One of Stephen Kennedy’s favourite things to do right before he arrives into his cafe, Copper+Straw on Aston Quay in Dublin, is to look down the Liffey and watch the early morning sun light up the buildings that line the river.
On a busy weekday morning, a specially-commissioned Christmas scene decorates the cafe’s main window. It’s an attempt by Kennedy to mark the upcoming festivities, but Kennedy does not feel festive.
Customers file in for their morning coffees and pastries into the popular establishment. But outside, another trade is booming. This corner of Aston Quay, beside O’Connell Bridge, is a busy drug-dealing spot.
Kennedy has two other branches, one in Bray, and another on the north side of the quays, at Arran Quay close to the Four Courts. The one Arran Quay opened in June 2021. Enjoying little footfall during the pandemic, it had a slow start, but business picked up.
By October that year, things were going sufficiently well to invest in another city centre branch, the one on Aston Quay. However, the daily challenges on Arran Quay were manageable, the ones across the river are proving very different.
Fitting out the Aston Quay premises, he noticed the level of drug-dealing going on outside, and got in touch with local gardaí. “I mean this very sincerely, the guards on the ground, I think, are fantastic,” Kennedy said.
“They were very honest with me. They said that this is going to be a challenging location, that the corner I’m on is a known area for drug-dealing and that they do a busy trade here. That did surprise me.
“It surprised me that it was known and understood that this is an area where you can get drugs, because I thought if it’s known, surely something will be done about it,” he told The Irish Times.
Once the cafe opened, Kennedy found himself calling gardaí on average three times a day, but sometimes five or six times: “Numerous drug deals, people counting money, money changing hands.
“Pills being counted out, people smoking crack, people sharing crack pipes. I don’t think I’m particularly naive, but there have been a number of occasions where I’ve been shocked by what I’ve seen, open-mouthed.”
In his fourth week, the cafe was robbed at knifepoint. Two colleagues were threatened, locked in a bathroom, and the takings grabbed from the till. Without a permanent Garda presence, the robbery was an inevitable escalation.
Now Kennedy believes he is running out of options. The drug-dealing is relentless. Over the course of 45 minutes in the cafe, around half a dozen visible drug deals took place outside the front window.
During the pandemic, the area became an unofficial Skid Row
Kennedy frequently interrupts his flow, to narrate the latest scenes unfolding outside, “There’s a deal happening right now on the corner. See? He’s counting out pills, and they’ve exchanged money.”
The drug-dealer took the cash, and the customer walked away. Inside, the cafe is an oasis. People type on laptops, friends meet up, newly arrived tourists wander in. “How can a nice Christmas window compete with that?” Kennedy said of the drug-dealing, contemplating the impact on potential customers, “it’s hard to push your way past a drug dealer. And why bother?”
Kennedy does not want to attract negative attention to Aston Quay, but something has to change. Becoming emotional, he says: “I’ve put everything into this,” he said, choking back tears.
“I’m sorry. I’ve got 18 staff. I think we run a good operation. I work 60 to 80 hours a week, that’s the truth, and I don’t mind that. I love it. But it breaks your heart,” he declares, once he can resume.
“I can handle trading in a competitive environment, or trying to come up with a clever marketing idea for shoppers around Christmas, I can deal with price increases, but this stuff isn’t in my control.”
Sean Crescenzi opened the restaurant he is co-owner of, Happy Endings, a neighbour of Copper+Straw, in April 2021. It’s yet another new business that has sprung up in the area, more orientated towards those living in the city, rather than some of the more tourist-focused hospitality businesses in Temple Bar.
What was happening on Aston Quay was immediately visible.“Basically, these are all vulnerable people in society,” Crescenzi said. “During the pandemic, the area became an unofficial Skid Row. It wasn’t policed much, and a lot of hotels in Temple Bar were housing people who are homeless. So inevitably, the businesses are suffering, because the vulnerable in society are suffering.
“These are people in desperate need. Temple Bar is a 24-hour mecca of drugs and booze for anyone with addiction issues. The first thing you need to do is take people away from that. As long as that commerce is happening – and it’s very efficient – you’re not going to fix anything. You have to get people out of that scenario first ... If you have a housing crisis, if you don’t have effective rehabilitation, and if the drugs are getting cheaper, which they are, then that’s essentially a holy trinity that combines to create the issue we’re seeing.”
“Wild” is how Crescenzi described the context at street level on Aston Quay. “I grew up on Pearse Street, so I know town. I don’t know if I’ve just got used to it, but I bet if you’re not from town, and you stood out on the quays for a day, you’d be horrified.”
What is different in 2022, compared to Crescenzi’s previous experience of working in the area, are the drugs being sold and taken. “The big issue we’re not dealing with, is heroin,” he explained, “We’re dealing with crack and meth. That is a different ballgame. It’s different in frequency of use, it’s different in how you take it, and then how you act. If you’re a heroin user, then you need a desk, so to speak, an area where you can take heroin, that’s why you see people taking heroin down laneways. Crack and meth, you smoke out of pipes. I had a guy the other day walk into the middle of the restaurant just to get wind cover, light a crack pipe, and walk out.”
Behind Aston Quay is Bedford Lane. Over a decade ago, a Temple Bar artist collective, the Icon Factory, transformed the lane into an open-air art gallery, called the Icon Walk, popular with street art tours and other tourist groups. But this laneway is also beset by issues due to drug-dealing and drug-taking.
Something needs to be done about the problem at this stage, where it has grown into violence, illegal activity, drug-dealing, drug-taking. That can’t just be accepted
In September, over two dozen local business-owners signed a letter authored by a local tourist business asking for assistance and support in tackling crime on Bedford Lane. The letter called for increased resourcing for gardaí, and programmes to target addiction, following a litany of “shocking incidents recently, which have damaged our ability and that of other businesses to operate in Temple Bar near this location”.
Aga Szot, the Icon Factory artist who spearheaded the Icon Walk initiative, said the pandemic was “a disaster” for the area. “We were closed, but I was still working in the studio, and it was shocking what was going on. Yesterday I was leaving work and there were 10 or 15 people dealing on the corner. I have videos and photos from my studio from the last few months, and what’s on the cameras, it’s like you’re watching a crime movie ... I hear people saying people are offered crack on the street here for €5.”
Szot wrote to multiple Dublin TDs. “None of them apart from Sinn Féin responded. Chris Andrews actually came down here and he listened, and he was compassionate and he said he’d try to bring it to attention. But something needs to be done on a higher level. The Government needs to do something.”
Szot said she has noticed an increase in police presence in the last two months, but believes the issue is so complex, gardaí alone can’t solve it. “It’s an open drug market. I don’t feel safe. People are violent. People are fighting over drugs. Sometimes I can’t get into the studio or leave because there are 10 guys dealing ... I just feel so, so sorry for these people. I feel so sad for them. You get into addiction and without any help there can be no way out.”
As Crescenzi sees it, Dublin city’s quays are almost a kind of border zone, one lacking a cohesive sense of place, with the crime that’s endemic on this border exacerbating the capital’s divide.
“There are two cities in Dublin city, and everybody knows this,” Crescenzi said, “There’s the north side and the south side. The issue for the quays, is that it’s almost like a border situation. If you stand on O’Connell Bridge, you don’t feel like you’re in the centre of town, you feel like you’re on a border. It’s such a pity, because as long as these problems are there, literally on the border of the city, how can you ever bridge a gap between north and south?
The An Garda Síochána said they “are aware of complaints of drug-dealing and anti-social behaviour in the Aston Quay and Bedford Lane areas of Dublin” and recognise the impact it has on local businesses and residents.
The Garda’s Operation Citizen, is to reassure citizens, visitors and local business, and spoke of “dedicated patrols to be put in place in areas of concern” with resources deployed “to ensure the delivery of high visibility policing initiatives”, and that a number of “significant arrests” have recently been made in the area.
But at a time of stretched garda resources, the daily reality looks quite different. Recently, gardaí occasionally drop into Copper+Straw in the mornings. But Crescenzi identified the hours between 2pm and 4pm as when most of the illegal activity takes place. On the day Kennedy’s Christmas window was being painted, with frequent drug-dealing ongoing on Aston Quay, a short walk away on O’Connell Street, two gardaí next to a parked garda van, kept watch over a network of railings placed in the middle of the street where an encampment of tents was recently cleared.
Kennedy said he is speaking out as “an act of desperation. It’s me trying to think: what can I do to just give my business a fighting chance?”
Before he ran cafes, Kennedy worked to help deprived adults get into higher education. “I understand socio-economic disadvantage and intergenerational issues around lack of access to education and how that causes poverty and crime,” he said.
“Early intervention, in my opinion, is the way to tackle that. But it doesn’t deal with the problem at this stage. Something needs to be done about the problem at this stage, where it has grown into violence, illegal activity, drug-dealing, drug-taking. That can’t just be accepted.”