By Donal Griffin
(Bloomberg) –- For decades, Dublin’s courting couples have rendezvoused under the clock at Clerys department store on O’Connell Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.
Last week, though, the symbol of Dublin’s romance was transformed into an emblem of Ireland’s lingering economic insecurity. On Friday, a pair of investment funds closed the landmark store, which sits opposite a statue of a fiery union leader who led the fight for Irish workers’ rights.
Within hours of Cheyne Capital Management Ltd. and Irish property firm D2 Private taking control of the loss-making store, more than 400 staff were locked out, rousing anger in a country that has tended to welcome overseas investors. While buyers from Donald Trump to John Malone are snapping up cheap hotels, castles, golf courses and pubs, they often keep the businesses running and have rarely fired entire workforces.
“The way the workers were treated was a disgusting disgrace,” said Jim Carroll, 62, who owns a nearby bookstore, as he stood outside Clerys. “To think that, in this day and age, people can be just summarily dismissed after 35 years of turning up.”
Donnchadh O’Neill, a spokesman for Natrium Ltd., the joint venture firm that has bought the store, declined to comment on the company’s plans for the sprawling Clerys site.
The deal drew London-based Cheyne and Dublin-based D2 Private into a political storm, with the government summoning the company’s liquidator to a meeting in Tuesday in Dublin. Deputy Prime Minister Joan Burton described the firings as “capitalism at its worst.”
“This owes more to Wall Street than O’Connell Street,” Gerald Nash, a junior government minister for business and jobs, said in an interview with state broadcaster RTE.
At about 3 p.m. on June 12, the liquidator called workers to a meeting in the store, Teresa Hannick, a labor union leader told state broadcaster RTE. From the top of the stairs in the store, the liquidator told workers Clerys was closing and asked staff to leave as quickly as possible, she said.
“Clerys was my life, ” said Margaret O’Dea, 61, who worked at the store for 44 years. “I went out crying, out the back door.”
On Tuesday in Dublin, about 200 protestors gathered outside the store, with one poster reading “Clerys clock is ticking for workers’ rights and justice.”
Clerys, first built in 1853, sits opposite a statue of James Larkin, a labor union leader in the early 20th century, with his arms raised to the air above an inscription that reads, “let us rise.”
“The way people have been treated without being told what’s happening, I can’t understand why anyone would adopt that,” said Eoin McGettigan, who was chairman of the company that sold Clerys before Gordon Brothers in 2012. “Even if it’s bad news, just tell them in a very clear way what’s happening.”
Natrium purchased Clerys from Gordon Brothers, the Boston-based investment firm that had bought the business in 2012 after retail sales slumped. OCS Operations Ltd., the trading company behind Clerys, lost 2.1 million euros ($2.4 million) in the 17 months through January 2014, company filings show.
Cheyne Capital manages over $5 billion and invests in real estate debt, corporate credit and leveraged loans. Founded in 2000 by former Morgan Stanley bankers Jonathan Lourie and Stuart Fiertz, the fund is based near Buckingham Palace in London’s St. James’s district.
Deirdre Foley, a 43-year-old chartered accountant based in Dublin, owns D2 Private, according to its website. The company has invested in property in some of the most expensive parts of London and the Irish capital, the website shows. Foley didn’t immediately respond to interview requests made through her LinkedIn page
Executives at Cheyne declined requests for an interview on Clerys, a favorite among rural Irish, who traditionally descended on the store in search of sales on Dec. 8, a public holiday.
The clock that rests above the entrance gained a reputation over the decades as a meeting spot for courting couples, with a ballroom in the store hosting dances sound tracked by a full-time orchestra in its early days.
“What happens to it now, God only knows,” said James Lonergan, 70, who said he first went to Clerys when he was six to see Santa Claus.