'It’s like I can’t breathe': Workers tell personal stories of heartbreak at Debenhams closure

'It’s like I can’t breathe': Workers tell personal stories of heartbreak at Debenhams closure
Debenhams staff keep their social distance outside the premises on Patrick street, Cork. Included are from left, Sarah Gleeson, Marie Horgan, Chris Wall, Miriam Geaney, Valerie Condon, Mary Murphy, Madeline Whelan, Erica O’Mahony Julette Sheehan and Vivian O’Regan. Picture Dan Linehan

The closure of the landmark Debenhams store in the city centre has left workers reeling.

Here, staff members, many who spent their entire careers in the Patrick's Street store, speak out about the heartbreak and anger the closure has caused. 

Staff were informed about the closure via email last week.

Vivian O'Regan
Vivian O'Regan

VIVIAN O’REGAN: "I spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday crying."

Vivian from Glanmire has been with Debenhams, and prior to that Roches Stores, for 27 years.

She began working in the Patrick’s Street store just after her Leaving Cert.

“I started a six-hour contract as a night packer — two hours on a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays,” she said, and progressed from there.

When Debenhams took over, Vivian was out on maternity leave. Coming back she moved to womenswear and “fell into the role of personal shopper”.

“I love my job. I love everything about it. I love mingling and mixing with people. It’s different every day. Helping people. I love the staff, they’re all like family,” Vivian said.

“Even the bad things in my life — even losing my mother, going in there helped me through that with my friends.

“No matter what, good times or bad times, I loved going into the place. I really did.”

However, all of that security came crashing down late last week when Debenhams staff received an email informing them that Irish stores wouldn’t be reopening.

Vivian called it “sneaky and underhanded”.

“I spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday crying. I’ve known nothing else.

“It’s just the fear now. How am I going to get a CV? How am I going to get an interview? Who’s going to take me on?

“The fear is just like a weight on my heart. What happens now with us all?” Vivian asked.

“What a time they choose to do it. My eldest is doing her Leaving Cert. I have all the uncertainty of that. I have a communion cancelled. My husband is self-employed, so it’s just everything on top of me. It’s like I can’t breathe.”

Sarah Gleeson
Sarah Gleeson

SARAH GLEESON: "You’d laugh together in there, you’d cry together in there."

Good memories and laughs were not hard to come by for staff at Debenhams.

Sarah Gleeson, who’s originally from Greenmount but who is now living in Blarney Street, told The Echo about her fancy dress one Christmas.

“I couldn’t think of anything to dress up as,” Sarah said, “So, one of the girls came up with an idea and said I should dress up as our Christmas Debenhams bag.

“I decided to go along with it, and I got a hanger box, and I painted it. My uncle worked in Debenhams as well at the time and he wired it with lights and the whole lot.

“One of the other girls came in as a Christmas tree and we walked around for the day dressed up, and the customers absolutely loved it,” she said.

Sarah has been in the Debenhams store on Patrick’s Street for 15 years, having started the week after her sixteenth birthday. She described it as “the best job ever”.

“It was more the people than anything else. You could go in, no matter what your mood was, and there was always someone that would cheer you up.

“It was a place outside your home where you could talk to people. You could rant away, you could tell them anything, and nothing was ever an issue,” she said.

“You’d laugh together in there, you’d cry together in there. It was like a dysfunctional family,” she added.

However, Sarah said that the way staff were informed they wouldn’t have jobs to go back to after the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t fair, and felt the company were putting emphasis on their UK stores, leaving the Irish staff as an afterthought.

“We all found out the exact same way. It was the way the email was written.

“There was no emotion or anything put into the email about the loss of our jobs. It was almost like: in other news, we’re liquidating the Irish stores,” she said.

However, only staff directly employed by Debenhams were actually informed.

“They didn’t contact any of the concessions head offices. They didn’t contact any of the make up house’s head offices. A lot of the concession and cosmetic staff would have found out through either social media or through word of mouth.

“I told somebody that works in cosmetics and they got on to their company. Their company knew nothing about it. It was them telling their company what had happened.”

Valerie Conlon
Valerie Conlon

VALERIE CONLON: “When I got the email I was in the car with my husband."

Valerie Conlon is one of the Mandate trade union shop stewards in Debenhams on Patrick’s Street.

She’s been working in the store for 24 years.

Having spoken with trade union representatives, letters have been sent to Debenhams chief executive Stefaan Vansteenkiste and John Bebbington, director of Debenhams Retail Ireland, asking them to suspend the liquidation of the company in Ireland.

Staff will have no idea of details of any potential severance packages until the liquidators, understood to be KPMG, get involved.

The generic email sent to staff informing them of their job losses is something that doesn’t sit well with her. 

“I feel if the store was closed, even after all this, they could call staff in and then announce it rather than sending out something so impersonal,” she said. 

“When I got the email I was in the car with my husband.

“We had gotten stopped by the guards asking where we were going.

“I just started cursing and the poor guard was just looking at me. It was just such a shock,” she added.

However, there were plenty of good times for Valerie in Debenhams and Roches too.

“In Roches Stores I was in the shoes, and we used to have our Friday’s where we would sneak our sweets and drinks into the stock room. If we were caught we would be killed!” she laughed.

She spoke of another staff member who had moved to the Mahon Point store. 

“She used to love going around giving people a fright. She could pop out of anywhere. You’d be walking around and next thing she’d pop out in front of you.”

Madeline Whelan.
Madeline Whelan.

MADELINE WHELAN: "We went above and beyond for them."

“Not alone have we grown up together, we’ve grown old together,” Madeline Whelan said of her colleagues in Debenhams, where she’s worked for the last 30 years.

“We are like a big family in there, we all have each other’s backs. Birthdays, marriages, divorces, we’ve been there for the whole lot.

“We had great times,” she said.

Asked about her fondest memories over the years, Madeline said the staff standing together through the transition from Roches Stores to Debenhams was one that stood out.

“We went into the unknown when we went from Roches Stores into Debenhams. At the time, we stood together through good times and bad. We fought together to try and keep the shop and keep our jobs at that stage,” she said.

“There’s just a great bond in there. Everyone’s friends. Even the customers. We all have our favourites that we see every day. If they don’t come in for a few days we wonder where they are,” she says.

Then, last Thursday, Madeline was on her way to the bank when she got a text from a colleague telling her to check her email. Debenhams had told staff Irish stores wouldn’t be reopening.

“I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I opened the email, I fell against the wall nearly. I was just stunned. It’s kind of heartbreaking, and the fact they’ve done it around this time. We don’t have the support of each other,” Madeline says.

“We went above and beyond for them. The terms and conditions [of contracts] never came into it. We bent over backwards for them. I don’t know how many times we did stuff that we shouldn’t have been doing, but we were happy to help. They’re shipping out. They saw the perfect opportunity, and they ran.”

Erica O’Mahony.
Erica O’Mahony.

ERICA O'MAHONEY: "We’re all going to miss our friendships."

Erica O’Mahoney from Blackpool has been working for Debenhams since 2007 when she was 27.

“When I first started I was mad to get into display. Debenhams were a new company in Cork and they were big into window dressing, and they had a visual theme. I sent them my CV,” she told The Echo.

She and her colleagues at Debenhams have experienced many milestones in life over their time in the store.

“I was 27 when I started in visuals in 2007. In the length of time I have been there, there have been huge changes in my life. 

"I got married, I had children. It was always great to go back to work to your familiar faces.

“I think we’re all going to miss it. We’re all going to miss our friendships. We built great friendships over the years. This is a sad ending to it.

“We just feel the manner in which it was done wasn’t nice at all.

“It was just kind of a slap in the face to continue with their website in Ireland,” she says.

As regards her favourite memories of her time in Debenhams, Erica points towards the staff Christmas parties which were “great banter”.

Staff didn’t need a Christmas party to enjoy themselves, however.

“We would always have a great laugh and a chat at our lunchtime tables. We were all a great little extended family really,” Erica says.

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