A little Italy in Ireland
Many of Ireland’s Italian population – which numbers about 9,000 – arrived during the boom. Seven Irish-Italians tell ALANNA GALLAGHERhow they feel about their adopted country
THE ‘IRLANDIANI’, the Italians in Ireland, make up a small but influential community that can trace its roots back to navigator Christopher Columbus, the first Italian of note said to have visited these shores. A small monument to him has been erected in Galway city. Most of the next wave of Italians were economic migrants, but not all.
Some helped transform Big Houses with their stucco work. In the 18th century, the plasterwork of the Swiss-Italian Francini brothers set a new bar in the decorative arts. Their work can be viewed on the ceilings of Iveagh House, now the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in Dublin. The work was a prototype for two other commissions; 85 St Stephen’s Green and Carton House in Co Kildare.
Other Italians of note include Charles Bianconi, who set up Ireland’s first public transport system in the 1800s; Joe Nannetti, who became Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1906; and the National Gallery’s chief conservator, Sergio Benedetti, who discovered The Taking of Christ, a lost masterpiece by Caravaggio in the Jesuits’ house of studies on Leeson Street in the 1990s.
Statistically, the number of Italians in Ireland now approximates 9,000, some 6,000 of whom moved here during the boom years, says author and editor of Italian Video News, Concetto la Malfa. “Before that, the majority of this first wave of Italians to Ireland came from Valle di Comino, in the province of Frosinone in the Italian region Lazio, south of Rome and north of Naples. Seventy per cent of this community was involved in the fish and chip business and of them, 70 per cent were based in Dublin.” But since the boom, the Italian community has tripled. Many work as professionals as well as in the more traditional food and coffee industries.
Love at first cappuccino
Roman Leandro Virgilio came here to learn English at the age of 25. “When I came here first, I didn’t have a word of English,” he says. “Dublin was much more laid-back than Rome so I stayed and started working at several eateries within the Bar Italia Group, including La Corta in the Epicurean Food Hall on Middle Abbey Street and the sister cafe in the IFSC.” He also gained worked at Dunne and Crescenzi before being asked to manage the Caffé di Napoli on Westland Row. It was there that he met his girlfriend, Daria Santill. She used to come in for her morning cappuccino. He asked her out after the first week of meeting her.
Coffee to Get Her is the Italian cafe they set up together in the Bernard Shaw pub on Richmond Street in Dublin.
“Irish people love Italian coffee but costs are an ongoing problem. Coffee in Ireland is more expensive than in Italy but costs are higher than in Italy. A barista in Ireland gets paid €40 per day. That is not the case in back home.” His favourite Italian restaurant is Campo De’Fiori in Bray, Co Wicklow.
Sicilian Concetto La Malfa came to Ireland in 1965 on work experience. An economics student, he worked with Aer Lingus during his final year in college. Back then, flying was still glamorous.
He already had good English, thanks to the work of an American-Italian teacher at secondary school. He was vetted for the job by a Captain Madden.
“The interview lasted 30 seconds. He asked me three questions: ‘Do you like the colour green?’ ‘Do you like beer?’ and ‘Can you play a bit of guitar?’” After answering “yes” to all three, the captain told him he’d be alright.
Dublin was like a mortuary compared to Catania in Sicily, but the bohemian atmosphere of the pubs was unique, says La Malfa. “I saw two realities in Ireland, that inside the pub and that outside of the pub.”