Time, Gentleman – Frank McNally on the famous clocks of Dublin

Some once-celebrated Dublin clocks now survive only in literature

As part of the archives exhibition at Clery’s, now running, people have been invited to post stories about their experiences under the famous clock.

When I dropped in at the weekend, a women named “Maura” (or possibly “Laura”) had just written one as follows: “Before mobile phones, I arranged to meet a friend ‘under the clock’ but she didn’t arrive. I waited and waited but no sign of her. It turned out she had been waiting under Eason’s clock the whole time.”

A couple of a certain age reading alongside me laughed at the punchline. Then the male half added: “I thought she was going to say the Happy Ring House – that was the other one.”

Here was a reminder of the complications of social life in Dublin during the 1980s and earlier, when the nearest thing to satellite triangulation was trying to remember which of the three landmark time pieces on O’Connell St you had arranged to meet under.


It could have been even worse. Crossing the street afterwards, I was reminded of the lesser-spotted GPO clock, just opposite.

For some reason, that doesn’t seem to have featured much in the romantic lives of 20th century Dubliners. Yet it had obvious advantages as a thing to stand under, not least the roof provided by the building’s colonnade.

The pillars, meanwhile, offered cover of a different kind, much needed in some cases, judging by another of the reminiscences from Clery’s.

That story was by an unnamed woman whose outstanding recollection was of: “My sister Gina and pal Bernie arranging to meet ‘dates’ under Clery’s clock & driving by in a taxi seeing the poor guys wating for them – so bold!”

Just as they stopped bullets in 1916, the GPO’s pillars might have shielded stood-up unfortunates from ridicule, even while they wondered if their dates had meant Clery’s, Eason’s, or McDowell’s instead.


The modern GPO clock is a handsome and unusual thing. I say modern because it was designed, by Matthew J McDermott – later described as “Ireland’s most influential architect” – to replace a predecessor destroyed in the Rising.

Which reminds me of one the best-known quotations from Easter Week, by The O’Rahilly, who had tried to prevent what he thought was a doomed rebellion but, failing that, joined in and died in the fighting. As paraphrased by WB Yeats, he explained his change of heart: “Because I helped to wind the clock, I came to hear it strike.”

How long during Easter week the GPO clock continued to strike I’m not sure. But there is a picture of it afterwards, frozen (or scorched) in time, having stopped forever on one of the days, at 25 minutes past two.


Some once-celebrated Dublin clocks now survive only in literature, like Andy Clarkin’s, the one that helped get Myles na gCopaleen sacked from his day-job in the Civil Service.

Also in that category is Waterhouse’s on Dame Street, under which one of James Joyce’s Two Gallants picked up a “fine tart”, and which was already long stopped by the time Joyce mentioned it again in Finnegans Wake.

Other clocks live on while the businesses underneath them disappear. This seems the likely fate of Mayes Pub, long a Dublin landmark on the corner of Dorset and North Great Frederick streets, known to passers-by from its colourful “Mayes Time” sign.

Playing on the old Guinness wildlife theme, that has a workman holding up the clock while precariously balanced on the heads of a seal and ostrich, as a toucan flies past with two pints.

It’s a wonder that so distinctive a street junction has never (to my knowledge) earned the ultimate Dublin accolade: being a named corner, alongside Doyle’s, Hart’s, Hanlon’s, Kelly’s, and Leonard’s.

Adding to its importance, for those of us from Ireland’s northeast, it was always the last turn of our journeys before the bus descended into the fleshpots of O’Connell Street.

But if it hasn’t become Mayes Corner by now, it’s too late. The pub has closed and seems likely to be replaced by another convenience store, leaving the clock menagerie as a ghost sign.


Oh well, time waits for no man, as I was reminded while passing the nearby Presbyterian church on Parnell Square. At first, I thought the clock there had stopped. The hands read ten past eight even though it was nearly noon.

Then I realised that, far from stopped, it was in overdrive. The minute hand was moving visibly, covering the distance between 8.10 and 8.15 in what my iPhone said was a little over 30 seconds. Perhaps it’s a reflection on the pace of life in Dublin now. And in fairness to the clock, even if it has cracked under the pressure, it must be right – by my calculation – about 20 times a day.