DIR: Colm Nicell • WRI: Garry Walsh • DOP: Colm Nicell • PRO: Eilish Kent, Garry Walsh
Clerys was a one-time focal point of O’Connell Street in Dublin – a mainstay of department stores that wove memories and forged connections. It was a little worn around the edges but this served only to highlight its magnificence. Clerys had charm and lots of it.
The business dated from 1853. However, the building that now stands on this spot, was constructed in 1922. The 1916 Easter Rising saw a number of structures on O’Connell Street damaged to the point where they had to be razed to the ground and re-built.
In 2015, Clerys closed its doors for the last time. The cash registers stopped binging. The coins ceased to jingle. Whirs and clicks of clothes rails on castors faded away and dust settled on the countertops. Twelve stalwarts, staff of Clerys, staged a sit-in. Protesting rigorously at its inglorious ending, they held on precariously until enticed into giving up. That, it seemed, was the end of a sentimental chapter in Dublin’s history – a time past and soon forgotten.
Colm Nicell, director of Under the Clock, has taken a second (and third) glance at this statuesque landmark by deciding to tell the story of thousands of people meeting under Clerys clock – the two-sided clock that hung over the main entrance of Clerys. For some, it spelled the beginning of romance, the first giddy steps towards love and possibly marriage. For others, it was a gateway to heartache and sadness. One account cannot be narrated without hearing its counterpart.
Charlie and Beatrice Stewart met under Clerys clock. He was a self-styled ‘man of the world’ and she a shy 15-year-old schoolgirl. Beatrice brought her friend with her on their first date, much to Charlie’s irritation. Beatrice and her friend sat on one side of the cinema and Charlie on the other. This part of the plan not accounted for still rankles with Charlie in his narration of the event. Beatrice, however, gives a different description – according to her, Charlie asked Beatrice’s friend to come too. No doubt in Charlie’s mind, Beatrice would not have come at all given her tender years and he wanted to ensure he would meet with the stunning Beatrice again. Back and forward this story goes – Charlie indignant at the first date ‘interloper’. Beatrice’s insistence that the invite came from Charlie. They interact, rib each other, and sometimes sit in silence. The leather biker trousers Charlie wore for their initial encounter has long been replaced by more casual trousers and comfortable shoes but the fire is still there. Separate in their togetherness – individual yet one, Charlie and Beatrice are joined by their defining first meeting. Beatrice’s parting shot is to say that Charlie is good in bed. Charlie beams with pleasure and Beatrice hastily adds that he told her to say that. No matter – it’s clear that Beatrice is her own woman and would not have issued the accolade unless it was true. The scene fades with Charlie still grinning.
The memories from those heady days still shines bright through the narrative of Peter and Kathleen Cullen. They met under Clerys clock when both were in their teenage years. Throwback images of Peter, tall and handsome, show him with a protective arm wrapped about the elfin Kathleen. Their relationship encountered some resistance from both families who clearly thought Kathleen and Peter were too young to be in such an intense relationship. Kathleen narrates the moments leading up to her planned running away with Peter. How she hid backpack and clothes before descending the stairs in the wee hours only to hear her mother demand where she thought she was going and issue an imperious dictum to return upstairs immediately. Kathleen tells of the hours spent peering out of her bedroom window watching a clearly distressed Peter pacing up and down as she was forced to stay indoors. Peter eventually realised force majeure had interceded and there would be no caution throwing to any winds that particular evening. So the plan to elope was shelved temporarily and replaced with a secret engagement. Kathleen’s mother became aware of the engagement and wisely came to the conclusion that this was a force too great to be thwarted. She grudgingly accepted her daughter’s impending nuptials but asked Kathleen to keep it from her wider family until Kathleen was married. Still starry eyed and very much in love, Kathleen becomes emotional when talking about their first kiss. She says with certainty, that it was the point at which she fell in love with Peter. Peter shyly smiles and holds Kathleen closer.
Each story is told well and without intervention from the director – with the deftest of touches, Nicell entices the best from every interviewee. Albert Connor claims women are equal but different and goes on bravely to assert that men are the problem. Relationships and human interaction comes under the spotlight. Christina Nicell who seems to have not always seen eye to eye with her husband, states that in those days there was no assistance for women (or men) who found themselves in an unhappy marriage. Meeting under the clock it appears, did not assure life-long harmony and it was up to the individual to stay or go – many chose to stay. Most people endured sadness within a relationship as their lot and simply tolerated rather than striking out and discovering joy with a partner. For Philippa Ryder, not meeting someone under the clock meant that she made the first steps towards being at peace with her gender. Philippa was born a man but in her heart, felt that she was essentially female. Philippa followed her heart.
One common theme among the interviewees is their nostalgia for bygone times – many of them claim the next generation do not understand relationships or how to go about forging one. Tinder and Facebook have made connections between humans transient and fleeting. All of the people who appeared in this film, would not swap the immediacy of life in the present day, with the dance of tender courtship and truly getting to know your life partner before you make a commitment.
Colm Nicell has surpassed himself with this wonderful documentary. There are thousands of others who would have met Under the Clock – not all of them could possibly feature in the film – but every last person has in truth, been represented. For anyone, young or old, married or single, this is a ‘must see’.