well-groomed doctors and barristers from Fitzwilliam Street and Merrion Square;
long-haired intellectuals who think deep thoughts and don’t drink shallowly; a min-
ister or so, trying to look European.
Expressively describing the more privileged members of Irish society Doyle’s
observations serve to embody notions of frivolity and abandon within the ranks of certain
Irish social circles. Nonetheless, an Irish urban culture was awakening that had the financial
freedoms to embrace a culture that warmly accepted modern commodities or cosmopolitan
fashions. In all likelihood, the people Doyle danced with were from Anglo-Irish families who
possessed power and wealth, and it was these who supported and patronized Irish department
Inevitably the influence of such a culture filtered through the ‘porousness’ of social class,
as Dublin, in particular, began to grow, and with it a more distinct bourgeoisie and petite
bourgeoisies enjoyed all Dublin had to offer. Dublin’s population increased 16 percent from
505,654 to 586,925 between 1926 and 1936 (Census, 1956) and as a result, many of the
sociabilities of the time, such as dancing, shopping, cinema and/or sexuality became
intensified. All of those allowed the stores to prosper, and equally the stores facilitated these
burgeoning cultural processes. Department stores sold visions of modernity and fashion to
Ireland and they became countrywide beacons of modernity, as they offered new and
innovative styles to the Irish consumer in both urban and rural areas. Similar to the strategy
long adopted by the French department store Gallerie Lafayette, the hinterland of rural
Ireland was enticed towards new modernities with the assistance of ‘Free Travel’. During the
1930s and 1940s, Clerys offered to refund the train fare upon purchase in the store (see ‘The
Winter Sale’, Irish Press, 3-1-39). While department stores did exist in other Irish cities and
towns, a trip to a Dublin or Cork store possessed something extra. If something special was
being purchased, e.g. a wedding suit or ball gown, the value of going to Dublin or Cork added
to the item’s uniqueness, exclusiveness and meaning. This network facilitated the influence
of international cities into an Irish milieu and expanded the range of their market. Stores were
at the hub of this network of influence.
Department stores have long been documented as agents of commercial and cultural
change (Mills, 1951; Lewis, 1983; Laermans, 1993; Domosh, 1996; Parker, 2003) and the
stores often ‘functioned as a meeting place, an innovator, a classroom and for the everyday
consumer became an inescapable source of dreams of a more modern life’ (Fredriksson,
1997:118). Most major international cities at the turn of the twentieth century had at least one
department store and Dublin and Cork were no exception. Between 1853 and 1922, several
successful Irish draperies, tailors or haberdasheries expanded and transformed their
businesses into department stores (Healy, 1981; Haverty, 1995; Cooney, 1998). The
development of the store premises took two distinctive routes; either the stores were purpose
built (for example, Clerys of O’Connell Street, Dublin, which opened as the ‘New Mart’) or
as was the more common practice the stores began with one premises and then proceeded to
purchase the adjoining properties, eventually leading to the amalgamation of the properties.
148 Spiller and Linehan
(For a brief history of some of the stores see Table 1. – note, all the stores with the exception
of Clerys did not originally open as purpose-built department stores).
Importantly, the store façades proved influential in demonstrating their image to passing
customers, as the façades incorporated many new technologies such as plate glass or
reinforced concrete, emphasising modernity, wealth and solidity. Internally the now larger
Irish stores also encouraged new technologies and means of shopping - for instance, the bored
husband might occupy himself in the store smoking room or library, while his wife was
attended to by a small army of assistants, who traversed throughout the store selecting
suitable garments for the lady as she waited in a luxuriant fitting room which could easily
accommodate her, her friends or her entourage as she tried-on/examined potential purchases.
While this style of department store shopping was an activity exclusive to bourgeois Ireland
during the nineteenth century, as the twentieth century began, some of the practices initiated
by the store become more accessible. For instance, one-stop shopping had become common
in Ireland, the stores provided a location where conceivably whatever you wanted was under
one roof, something alien to Irish society in the previous century where shops specialized in
one product or trade, e.g. tailors, shoe-makers, hatters (Brady, 2001). Irish department stores
also persistently stressed links and references to the more Anglo consciousness, ‘Switzers was
the very home of Anglo Irish clothes, sporting hats in the window, well cut tweed suits and
linen hand worked blouses’ (Farmar, 1995:102). The stores boldly projected images
Table 1. Historical outline of a number of Irish department stores.
associated with power and position (commonly connected with British rule) and customers
widely embraced the Anglo identities cultivated by the stores. Nevertheless, the store’s
influences were not exclusively Anglophile. Irish department stores were smaller compared
to their European or North American counterparts but through a network of buyers, in Paris
and London primarily, were able to sustain close links to metropolitan centres of fashion. The
stores became gateways to a more international influence. Between 1920 and 1960 fashion
clothing in Ireland was generally shaped by outside influence, such as magazines or cinema
and generally the department stores attempted to follow these trends. Tommy
elaborates, ‘the
fashion came out of the wide sombrero hat and the long dust coat, that was the only fashion
I can remember I thought I was like Alan Ladd [movie star], I fancied myself as Alan Ladd’.
However, as Madeline
noted ‘the good department store should always have been streets
ahead of the man on the street’.
Subsequent to Independence in 1922, no change was more pertinent to the success of the
Irish department store than the growth of the middle classes. This observation, while relevant
to other Irish cities, is, once again, exemplified in Dublin. Farmar notes, ‘a revolution
occurred which unseated the British and the Anglo-Irish from the commanding heights of the
social and political economy and established in their place the Catholic urban middle class’
(1995:2). Havarty (1995:68-9) continues:
[…] the 1920s […] was, after all, the jazz age and though Dublin could not be said
to be at the centre of the fun, there was a certain sense of liberation and excitement.
The Anglo-Irish aristocracy had vanished but a fresh new style of modernity was
rapidly replacing it. New habits of social and cultural life were forming around the-
atres, ballrooms, music clubs and the new craze, the cinema […] there was enough
people of wealth and leisure for Grafton Street to continue to bloom as a place for
shopping and conversation.
The middle classes were in steady employment, relatively well-paid and enjoyed what
could be described as comfortable lives. One of the reasons for the rise in the middle classes,
particularly their professional component, was the expansion of the new Irish state. As the
Irish State established itself, the need for bureaucratic management and civil service
employment rose. By 1932 the civil service in Dublin numbered 20,000 and created a sizeable
portion of people with the financial power and security to consume (Farmar, 1995). The Irish
middle classes strove to buy products that confirmed their middle class status and urban
sophistication, and it was in department stores that their aspirations could be readily realized.
As Jackson and Thrift (1995:227) suggest, ‘identities are affirmed and contested through
specific acts of consumption: we define ourselves by what we buy and by the meaning that
we give to goods and services that we acquire’. This was an experience that now appeared
tantalisingly within reach to the Irish middle classes, as a modern lifestyle was presented to
those who could now afford it. Equally, the suburbanization of Dublin began during the
period of 1910-40 creating new demands for households goods and furniture, which
department stores were quick to capitalise on (McManus, 2002).
New Desires
[…] now Cash’s was the most exclusive of shops.. it would cost you ten bob to look
in the door, very exclusive, the staff were all service of the upper classes, and they
had a walker, formal coat […] the lot. (Martin remembering 1940s Cork)
Beacons of Modernity 149
150 Spiller and Linehan
Department stores stimulated many desires for the modern Irish Man or Woman and we
want to begin with store advertisements in reviewing how the stores enticed patrons in a
rather layered manner. Using Brown Thomas (see Figure 1) as an example, many ambiguities
were presented in its advertisements, as was the case in many of the other store
advertisements. Advertising was relatively ubiquitous for department stores and most of the
publication we viewed contained at least one department store advertisement. In Figure 1
Brown Thomas presented a certain sophistication, but it also included an element of real
economy: ‘prices for all Fashions are now much lower than usual’. Irish department store
advertisements were careful of the image
that the store wished to publicise and while
quite obviously conveying the inherent
values of the goods they sold, they also
suggested a degree of modesty. The clothes
are ‘Newest of the New’, yet surprisingly
An extension of the advertisement (as
evidenced in Figure 1, ‘We are now
showing in our windows’), the department
store window distracted pedestrians with
dioramas and product displays, and the
windows themselves gained fame as spaces
to be admired for the spectacle they created
(Crang, 1998). These displays helped to
introduce activities such as ‘window
shopping’ (Leach, 1984; Parker, 2003) and
effectively changed people’s views of the
city townscape. Irish window display
techniques and their popularity grew
throughout 1920-60 and store windows
were often attractions in their own right.
Thematic displays generated great interest,
some like Switzers Christmas dioramas
became urban institutions, and were for
generations a constant feature of a Dublin
childhood. However, consistently it was
fashion clothing in the windows that drew
the attention of the passer-by Irish
department stores duly welcomed ‘the
modern aim […] to display the clothes, to attract the passer-by with the notion that there
might just be what they want inside the store’ (Costello and Farmar, 1992:97). Bob expands
on store windows in the 1950s:
It was regarded as your best salesman after your sales staff and still is, it dictates
the image of your store, it puts your best foot forward and gives them dress ideas
[…] I can’t underestimate, now as then, the importance of windows, they are worth
their weight in gold.
Figure 1. Newest of the New (Source: Irish Tatler &
Sketch, March 1934).
Beacons of Modernity 151
Department store windows accentuated
new modern experiences and allowed
customers to browse without even entering
the store. Window displays undoubtedly
helped to cultivate a popular Irish leisure
activity. In Cork, windows were lit up on
Sunday evenings, to coincide with the release
of new films in the Savoy and Pavilion
cinemas. Nevertheless, there was no
substitute for actually entering the stores and
experiencing their full impact. On entering
the department store, the idea was to seduce
the customer with stimuli; the perfumes, the
colours, the displays and the music
amalgamated to whet the appetite of
purchase (Proctor, 2002). Architecturally the
store welcomed the customer, ‘a step at the
entrance is a mistake […] no hindrance
should be offered to people who may drift
into the store’ (Leach, 1993:73). Within the
stores, customer flows were managed; they
were subtly guided in the direction that the
store wished them to walk, creating an almost
unconscious movement of people (Mills,
1951). The most popular sales technique was
to place bargains far from the entrance, requiring customers to pass expensive items in the
process. Piped music eased customers’ dazed movements - the music covered the noise of
footsteps on the store’s hardwood floors. The décor was intended to create sensations of
splendour. As Switzers advertisement declared (see Figure 2) it was ‘Where the best people
Love to shop!’ and it ‘is one of the most beautiful shopping places in this – or any country’,
‘Switzers is more enchanting than ever and as Jimmy
recollected: ‘The swanky shop was
Switzers, they had a doorman on the door and my goodness if you didn’t look suitable he
wouldn’t let you in […] you had to dress up in your Sunday best if you wanted to go into
Switzers’. For those who entered the department store the atmosphere was intended to induce
a sense of relaxation, thereby making customers susceptible to the delights of the store’s
displays (Laermans, 1993).
Interviewees expand upon store layouts and the general atmosphere felt in them. Greta
Madeline and then Chris
talk of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s department stores respectively:
[…] in the Munster Arcade certainly the hats were upstairs, and I think gowns were
there also, in Dowdens the ladies department was upstairs[...] And Roches at that
time was really all on the ground floor. Cashs, the gowns as they are now were
upstairs, the Munster Arcade had a very stylish hat department.
[…] the interiors of Switzers was very spacious […] there was the main hall at street
level and then there was the first floor. Now the first floor was all surrounded by
metal, with a big hole in the middle and people shopped all round and they looked
down, and then you went up another flight of stairs and you looked down at two lev-
els […] of course later in the twentieth century this was lost space that you were pay-
ing rates on […] and so it was filled in.
Figure 2: Switzers where the best people Love to
shop (Source: Thoms Directory 1950:1015).
152 Spiller and Linehan
[…] there was that aroma of sweets when you went in […] I remember sliding down
the banister there, we shouldn’t have of course but we were only kids.
Department store interiors heightened the sensuous perceptions of many of their
customers, as feasibly the object of customers’ desires became ever-closer with entry into the
store. The level of intensity generated in these instances also seemed to hone spatial
awareness; interviewees spoke with great clarity as to where particular departments lay in
specific stores. Mort (1995:587) suggests such memories or mental maps are “definite zones
of the metropolis privileged as the sites at which these rituals were played out”. These mental
maps were central to how customers remembered department stores and it was within these
spaces that various understandings of modernity were undoubtedly experienced and
Modernity and Catholicism
While the stores were a focus for Irish modernity, Irish Catholicism often subjugated the
meanings and practices performed there. The teachings of the Catholic Church were a
powerful moral and political force in Ireland at this time and regularly their authority helped
to structure Irish society (Cahill, 1932; Inglis, 1998; Collins, 2000). Consequently, many
international trends were mediated in Irish contexts, and consumers remade and overturned
some of the cosmopolitan or metropolitan associations found internationally. As centres of
fashion, the locus of Anglo-Irish ascendancy and the site of an emerging modernity, all meant
that the department store in Ireland had a unique assemblage. The stores offered the Irish
shopper the new and modern, whilst the dominant public culture was conservative and
traditional. The new Irish state had stringent attitudes towards cosmopolitanism and
modernity, and resultingly censorship was heavily utilized in all that appeared to challenge
Irish traditionalism (Lee, 1989). The department store had to negotiate these conditions and
created distinctive juxtapositions. The modern was disavowed. Kiberd (2002) notes, that Irish
nationalist discourse denounced the city as an English phenomenon, a site of modernity and,
as such, of corruption and immorality (Daly, 1995). Equally, ‘[…] like many national cultures
emerging from the crucible of colonialism, Irish culture in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries frequently grounded itself in a rugged soil as far removed from the
colonial metropolis and the inroads of colonialism as possible’ (Quigley, 2003:382).
Consumption too was something to be kept in check. Catholic guilt did many things in
Ireland and in particular it reinforced the notions that Ireland should be frugal. As Elizabeth
remembered, ‘the priest would tell you what was right and wrong and I suppose they wanted
you to dress a certain way […] I never listened to them so I don’t really remember, but I know
they weren’t shy about telling you what to do’. In contrast to European customers, the
cultivation of browsing and the flaneur was a practice that developed quite late in Ireland.
One of the substantive conclusions from our series of interviews was that Irish customers
rarely entered department stores to browse; on the contrary, visits were purposeful, and one
entered a store only if an item was required. While the Irish flaneuse may have been evident
when window-shopping, she was rare within the store. Commodities were kept behind
counters and purchasing without staff assistance was almost impossible. There were large
numbers of staff who were eager to help and mindful of potential commission (Nesbitt, 1993).
speaks of her shopping experiences in Cork during the 1940s and 50s:
[…] they’d always put out display hand-bags with a scarf thrown over it and a pair
of gloves, but there was very little of that, it was mostly the shop server and the cus-
tomer, you know, you’d go in and I‘d want so and so, and they’d bring it out, types
of whatever you wanted, you know, there was no browsing around and picking up
this and looking at that, you were really being served […] you’d feel self-conscious
unless you wanted to buy something, they’d be looking at you, come over, you know,
type of thing […]if you were a customer and wanted to buy something you were
greeted and got their full attention, but if you were just wandering around like one
does nowadays that wouldn’t be the thing to do […] you had to go to a counter real-
ly, you couldn’t roam around you’d be very conspicuous unless you went to a count-
er and asked for something […] so people only really bought when they needed
something, mostly anyhow.
The counter proved a focal space in the department store. All items were stored behind
these and only crossed the counter when called for (Porter Benson, 1986). The counter was
at the forefront of interviewees’ memories of the Irish department store; it was something that
time and time again was mentioned as being the major difference between Irish department
stores in the first half of the twentieth century and the latter half. Patrick
begins with his
interpretations of the counter, followed by Bob:
One of the things is all the display techniques were so different. For instance one of
the things is almost the disappearance of the counter, right. Now the counter is a
thing that goes back to the original drapery stores of the eighteenth century, a space
to throw out your bolts of cloth and whatever, it, it was space intended, intended that
you could run your [cloth], and measure off and whatever, now, you had glassed top
cases and whatever to show off goods.
[…] way back the assistants were behind the counter you came and requested a blue
shirt and they took out shirt one, two or three to show you.
Phasing out counters began during the 1950s. The change fashioned new methods of
shopping where the customer became more ‘hands on’ in the process. Jim, who was General
Manager of one Dublin store, describes the change:
The transition was gradual. Management was cautious. Fear of an increase in theft
was a serious consideration, this proved to be a well-founded fear […] despite this
the customers always liked to feel the merchandise and even smell it. They too were
slow to accept the change. Self-selection led to self-service.
It seems Irish stores were reluctant to allow customers to browse and because of over-
attentive staff and counter displays the activity of leisure shopping was slow to flourish, as it
was in other metropolitan centres. It would appear consuming in an Irish department store
was mediated through the invisible moral and class structures of the Irish city, rather than
through the fluid individualism characteristic of larger European metropolises. Moreover, for
Irish customers a degree of self-consciousness and awkwardness was apparent during their
forays into the stores and Irish shoppers did not readily embrace the ‘wonders’ of the stores.
For instance, men’s departments, in common with international stores, were located at the
side or rear of the building, to allow easy concealed entrance and departure, and it would
seem the positioning of the departments helped to elevate masculine anxieties; the process of
consuming and shopping possessed effeminate connotations (Reekie, 1992). Yet, as Breward
suggests, and Tommy would seem to corroborate, ‘men’s style was as vulnerable to the
Beacons of Modernity 153
154 Spiller and Linehan
influences of Hollywood and advertising as women’s’ (1995:217). The anxiety felt by men
awakened feelings of embarrassment and necessitated a calculated entrance; for fear that the
man may enter the wrong department – entering a lingerie department, for example, would be
calamitous. (Note in Figure 2 Switzers stress ‘part of Men’s Section, now completely
modernised and virtually a separate shop in itself’).
Shopping during 1920-60 embodied some confusion when related to Irish sexual identity,
particularly to Irish male identities. In department store advertising, the male identity was
presented as strong, intelligent and fashionable (see Figure 3). Yet shopping in Ireland was
understood as a feminine activity. Therefore, slightly incongruously, Irish men were
attempting to express their male identity through being fashionable and there is little doubt
male shoppers were uncomfortable in the stores. The following conversations with Robert
and Stephen
offer their experiences from working in the stores during the 1940s and 50s,
[…] women did the shopping, men didn’t […] their wives and womenfolk more or
less did the shopping, obviously if you were buying a suit you had to go there your-
self and as long as it was hidden away from the public, now I saw guys in the
menswear department, even to try on a sports jacket they’d have to go into the fit-
ting room to do it.
[…] we knew our male customers were shy countrymen. They would never come in
through the main entrance. They came in the side, pointed to what they wanted, usu-
ally one of the tailors dummies in the window or something and that was it, rarely
did they even try it on.
Conversely, at the same time the stores were sites for the expression of the female
body. The stores offered exposure to new ‘trends’ in feminine fashion, but again it was not
something readily accepted and was treated with suspicion by traditional Ireland. As Ryan
states, ‘the ‘modern girl’ came to be
everything that was disorderly, threatening
and dangerous to the future of Irish cultural
identity’ (1998b:185). Regulating the body
lay at the heart of the Catholic Church’s
discussion when it came to fashion. During
the 1950s, the Catholic magazine The Fold
encouraged women to cover their cleavage
and upper arms when choosing a dress. Yet,
Cashs in Cork, for instance, sold revealing
swimwear designed by leading European
designers. Consequently the store windows
occasionally became contested places
(McGuire, 1988), especially when their
compositions were deemed controversial.
During this period, Irish women were
encouraged to uphold their modesty and
decorum against the dangers of materialism
and the ‘modern semi-pagan civilization’
(Cahill, 1932) and help foster ‘the illusion
that Ireland was a haven of virtue surrounded
Figure 3: The Intelligent, fashionable Irish man
(Source: Irish Times 9/3/29)
by a sea of vice’ (Lee, 1989:158) - views particularly consistent with those promoted by the
Irish Catholic Church. Despite this, Patrick remembers a department store window that would
not have been in adherence to the views of the then Catholic Archbishop of Dublin and
Primate of Ireland, Dr. John Charles McQuaid. Mc Quaid was a well-known ultra-
conservative representative of the Irish Catholic Church, who had strong and influential
political connections during the 1940s, 50s and 60s (Fallon, 1998):
[…].as I was talking about, what to do you call it, Doctor Mc Quaid and the lingerie,
now that was also a thing, I mean, window loads of models in their underwear, is
you know, a fairly novel idea to teenagers in the 1950s, you know, so maybe my first
acquaintance with ladies under garments may well have been in Clerys’ front win-
The sexualisation of mannequins and their representational impacts upon the Irish psyche
may have had great reverberation in the world of adolescents and indeed adults. Much as
Seagers (1997) comments that beauty contests can signify ‘modernization and democracy’,
the mannequin may exemplify Ireland’s transgression into modernity. In essence, the body,
be it ‘real’ or ‘imagined’ (Railton and Watson, 2005), became sexualized and encouraged a
shift, as the body became enlivened in the minds of the window-gazing public.
Embracing modernity also possessed more lawful concerns for the stores. Pilferage was
not unknown and what emerges from a story Stephen recounted is the influence the Catholic
Church had within the Irish context:
[…] now there [ ] wasn’t a lot of pilfering in the store, don’t get me wrong, but
every year, I think it was Franciscan missionaries conducted some sort of resolutions
or redemption in the city. And the strangest thing, each year, a few weeks after the
resolutions, the store would start to receive anonymous letters. No notes explaining,
just envelopes with money in them […] Now I don’t know why, if they were told to
or what, but each year without fail the letters would arrive.
These examples serve to suggest the unique manner in which the influences of the department
stores were digested with a mix of cultural aspiration and moral dilemma and then
regurgitated with a distinctly Irish flavour.
Throughout this paper we have highlighted a number of practices through which
modernity was introduced within the context of the Irish department store. The stores were
spaces in the Irish city that sold commodities that embodied new cultural experiences and
appreciations for many Irish consumers. Furthermore, Irish consumers were offered new and
innovative ways of expressing themselves, expressions that were on occasion controversial.
For the main however, the stores presented tangible, achievable and affordable examples of
modernity. What the stores offered to Irish culture is what may have been previously
overlooked. The stores appropriated the Irish imagination and helped to generate new cultural
values. During the mid-twentieth century, Irish consumers learnt to associate shopping in the
department store with an urban experience. The stores created a sense of luxury that became
part of the rhythm of life in Ireland - for all that was needed for that elaborate wedding, for
that special anniversary present or for meeting Santa Claus at Christmas, the stores became
indispensable. The department stores’ influence was absorbed by the Irish public to such an
extent that the public incorporated a degree of display in their own style of dress. Good
Beacons of Modernity 155
156 Spiller and Linehan
appearance was not something new in Irish culture, but the presentation of such things as
window displays assisted in keeping these constructs in public space. Within this public
space, what one wore had many connotations in that it could indicate or offer hints to identity.
Bowlby contends ‘[…] all the world’s a showroom every man or woman is an advertisement
for himself or herself, aiming to impress and please his or her consumer (in Miller et al.,
1998:8). In this manner the department store suggested how a modern Irish identity could be
presented. After 1960, the stores’ influences began to decline, due mainly to the introduction
of supermarkets, television, chain stores, and specialist shops. Nonetheless, the majority of
the Irish department stores considered in this paper survive today (although some stores now
trade under different names), giving some indication of the stores’ strength in Irish retailing.
Many thanks to all interviewees, without whom the paper would simply never had happened
and to the two anonymous referees for insightful and constructive comments.
1. Bob at the time of interview was on the board of directors of a Dublin department
store. He had worked all his working life in department stores and began ‘on the
floor of the men’s department.
2. Tommy at the time of interview was 77, he had been an electrician and lived and
worked all his life in Dublin.
3. Madeline was 91 when interviewed and in 1947 was the first woman on the board
of a department store. She eventually became chairperson of the board.
4. Martin was 78 at time of interview and in his retirement he conducts local
historical walks.
5. Jimmy was a driver who had lived in Dublin for most of his life, the only
exception being ‘one time when things were bad I went to England for awhile’.
6. Greta was born in 1921 on Patrick Street in Cork, her father was a bank manager
and they lived above the bank.
7. Chris was born in Cork and spoke of ‘doing pana’ – parading up and down Patrick
Street in ‘an effort to attract girls’.
8. Elizabeth was 91 at the time of interview and was the mother of six. She lived in
Dublin all her life.
9. Alison worked in Dowdens of Cork, before getting married and was born and lived
in Cork all her life.
10. Patrick has written a number of Irish historical books and lives in Dublin.
11. Robert served an apprenticeship in Clerys during the 1940s and moved to Roches
later in his career. He worked in Roches Limerick and Cork branches.
12. Stephen, a nephew of the founder of one of Ireland’s premier department stores, he
had worked in the family business all his life and was still involved in the business
at the time of interview, although a retired member of the board of directors
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Chapter 1 provided a context within which a study focusing on issues of space, culture and identity in modern Ireland might be undertaken. In this chapter I want to take an overview of some of the ways in which discourses of place and space have been addressed in Irish critical, cultural and political practices over the years. Of the many potential areas of interest, I have chosen to focus on four: travel and tourism, mapping/naming, poetry, and the imagination of urban and rural space. Each of these fields and practices is vast in itself and I can do no more than briefly indicate, with a few illustrations, their significance. One recurring theme, however, concerns the relationship between the historical practices which continue to bear upon the ways in which space is imagined and organised in modern Ireland and the changes that are overtaking traditional spatial practices at the outset of a new millennium.
This volume provides a comprehensive assessment of the evolution of society and economy in Ireland, presenting an account of how the past illuminates the present. In a dozen chapters a series of authors synthesize recent research in Irish historical geography and economic history, incorporating the major revisions in agrarian, rural, demographic and urban studies, and present it within an explicit theoretical framework. Starting from the 6th century and continuing to the present it examines the forces that have shaped Ireland, showing that the geographical patterning of historic human activity in the island is the outcome of deeper seated social, economic and political processes. This analysis is presented in an international context. Each chapter is abstracted. -after Publisher