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 an anorak.
Two middle-aged women emerge from the waves. Rain-clouds are tumbling in over Dublin Bay, yet bathers refuse to accept that summer’s gone. People swim here year-round. Generation passes its towel to generation. Recessions come and go, but Dun Laoghaire people have the sea.
The financial crisis has broken our town. One hundred business have closed. Many were landmarks of my childhood. I’m walking from Sandycove along the town’s thoroughfare, remembering those businesses.
The first casualty is in Glasthule. The old Forum cinema is a supermarket. Movie posters have been replaced with posters advertising deals on meat and vegetables. The Forum was the epicentre of our youth. Star Wars, ET, Superman, Rocky I,II,III ... all watched through a haze of smoke.
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. Now the Forum is a Centra, topped with apartments.
I pass what used to be a dress-hire shop. I rented my Debs tuxedo here. It was hideous: all Liberace frills and elephant-ear lapels.
I didn’t have time before the debs to exchange it and I can still see the horror on my date’s face when her parents answered the door.
I move on. Across the road, my old school, Presentation College, stares dully back at me. It closed a few years ago, just before the crash. Dun Laoghaire Tiger children, presumably, were above going to a non-fee-paying school.
Up ahead is Summerhill Parade, where I kneeled beside a dying friend 20 years ago. I pass the People’s Park and try to remember which shop-front belonged to the Pierrot Club, where we played Asteroids and PacMan. Is it the shop selling Asian food?
The old Bank of Ireland is unoccupied. The bank moved years ago, but the building is still empty. I opened 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. It was dedicated 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 continue along lower George’s Street, where Connolly’s Shoes used to be. I got my first pair of Clarks’ Nature Trekkers there. They were brown with piping. The assistant measured my feet in a metal machine that looked like an old credit-card imprinter. Nature Trekkers were supposed to be indestructible. 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 Irish 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 vegetables, there are rows and rows of memories.
If a town has a heart, then its shop-fronts 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.