Imagine a time when O’Connell Street was the epitome of old-fashioned grandeur, Penneys was a magnificent dance hall and Arnotts Car Park, a cinema and the site of the one and only Beatles concert in Ireland
I open my eyes with a start and do a quick sweep of my surroundings. Bright, garish E Type Jaguars, Ford Mustangs and Chevrolets zip past me, cartoon-like. The people inside seem blurry around the edges but with larger than life accessories like cat-eye glasses, pillbox hats and dignified trilby hats to ground them. The road I'm on is wide and long and vibrating with energy. Women push past me, eager to get to their next engagement. The older ones are elegant and feminine, with bouffant up-dos like Jackie Kennedy and elegant fur-trimmed coats, two-piece day dresses and silk scarves; the younger ones wear paisley mini-dresses, loose bell bottoms and lurid jumpsuits under long fur coats, their faces fresh and alive and younger than their outfits suggest.
I look up and realize I'm standing under the iconic Clerys Clock on Dublin's O'Connell Street and the department store is alive with breathless, rosy-cheeked customers and the rush of Christmas. I walk quickly away from the scene of so many blossoming romances (the ballroom at Clerys hosted dances every night of the week with a full-time orchestra where afterwards the gentlemen would ask their ladies to meet them ‘under the Clerys clock’) and push past a George Harrison lookalike in an ill-fitting double-breasted velvet navy jacket, polka dot ruffled shirt and scuffed Chelsea boots. He is ambling across the road to the Metropole Cinema which appears to be screening Doctor Zhivago (the Metropole also housed a dance hall, shops and a restaurant and was once a magnificent hotel until it was destroyed in the Easter Rising - it is now home to Penneys).
I span the busy road for familiar landmarks and my eyes fix on The Gresham Hotel, which appears grander than I remember. Throngs off people dressed in Christmas finery wrestle each other through the magnificent doors to the historic four-star hotel. They seem to be aware that at this moment, they are at the centre of the universe, the beacon of all that is glamorous. And at that time, they were.
I’m not sure why the past holds as much mystery and magic for me as it does. For my granny, this was simply her day to day life, the same as mine. And yet, the city I know and love was a different place in the late 1960s and early 70s. Hers was a different Dublin, a place filled with cinemas and dance halls, theatres and grand hotels, department stores and corner shops. The balcony of the Adelphi Cinema is where my granny would meet her mother-in-law for tea and where she watched Casablanca for the first time. It is now the site of Arnotts Car Park and yet the memories live on.
Every Christmas, my granny and grandad would dress up in their finery and head to The Gresham Hotel for my grandad’s work party. Other times, they would shop in Clerys and afterwards head to the opulent Savoy Cinema, where the interior resembled a Venetian Palace and the organist Gordon Spicer gave regular recitals before the show started and during the interval.
As Christmas envelops our city and we succumb to the giddy anticipation of mulled wine, fuzzy jumpers and glittery tights, I find myself wishing I could go back in time and witness Christmas through their eyes. Thankfully, as the site prepares for the re-development of the iconic departments store, Clerys windows have sprung back to life for Christmas to take us on a journey down memory lane, from the 1850s and the inauguration of the Irish Times, to the 1940s and the ‘Big Freeze’ and finally the 1960s and the arrival of the Beatlemania Tour in Ireland.
Today, O’Connell Street is somewhere people walk along to get somewhere else. Ever since the IRA blew up Nelson’s Pillar in 1966, Ireland fell in love with all things Americana and Dublin City Council made a mess of the street, it has become a fleeting world of fast food chains, casinos and shabby high street stores. There is none of the glamour of years gone by and that is perhaps the key to why the magic remains. It is sealed in time. Because like us, each Christmas, my granny and grandad and their friends and colleagues got dressed to the nines and headed out into the bustling streets of their beloved city full of hopes and dreams and ideas about who they wanted to be in this world.
Photographed by Christina Higgins @christinahigginsnutrition