Rewind to church bells and organs ringing in the new year
The original New Year’s festival and a different kind of street party
Leslie Taylor, ringing master of Dublin’s Christchurch Cathedral, in the bell tower. Photograph: PA
Dublin isn’t perceived as much of a town for New Year’s Eve. In recent years, the New Year’s Festival has tried to inject some energy into a date that many loathe, with outdoor concerts and fireworks. But rewind to a report published in January 1911 about New Year’s Eve celebrations, and we’re transported to a different kind of street party; the ringing of the bells from church towers – especially at Christchurch – and the customary “piercing shrieks at midnight” of the sirens of ships in the harbour.
But it’s at this point that one of the beloved customs of Dublin on New Year’s Eve failed to show: the street organists of Chancery Lane, who traditionally gathered outside their tenement doors to play for the masses. “Large numbers also visited Chancery Lane, expecting to witness the customary celebrations of the organ-grinders,” the report reads, “but they were disappointed, as for some reason the custom, which goes back many years, was not observed. Many regretted the passing away of what in previous years was one of the features of the New Year celebrations in Dublin.”
Two decades previously, in a report in January 1890, the street organs were in full swing, “The new year was celebrated in the customary fashion in the organ-grinders’ quarters in Chancery Lane. There was a great crowd there, chiefly sightseers, but everything was conducted in the usual good-humoured fashion; and no breach of the peace took place.”
What made the organ-grinders stop playing on New Year’s Eve in Dublin? Two years after The Irish Times reporter initially remarked that the custom had disappeared without explanation, another report again detailed the colourful scenes around Christchurch Cathedral, as the bells rang out at midnight, “Many had come merely to make noise, and they succeeded for the most part. Squibs, crackers, starlights, and catherine-wheels were let off on all sides; and over the crowd there was a mingled glow of red and green light as sportive boys and girls threw lighted matches through the air. Once a fine rocket soared high above its petty kindred.”
The organ-grinders of Chancery Lane were still absent, apart from one. “This time the organ-grinders of Chancery Lane remained secluded in the depths of that byway,” the report read, “One man, but only one, ventured out, and he played to a joyous crowd in a neighbouring street, not in the time-honoured position before his own door. Thus the old order changeth.”
Chancery Lane was part of what was in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Dublin’s Little Italy, also covering Little Ship Street and Werbugh Street. “Chancery Lane enjoys the unique distinction of being almost entirely given over to the tenement system,” a reporter wrote in the newspaper in 1889. “It is the metropolitan home of the Italian organ-grinder, of his Irish compatriot who affects the same interesting profession, and of a miscellaneous population whose avocations it would be difficult to describe.”
The 1911 census of the tenements of Chancery Lane throws up many Italian names: Perando, Despeosito, Marcello, Scantore, Rolleri, Gillinie, Venencia, Valerio, Marcantonio, Tedesco, Capoldi, Zapp.
That Little Italy is long gone, although today on nearby Castle Street exists the tiny Bottega Toffoli, a hidden, idiosyncratic gem of an Italian restaurant that’s been operating for years relatively under the radar.
James Joyce’s short story Eveline, which was published in 1904, and ended up in Dubliners 10 years later, immortalised the Dublin-Italian organ-grinders: “Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing . . . She remembered the last night of her mother’s illness; she was again in the close dark room at the other side of the hall and outside she heard a melancholy air of Italy.”