Brave faces and bargains amid the ruins

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The Independent Online
MOORE'S department store was a bit of an institution in Coleraine - a big old traditional shop that still stocked cotton reels and needles, the sort of thing the multiples don't bother with anymore.

It opened in 1925, and John, the son of the founder, took it over in the Forties. Seven family members work there. Over the years, Moore's expanded to 20,000 square feet, employing 40 people. This year the building had a half- million-pound refurbishment.

The IRA van bomb went off a month ago, on Friday 13 November, blasting the town hall and the buildings all around. It had been left at the other end of the Moore's block, and at first it seemed that the store had had a miraculous escape. The blast had gone in some directions but not in others, and Moore's windows were intact.

One of the family, Neville, opened the security shutters to let firemen in. 'At that stage you could have walked in the front door,' he recalled. 'All the displays were intact and untouched. But then the fire started to come through from the back . . . it suddenly came down the stairs with a tremendous whoosh, and really got a grip.'

Next morning, a woman member of staff fainted when she saw the scene. Only the store's outer walls were still standing. Inside was an enormous heap of blackened, wet, smouldering rubble. Nearly 70 years of tradition had gone.

The rest of the block has now been demolished, leaving a sea of mud in what used to be the busiest shopping block in Coleraine. Last week, the town was struggling to make the most of what is left of the Christmas shopping season. There were a fair few shoppers around, some attracted by the bomb- damage sales advertised on boarded- up windows. One newspaper advertisement announces cheerily: 'What's gone up now comes down.'

A sprightly matron from out of town, who had just bought her daughter a bag in such a sale, said: 'It's sad when you see the big empty space there. It would have made you weep the first day. The shops are quite busy but they haven't great stock, they've nothing left really to sell just yet. It was such a prosperous town, friendly and relaxed.'

Like a surprisingly large number of other places in Northern Ireland, Coleraine had been largely untouched by the troubles. It is 17 years since anyone was killed in the mainly Protestant town. A local newspaper noted sadly: 'For so long we have had the luxury of telling prospective visitors that we are exempt from the horrors that have afflicted the rest of the province.'

Now the papers talk of Black Friday.

The town centre now looks like Coventry after the Blitz. The town hall, right next to the blast, was almost wrecked. Its windows and doors are boarded up, its sandstone exterior pitted by shrapnel. The roof rose in the air and came down again, smashing some heavy rafters. In a gallant attempt to create a Christmas atmosphere, the council has put festive decorations over some of the hardboard and broadcasts seasonal music from loudspeakers.

The all-glass front of the Northern Bank has become an all-hardboard front. The words 'business as usual' are everywhere. Warren Frew's fruit and grocery shop is enterprisingly conducted from two mobile classrooms in a car park. Mr Frew, 26, said: 'Our business is about halved, because we were in a prime spot and now we're off the main road. But we're hoping our regular customers will find us again.'

John McClements runs an interesting bookshop in a small street between the town centre and a large car park. Damage to his doors and windows has been repaired but he now faces a much longer-term problem. Because of an unsafe building, a wooden barricade has been erected across the street, transforming a handy little cut into a dead end.

He has been left stranded, the passing trade gone. 'On Friday I had one customer, who bought one book, for pounds 1.50. That was it, the worst day I've had in the 16 years I've been here. No one can tell me how long the barricade is going to say up.'

Moore's is already trading again, having taken over other premises. But it will take two years to rebuild on their old site. Meantime they have had to pay off half their staff: 20 people who have received, courtesy of the IRA, the bitter Christmas present of unemployment.

(Photograph omitted)