Cannock’s department store was a mecca for Limerick shoppers, until its sad decline and closure in 1980. After uncovering some rare pictures, Leader archivist Grainne Keays tells the story of a real local institution.
Some years ago I found an old letter in a trunk in my family home. The letter is dated September 20, 1894 and signed by Rev. James F. MacMahon of Woodville, Pallasgreen, Co Limerick, a Church of Ireland clergyman. It is addressed to my great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Keays, who the author greets as ‘My dear Friend’.
In the letter Rev MacMahon grumbles about his ailments, laments the behaviour of the youth of the day and gossips about his neighbours. Some might say that elderly gentlemen have not changed very much in the intervening 120 years! One of the titbits of gossip that Rev. MacMahon passed relates to the Cannock’s department store based at O’Connell Street in the city. He says: “Michael Ryan’s daughter, May, was married yesterday to a buyer at Cannock’s in Limerick, a very nice young man very steady with a salary of about £250 a year and £900 saved in hard cash. They are gone on the honeymoon to Killarney. Not bad, you will say.”
A sum of £250 was a superb salary in 1894 and thus Rev MacMahon felt this young man was quite a catch for Ms Ryan, who hailed from New Pallas. Though intended as light-hearted gossip, his comments also reflected the very real contribution that employment in Cannock’s made to the economy and to society in Limerick.
Cannock’s was more than just a shop; it dominated the streetscape of Limerick and formed the focal point of the city’s retail activity. It gave gravitas and elegance to the city centre.
While digitizing photographs in the Limerick Leader archive in recent months, I noticed that we had quite a few photographs of Cannock’s and it seemed a pity that our readers had never seen them.
The purpose of this article is to give some context to the pictures we feature today and in the coming weeks.
There has been a drapery business on the Cannock’s site on O’Connell Street (formerly George’s Street) since around 1814. John Arnott and George Cannock, both Scotsmen, bought the premises in 1850. Cannock retired from business in 1865, Arnott having sold his share in the business to Peter Tait (to whom Tait’s Clock is dedicated) in 1858. George Cannock died in 1876 by which time Kilmallock man, Michael J. Cleary and James Tidmarch had effectively taken over the running of the store.
Tidmarsh also died in 1876. Cleary would dominate the stores fortunes until his death in 1896. Under further changes of management, both the store’s wholesale and retail divisions prospered. In 1961, the company undertook a huge rebuilding project which was to change the streetscape forever; many would argue, not for the better.
The O’Connell Street store was sold to Penneys in 1980 and Cannock’s moved to William Street. This was far from successful and the business went into liquidation in 1984.
In seeking to understand what kind of place Cannock’s was, I spoke to quite a few people who knew it intimately.
Mike Cussen from Ballykeeffe, now the maintenance man in the Limerick Leader office, began his career as an apprentice to Dan O’Sullivan, who was the electrician on-call at Cannock’s.
Mike spent much of his time in Cannock’s between 1974 and 1979 providing lighting and wiring for new displays at the store and electrical maintenance. Larger, more disruptive jobs had to be done in the evenings after customers left. Florescent tube lighting was the “in thing” at the time, he recalls.
When trying to describe the ambiance of the store, Mike said it was a bit like the old comedy show, Are You Being Served? featuring Grace Bros. department store. There was a pecking order that was observed rigorously with management upstairs, with secretaries in nearby offices, senior counter staff supported by bright young underlings, all supervised by a distinguished looking and eagle-eyed gentleman, the floor walker (a la Captain Peacock). According to Mike, Cannock’s was THE place to shop in Limerick, the best of merchandise and top class service. He was most impressed by the fact that Cannock’s had an in-house graphic designer/window dresser (John Buckley, pictured right) who was constantly renewing and upgrading the displays in the store.
Mike’s greatest challenge while at Cannock’s was not the work but the distractions caused to him by the beautifully turned out young girls at the cosmetics counter – and how to get past them without being spritzed with latest scent from Paris and being slagged on the way home for smelling like a perfumery.
Josephine O’Neill also kindly agreed to speak to me at her home in Monaleen. Jo Sweeney, as she was then, worked in the office in Cannock’s from 1955 to 1959. She worked with Mary Fitzgerald (daughter of the managing director at the time, John J. Fitzgerald) and Joan Hayes. Jo remembers a “huge computer” appearing in the office for accounts around 1957 but only one member of staff, Josephine Lynch, could operate it.
Jo, too, drew comparisons with Are You Being Served? with its hierarchy, its layout and its ambiance. In Jo’s estimation, top-class service and overall aura of class were the secrets to Cannock’s success at the time. It was a beautiful shop, inside and out, with a grand staircase and the absolute best quality merchandise. It was simply an elegant place to shop. Refinement was a by-word in Cannock’s. Bad language wasn’t tolerated by the girls in the office. Offenders paid 5p to a swear jar for the African Missions. Customer service was second to none. If a female customer was standing at counter waiting to be served, a floorwalker would swoop in and offer her a chair. A comfortable customer was a happy customer in those days.
In Jo’s opinion, after the renovations begun in 1961 and completed in 1963, the shop was never quite the same. She would agree with Finbarr Crowe, author of a fine two-part history of the store published in the Old Limerick Journal in 1985-86, that the rebuild was a “philistine exercise” and the store never again had the air of grandeur and sophistication that it had pre-1961.
Jo enjoyed her time at Cannock’s and for the most part had only good things to say. Everybody she spoke about was a “fantastic gentleman” or a “great lady” with one notable exception. This particular man, no longer with us, had “hands everywhere”. Office girls peeped around corners and doorways to make sure he wasn’t in the corridor before venturing forth. As Jo says, nowadays that sort of thing is called sexual harassment but in those days you didn’t know what to call it. Thankfully, this behaviour was very much an aberration at Cannock’s.
While chatting to Helen Ryan in the post office in Murroe, I discovered that Eileen Foley, a Murroe native, also worked in Cannock’s and she kindly agreed to talk to me about her experiences. Eileen (nee Shinners) began working in Cannock’s in 1966 for £3.5.3 per week and she stayed for seven years, working mostly in the wholesale haberdashery department, where small shops from all over the city and county and further afield bought their stock. Country shops very often placed orders over the telephone; their goods were parcelled up and sent to them on the next bus. Customers were demanding and if the order missed the bus, they had no hesitation in complaining vigorously.
Eileen’s overall verdict on her time there was it was a lovely place to work. Her manager was Paddy Liddane, who was something of a legend in Cannock’s, having joined the business in 1922. Eileen worked with Elsie Byrnes. They all got on fantastically well. On Saturdays, when the wholesale section was closed, she would work with Jack Meaney in retail haberdashery.
Cruise’s Hotel, which was across the street from Cannock’s, provided the store with many customers. American tourists, in particular, would come across to Cannock’s to buy Waterford crystal, Irish linen and other goods. Cruise’s also provided the backdrop for the highlight of the year for Cannock’s staff, the annual dress dance. Female staff spent a good part of the year planning what to wear. Every staff member was entitled to a discount and could buy goods on “appro”. According to Eileen, the dress dances were fantastic nights but I suspect the real thrill was the preparation: choosing the dress (or the material with which to make it), shoes and accessories and paying for it all in instalments on payday, Tuesday.
Finally, I spoke to Maureen O’Connor of Corelish. Maureen is married to my great uncle, Paddy. The then Maureen O’Neill worked in Cannock’s from 1961 until 1963 and again from 1971 until 1973. She mainly worked in the calico (curtain fabrics) department with occasional forays into linens and haberdashery. Maureen, like the others I interviewed, spoke of her horror of a great tragedy which struck Cannock’s in February 1964 when two employees were killed in a hotel fire while on business for the company in Galway. Denis Ryan, a commercial traveller, from Crescent Avenue, O’Connell Avenue, lost his life in the blaze, as did Frank Tuohy, shoe buyer, a married man and father of three very young daughters, of Greenfields, Rosbrien.
The funerals of Mr O’Brien and Mr Tuohy were held together at St. Michael’s Church in Limerick and both men are buried in Mount St Lawrence.
Michael Harkin, director of Cannock’s, was quoted in the Leader as saying “the entire firm was shocked at the double tragedy. Both were popular young men and their loss to the firm would be very great”. The memory of these men and their horrendous deaths lives on for many who knew and respected them at Cannock’s.
I would like to thank Mike, Jo, Eileen and Maureen for taking the time to talk to me of their time in Cannock’s and for helping me identify many of the people in the accompanying photographs.
Cannock’s, throughout its existence, was one of the Limerick Leader’s main advertisers. On 29 June 1963, to mark its first sale in the new premises completed earlier in the year, the store took out a nine-page advertising feature. It boasted of its “superior furniture, carpets, bedding, tailoring, children’s wear, electrical goods, hosiery, millenary, hardware and haberdashery”.
The feature added: “Those who felt that the old familiar Cannock’s had gone forever were very pleasantly surprised to find that fundamentally it had changed very little”.
Wishful thinking, it would appear. It seems to me that the modern premises, a divided management, and a new strategy of stocking cheaper goods tarnished the old Cannock’s image permanently. It suffered a crisis of identity, confusing and thus deterring customers.
What nowadays might be called a mission statement for Cannock’s appeared in a commercial directory in the 1890s: “The babe from its entrance into the world and in its progress through the various stages of life to its final exit may here at Cannock’s find every requirement for personal comfort and adornment and every article of house furnishings from which he may make suitable selection.”
These continued to be the grandiose aspirations of Cannock’s for almost the next 100 years. Its demise was a blow to Limerick and I agree with Finbarr Crowe that the city centre has never quite recovered from the loss – in the early 1960s – of Cannock’s beautiful façade and its iconic clock.
Note: the Limerick Leader has many other fine pictures from Cannock’s and we’ll publish these in the coming weeks. Anyone with memories of Cannock’s is asked to contact Grainne Keays, author of this piece, via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Leader offices at 54 O’Connell St.