The centre of the world

James Ryan

James Ryan

My home town, Rathdowney, Co. Laois, is a place with a distinct sense of itself, modest, secure, unassuming. It isn’t adorned with folksy bric-a-brac. It isn’t twinned with anywhere. It doesn’t have – or need – an interpretative centre. What it has is a distinguished history of coping successfully with the exigencies of the outside world. When, for instance, the threat of nuclear war loomed in the early 1960s, we felt we were in the safest place on the planet. We were in the very centre of a country that was roughly equidistant from the US and the USSR, farther away than anywhere else from the potential fallout. ‘You can’t get much safer than that,’ we told each other on the way to school in October 1962, glancing skywards as we spoke, hoping to catch a glimpse of the American aircraft – nuclear bomb in its hold – en route to teach Khrushchev a thing or two. Would the pilot look down? Would he be reassured? Say something like, ‘Ah, Rathdowney, I must be halfway there’?

Time magazine, which we got in the 1950s and ’60s, carried regular columns on trouble-spots around the world – mostly former British or French colonies in the throes of post-independence power struggles. One such column was on Laos, the county I was from. Or so I thought. I pored over that column in the hope of seeing Rathdowney mentioned, too convinced of my town’s centrality to realize that there were no communist militants in Laois, at least none belonging to an organization called the Pathet Lao.

For a very long time the world at large remained unaware of that centrality, but the tide has now turned. The decision by the Morrison Group to open an international designer outlet in Rathdowney was, to a large extent, based on the strategic location of the town: less than two hours by car from the major centres of population, Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick. The outlet – pinched term for an imposing structure – is located on Campion’s Moor, the low-lying fields across the road from the house in which I grew up.

We moved to that house in the swelteringly hot summer of 1955, having lived until then over my father’s office in The Square. It was one of three long, low, white colonial-style bungalows built at the turn of the twentieth century. Collectively they seemed determined to create the impression that they were at the edge of a tea plantation or on the outskirts of some dusty dominion settlement. Early photographs show a large glasshouse to the right. Maybe it once contained outsize palms, hibiscus, bougainvillaea – vegetation that colluded in upholding the illusions the house embodied. A brass plaque with the surname of the previous owners, Mercier, remained on the ornate quasi-oriental wooden gate for years. The house next door, Mrs Stuart’s, had originally been a mobile infirmary in the Boer War. A Victorian prefab of sorts, it had been brought in sections from the Transvaal, adorned – in the course of its reconstruction on Glosha Road – with intricate trellising and elaborate fascia, which supported a great, bushy tangle of tea roses and honeysuckle. Mrs Stuart had moved there as a young widow, obliged to leave The Rectory when her husband, the vicar, died. Among the reliquiae of Empire she brought with her was a bayonet used in the Boer War and a boomerang, artefacts that miraculously survived the experiments to which my brothers and I subjected them.

My family didn’t hanker after the life that enclave of neo-colonial houses offered. It was threadbare by the time we came along; its sights were fixed on the past, its manners bland, ineffectual. More important, much more important, in determining our cultural allegiance was the magnetic lure of the daily-more-powerful force: America. Our house, which might – in keeping with its original aspirations – have had a retro-Raj veranda or latticed shutters added, took on instead a maritime, clapboard look, one which prompted a permanently muttering uncle to name it ‘Cape Cod’. Inside, lying awake on summer nights as the thin twang of guitars travelled across Campion’s Moor from the festival marquee in the showgrounds, I craned to hear the Hank Williams wannabe telling the whole of Rathdowney about ‘having fun on the bayou’. Did we know what a bayou was? Definitely not. What we did know, however, was that this music contained something that was in very short supply at the time: a sense of possibility. We yearned for that sense of possibility, yearned for American can-do, for American lives, for America.

The arrival of America to Campion’s Moor, in the form of a forty-one-unit designer outlet appropriately named Brand Central, is in many ways a response to that yearning. It has come to fulfil dreams not just of its own making, but our making too. There, running the length of the moor, it offers accessories for the life we wanted, or thought we wanted. Such accessories were in short supply forty years ago: an Elvis single, a steel comb. Their provenance, like that of the bayonet and the boomerang in Mrs Stuart’s house, lay in the world they evoked. They were icons of possibility, lifelines to American energy, craved antidotes to post-independence paralysis. But there was, as it turned out, no need to fret. America was on its way in force. A national television station hastened its arrival, bringing Danny Kay, Phyllis Diller, Donna Reed, Lucille Ball, Rhoda. We yearned for more. More came.

The globular lights illuminating the expansive car park of Brand Central create a nightscape evocative of one of those eerie Kubrick voids. Brand Central itself is a long single-storey building with a glass façade, its elevated deck bounded by a stainless-steel rail that gives the structure the appearance of an ocean liner that has docked in the moor. Don’t, for a moment, underestimate Rathdowney’s capacity to cope. The moor fields have been overrun and occupied by modernizing forces numerous times throughout the centuries. Originally farm land, these fields witnessed the arrival of a band of stocky vassals who, when manufacturing was still in its infancy, were rounded up to build sluice gates there. These gates diverted the moor stream westwards to the higher ground, accelerating the pace at which it roared down the mill race to turn the gigantic wheels powering the two mills in the town. When, in the 1830s, the larger of those mills was converted into a brewery, a spring at the edge of Campion’s Moor became the source of the highly prized water essential to the distinctive taste of Perry’s ale. In the early 1970s, a decade after the closure of the brewery, Campion’s Moor welcomed the Feitz family, Dutch textile manufactures, who with extensive IDA support set up a large yarn manufacturing plant on the site. The moor vibrated with a tense, persistent hum as round-the-clock production fought to hold its own against ever-increasing competition from Malaysia, Taiwan, the Indian sub-continent. It was a losing battle. The hum became intermittent in the 1980s and by the end of the decade was no longer heard. The employment crisis – particularly for women – created by its closure continued until the Morrison Group, again with extensive IDA support, opened Brand Central on the same site in 2001. What’s on offer are discounts of between 30 and 70 per cent on last season’s fashions, so what was not snapped up on high streets around the globe in the spring can be had for a snip in Rathdowney in the autumn. Historians in search of a microcosm of economic development over time, vindicating the materialist concept of history in its various stages, need look no farther than Campion’s Moor.

I learned to swim there, and much more besides. The moor’s exotic vegetation – tall, tobacco-coloured marsh irises, outcrops of sharp-edged fen reeds, thickets of spiky rushes – created a dense jungly setting which lent a nightmarish authenticity to manoeuvres against the Balubas, the Mau Mau and the Tonton Macoute. Deciding who was going to be on which side triggered more conflict than the manoeuvres themselves. Everyone wanted to be one of those ruthless, marauding, anti-imperialist guerrillas – with some voodoo know-how thrown in for good measure. Not like cowboys and Indians, where only those who felt fortunate to be included in the game in the first place readily agreed to be Indians. Being anti-imperialist offered the opportunity to plaster ourselves from head to toe with sticky riverbank mud, to hack through the undergrowth brandishing a machete, to set traps with starving boa constrictors in them. Who in their right mind would want to belong to a uniformed imperialist force, having to jump-to every time some florid-faced, moustachioed Colonel Blimp hollered?


The analogy between large, modern-day shopping malls and the gothic cathedrals of old has been current for some time now. The capacity of these buildings to inspire, to fill those who enter the hallowed space they encompass with awe, forms part of the analogy. Brand Central in Rathdowney, rather than challenge the validity of this analogy, is likely to lend further support to it. Its mall – spacious, airy, spotlessly clean – is designed along lines similar to many other malls worldwide, and so can be assumed to have similar powers to uplift and transport shoppers. But where Brand Central has the edge in upholding this analogy is the journey that must be undertaken to get there. Unlike many of the great gothic cathedrals, Brand Central is not visible from afar; indeed, it is not visible to the motorist-pilgrim until less than a minute before arrival in its car park. However, four-kilometre tailbacks in Kildare, the current national mania for road works, and – once off the main road – an adequate selection of bumps, twists and potholes, offer Dublin shopper-pilgrims all the hardship necessary to make the experience of arrival deeply cathartic.

For natives of Rathdowney, the sensation of arriving is, of course, altogether different. The town, like one of those nineteenth-century towns depicted by George Eliot, nestles quietly in low-lying pastoral land. The approach road from Abbeyleix, the route Dublin shoppers are most likely to take, leads to the top of Middlemount Hill, where the church spire, a mile or so across the plain below, first comes into view. Pilgrims, spare a thought for those for whom this town is home, those for whom that sharp spire, set against slate or sun-spangled skies, heralds yet another arrival, conjuring a galaxy of sensations as infinite as those evoked for Proust by the first sighting of the church spire at Combray.

There is another sense in which Brand Central seems at odds with the decidedly secular purpose it serves. The way people from the town and hinterland greet each other there is more formal than it is on Main Street or The Square. There is none of the casual jostling, no pucking, no one warmly roaring ‘ya-bollocks-ya’ across the aisle. The place seems to demand decorum, a reverence of sorts. Some of the older generation shake hands, behave as they might in the churchyard after Mass. To add to the confusion, these traditional exchanges can take place outside a lingerie store, with an assortment of thongs on display, very brief affairs, some no more than a Christmas decoration at the end of a shoelace, a sort of latter-day plenary indulgence. But it’s early days still. No doubt, Rathdowney will take full possession of the outlet in time, stamp it with its own inimitable label.

My own taste for shopping was sublimated into a kind of consumer voyeurism by shopping trips to nearby towns – Kilkenny, Roscrea, Thurles – with my mother and grandmother. These excursions were undertaken to buy something or other that was not available – deck-chair replacement fabric, for instance – in the well-stocked outfitters on Main Street. For my mother and grandmother, shopping was a drawn-out pleasure. It was item-led, rarely vague or random, never whimsical; the opposite in many ways to the speculative, see-what’s-there type of shopping predominant at Brand Central. The first port of call on these shopping trips was Donaghmore, the nearby village where my grandmother lived. Discussion began straight away about where the item in question – the deck-chair replacement fabric – could be bought. The merits and shortcomings of all the possible sources were outlined. Gradually, the field narrowed. Then, snap, they agreed: Moloney’s in Thurles. There, an hour later, condemned to sit on a high bentwood chair for a variety of crimes – compulsive fidgeting, climbing up the fabric stacks in an attempt to intercept the wooden cash caskets flying to and from the cashier’s kiosk, asking to be brought to the bathroom twice in twenty minutes – I had no choice but to observe the protracted finale of this transaction. After a lengthy sales pitch, the austere, slightly jowly sales assistant was beginning to accept that the newfangled nylon deck-chair replacement fabric wasn’t quite the thing. In silence the three of them looked at the swathes of it she had unrolled on the counter, as though looking at a corpse. Then, leaning towards them conspiratorially, she confided that the newly appointed stock buyer in the store was not yet fully attuned to the standard required by customers. She didn’t say ‘high’ standard or ‘customers of discernment’, but she may as well have, such was the nodding prompted by the disclosure. She wrote down our address, assuring my mother that as soon as the proper, heavy-duty cotton fabric arrived, she would be notified by post.

Happily, there are no high bentwood chairs in Brand Central, no elevated perches for customers of consequence or compulsive fidgets. There are different assumptions at play, ones in which social position and biography play little or no part. The main assumption is brand belief and brand appreciation. This is what binds customer and staff together. Belief is particularly evident in the sales personnel brought in by parent companies to kick-start the operation here. These brand zealots speak a specialized language, one in which the name of their label recurs at short, fixed intervals. This – to use the idiom they share with a sizable proportion of their customers – is so not Rathdowney. If they remain they will, no doubt, become less robotic, more anecdotal and, in time – who knows? – more Rathdowney than Rathdowney itself? It was heartening, in the course of buying a pair of shoes there recently, to encounter some familiar indigenous humour. ‘I think I’ll take this one,’ I said, picking up a shoe – Gillroy & Hastings – from among the four or five I had tried on. After a short, stagey pause the sales assistant from up the road said, ‘I’ll get the match of it inside, if you like.’ Momentarily thrown by the ‘if you like’ bit, I looked at him, prompting him to add, ‘That’s if you want the two.’

This kind of humour is an acquired taste, one which assumes a shared delight in subverting the given order. Not so much post-colonial as plain old colonial baggage finding new expression in this outpost of dollar imperialism.

Until recently there was a degree of anxiety in the town about the relatively small number of retailers that had set up in the outlet and the absence of an ‘anchor’ tenant. The arrival of a giant – Reebok – in March of this year not only put an end to this anxiety but triggered speculation about the possible arrival of other giants. The future of the outlet began to seem secure. Rathdowney is, of course, well aware that many of these giants are marauding corporations that, in an attempt to keep costs to a minimum, prey on low-cost labour enclaves around the world. But this town was very badly hit by the two big waves of post-war emigration, and the employment offered by the outlet is significant, so questions about the ethics of manufacturing in the globalized economy generally remain unasked.

The flotilla of outsize designer carrier-bags moving across Campion’s Moor, particularly at weekends, must be regarded as a measure of activity, but what about satisfaction? Given the extent to which shopping has become a surrogate activity, this may well be impossible to measure. How, for instance, can the satisfaction derived from ‘rage’ shopping be accurately gauged? ‘When Brad and I split up, I was so angry I just had to buy that Versace dress.’ Could the dress be unwearable, but the act of buying it profoundly satisfying? If the dress is worn, is it worn only in anger? Then there is revenge shopping – Visa sprees in retaliation for golfing week-ends – pick-me-up shopping, despair shopping, and so on. It may well be that shopping is now so routine a response to other needs that the issue of customer satisfaction can only be adequately addressed within the context of individual psychoanalytic investigation.

My own extended family did manage to reach consensus on the outlet’s capacity to meet the expectations aroused by its promoters, but not straight away and not without a fair deal of palaver. There were a few dummy runs in the opening weeks; items bought offhand, whimsical judgements made, all paving the way for the very considered opinion my mother, it was generally felt, would offer. Veteran shopper of unquestionable discernment, she quietly played the field, arriving home one afternoon with a pair of calf-length boots by Joseph. They had been reduced from some outlandish price – could it have been £400? – to £60. But that’s not the point, at least not the full point, because, as she herself is inclined to caution, ‘A bargain isn’t a bargain unless you require the item in the first place.’ The point is that the boots were in every sense ‘the thing’. A shade lighter than episcopal purple, with a minimalist heel and little or no ornamentation, they were, it seems, totally au courant. For a week or so they were on exhibition, a testament to the power of the outlet to deliver. During that period the house became a sort of shrine to Mammon, where daughters, daughters-in-law and granddaughters came to pay homage in a jocular sort of way.

The arrival of Brand Central in Rathdowney is a boon for the town, a cause for celebration at local level, but a cause for concern at a global level. Were it located anywhere but here, the centre of the world, then I would like to think that these global concerns would loom larger in my own response to it. Local allegiances have a way of eclipsing the global picture, creating what is perhaps a false confidence in the capacity of the local to endure.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 7 Summer 2002