24 hours on O'Connell Street: Daytime
All Irish life is here: workers, addicts, preachers, buskers, tourists, revellers, friends and lovers. A weekend on Ireland’s main street starts off gently
I walk down O’Connell Street in Dublin every day. With its lovely width, trees and monuments, it should be a destination, but most people are passing through, as I am. Shoppers, clubbers, tourists and commuters generally go there on their way to somewhere else.
There are different worlds on O’Connell Street. Groups of foreign workers socialise in the casinos dotted between the disused buildings on the northwest side of the street. Well-heeled people visit the Gresham hotel across the road. There’s an unofficial drugs market on the stretch between North Earl Street and Lower Abbey Street. Homeless, addicted and heartbroken people congregate there during the day and disappear at night. Across the road religious people of different denominations evangelise, philosophise and debate at the GPO.
These groups interact only occasionally and seem invisible to each other. At night, between the hours the pubs close and the nightclubs end, it’s a surprisingly lonely, quiet place.
There are some hopeless people on O’Connell Street, but there are also a lot of kind people there: the flower-seller I met who buys food for young homeless people every morning, the McDonald’s security man who checks if passersby are okay at night, the old woman who recited a poem for me. As the newspaper seller Austin Cregan says, “All human life is here.”
Well, all human life is funny and strange and dignified and debased and moving . . . and, after 24 hours, overwhelming. Like O’Connell Street.
“I had a man in the back of the cart last week,” says Phil O’Brien, a street cleaner with Dublin City Council. On the stretch of O’Connell Street between North Earl Street and Lower Abbey Street, he explains, drug dealers hide drugs in the bins, and the man was rooting through the rubbish looking for his drugs.
I didn’t want to delve straight into O’Connell Street’s drug problem in this article, but the street cleaners at the depot are eager to talk about it. O’Brien has had drug addicts asking him for used needles. All the cleaners are terrified of having their fingers pricked by syringes.
O’Connell Street is empty, cold and surprisingly clean. A few early risers are going to work with McDonald’s coffee cups in their hands. O’Brien gives me a go of his Manulek electric cart. I hit the forward button. It jerks forward. There’s a big red emergency-stop button in the middle. “You have to be careful of kids messing with it,” he says.
Later, during his break, O’Brien might have a breakfast roll. For a while the men pooled their resources in the morning, buying a heap of sausages and rashers and making a fry-up. “But it got a bit out of hand,” says O’Brien. “They’d be doing lamb burgers and lamb chops at 9am. I told my wife, and she said, ‘You’ll be dead in a year.’ So we knocked it on the head.”
One of the best things about his job, he says, is when an old person comes up and says, ‘Well done, son, keeping the street clean.’ It’s nice to be appreciated,” he says, and he beams.
7.15am THE NEWSPAPER SELLER
The street is getting busy. Austin Cregan has worked the news stand at the junction of Abbey Street for 40 years. His late father had the stand before him, and his grandfather had it before that. “There were once 40 newspaper sellers on this street, selling from satchels and prams,” he says. “Now there are two.”
He’s talking to one of his regulars about the antisocial behaviour on the street.
“I’ve been 35 years passing every day,” says the customer, clutching a copy of F Spencer Chapman’s “out of print classic” The Jungle Is Neutral. “I’ve never seen it so bad.”
Cregan agrees. “Ah, it is a most holy life of poverty and suffering,” he says. He’s given to wry philosophical pronouncements.
I sit in the Kylemore cafe and watch the street. It’s bright. The commuters seem less hurried. A young woman with pink hair walks by with a cat in a box. A little red-and-white canvas hut goes up beside the Spire.
“Ah, let me go up,” I plead with the men beside the red-and-white hut. They’re a maintenance team for the Spire. They tell me I would need to organise that through Dublin City Council.
I escort Austin Barry from O’Connell Street to FX Buckley’s butchers on Talbot Street, where the 81-year-old comes to get his “sausages and bits”. Barry has been blind for five years. He grew up in a tenement on Gardiner Street. “Seven in one room: [we] ate and slept and my mother had babies in that room. After the North Strand bombing they started moving us out. We went to Cabra West.”
He remembers O’Connell Street in the 1930s. “There used to be a first-aid hut near the Gresham hotel,” he says. “If you got a split head you went and got stitched up.” He used to window-shop in Nobblets sweet shop, but he could never afford to go in. “So I’d pick up cigarette butts on the street and break them up and roll them. I was about nine. It was a fancy street. There were nice big cigarette butts on O’Connell Street in those days.”
Godwin Ibe from Nigeria is distributing Christian leaflets near the GPO before going to work in a cafe on Moore Street. He does this every morning. “People usually ignore me,” he says. “But it’s important that we preach Christ and that there is heaven and there is hell. People need to know we are living in sin and that we can be saved. Sometimes people come up and say there is no God. It’s very annoying.”
“A few years ago I saw a naked man strolling down Abbey Street across O’Connell Street,” says Austin Cregan, the newspaper seller. “If a fella’s doing a streak he’ll have shoes. This guy didn’t. And he wasn’t rushing. He walked up Abbey Street, reached Wynn’s Hotel, changed his mind and came back and went up across the bridge.” He laughs.
He says he sometimes wishes he had a good camera. “I was here when the first Luas rolled down the street. I saw the Luas crash. There was a woman last week who got stuck in that bin. She’d hidden drugs there and nearly went all the way into it trying to get them. It was very funny.” What does he like best about the street? “The people. But the old characters are gone: Bang Bang, Yup, Captain Von Sausage . . . And you should see it early on a clear frosty morning. The dark-blue sky as the light comes up the street hitting the Spire. It’s magnificent.”
11.30am BUMMING CIGARETTES FROM BUSKERS
Two guitarists, Bobby Coyne and Liviu Lucaci, are setting up on the junction of Henry Street to play blues for the shoppers. Coyne is a Castlebar man. Lucaci is Romanian and has very little English. “Not Garda,” Coyne says to Lucaci, who’s looking at me curiously. “Journaliste”. Most gardaí are very pleasant, says Coyne, but there’s one who always moves them on. “I think he just hates music.”
Lucaci opens a packet of cigarettes. Three people come up, one after another, asking for cigarettes. He obliges. “Happy New Year,” says one woman, who seems stoned. She shakes all our hands. “You have to hide your cigarettes on O’Connell Street,” says Coyne. “It’s like a currency here.” Lucaci has spent his life as a professional musician, and Coyne is a little in awe of him. “I don’t even know the names of half the songs,” he says. “Liviu was a very successful musician in Romania. I don’t know what happened . . . If there was someone who could translate he’d tell you stories.”
The historian and tour guide Pat Liddy, whose tours operate from the Dublin Bus offices, laments the passing of the old O’Connell Street, a place filled with ballrooms, cinemas and shops designed for window shopping. Some people date the street’s decline to the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar, he says, but it’s more complicated than that. He blames ill-suited modern buildings, a change in the type of businesses and the end of its time as a residential street. He misses the more mature trees and the pied wagtails that nested there. And he dislikes the Spire but admits a bias: he submitted a design for the monument himself. “But it’s a lovely wide street with loads of potential,” he says. “It could still be a very fine street.”
1.05pm ARGUING ABOUT THE VIRGIN MARY
Beside the GPO John Moore, a retired accountant, is having an animated discussion with a man called Jim. Jim seems angry. Every Friday, Moore and his friend George Dalton come up from Laois to give out plastic rosary beads to passersby. John began doing this 20 years ago in Birmingham, when he gave up trying to get his daughters to go to Mass and decided to try his hand with strangers instead. On the other hand, Jim, a born-again Christian, believes praying to the Virgin Mary is idolatrous.
“We get torture from the likes of [Jim],” Dalton says with a sigh. “In Medjugorje the Lady appears every evening at 6.40,” he tells me, clearly feeling this should be the end of the discussion.
The argument goes on, broken only when two young men in tracksuits come up. One has his arm in a cast. The other has tattoos on his neck “How much are the rosary beads?” asks the man with the cast.
“We’ll give you them for nothing,” says George.
“Are you sure?” the man asks. He looks surprised.
“God bless you, we appreciate it,” says the man with tattoos.
They put the rosary beads around their necks. The man with the tattoos is Darrell Kirwan, who is 20. The tattoos on his neck are of a skull and the shape of his “mot’s lips”. He’s homeless for “reasons I don’t want to see in print”. His friend, John Melia, has been on the streets since his mother’s house was repossessed.
“Why do you want rosary beads?”
“Something he showed me last night put God in my brain,” says Kirwan. “He says he always carries a . . . Show him.”
Melia struggles to get something out of his cast. It’s a picture of Mary Aikenhead, the founder of the Religious Sisters of Charity. “I keep that with me. It helps get me by. No one has ever been there for me, but God’s up there, and he gives everyone a chance.”
Kirwan nods. “I’m due to get some slaps in about an hour because I owe money for weed. I’m hoping this will help me out,” he says. “But you don’t ask God for favours. You ask him for the wisdom to be true to yourself. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
“I hope you don’t get slaps,” I hear myself saying on the recording later. It sounds pathetic and ineffectual. I give him €15, and he hugs me.
“This Celtic Tiger is terrible,” says Dalton sadly when the young men leave. The conversation between Jim and Moore has mellowed a bit. Jim seems to have concluded that the real problem is “the Muslims”.
2pm DRUG DEALS OUTSIDE STARBUCKS
I take shelter from the rain in Starbucks and stare out of the window. Lots of people are just hanging out on the stretch between Abbey Street and North Earl Street now. Very young men arrive in conspiratorial huddles of twos and threes. Cards of tablets are occasionally passed from one person to another. Sometimes the groups swells to a larger group of eight or nine, usually with one sitting a little way away, leaning on a bin surveying the street.
In these moments they’re like any group of young people: they hug and flirt and horse around. Then suddenly the group disperses, before re-forming just as inexplicably a while later.
Older people, or at least people who look older, sometimes join them. At one point a middle-aged woman, who looked as if she was just out shopping, stops to get tablets.
At another a haggard woman spends five minutes pleading for something while a young man laughs in her face.
Across the street Moore and Dalton are still giving out rosary beads in the rain.
Gardaí are searching some of the young men near Starbucks. One of them has opened his jacket wide and is ostentatiously pulling his pockets out. The gardaí move them on.
At the Dublin Bus ticket office Martin Doherty from East Wall points to all the empty sites and derelict buildings, all with planning notices “held up in court for one reason or another. But it’s a great old street. I love the GPO and the Gresham. When I was growing up that was the hotel. I vowed I’d stay there sometime. And I have.”
The home-time commute has commenced. There are kids in school uniform. A kind cyclist drops his bike with a clatter and rushes to help a taxi driver push his taxi, which has broken down.
4.20pm UNDER CLERY’S CLOCK
Under Clery’s clock 71-year-old Andy Nolan tells me about the days when he used to meet dates here, or at the Metropole across the road.
“When was the last time you met someone under Clerys’ clock?” I ask.
“Today,” he says, before feigning disappointment. “But it was you.”
Nolan worked for Dublin City Council and, once upon a time, was a craftsman at the Harry Clarke studio. He’s here with his friend Helen McGuigan, an occupational therapist. “She watches out while I shoplift,” says Nolan. He’s joking.
“We’re actually here because we were worried about Clerys, ” says McGuigan. “We were hoping they were getting business.” McGuigan – who was, in Nolan’s words, “deported from Australia” in 1982 – likes O’Connell Street a lot. She passes through most days, and often drops into the philatelic section in the GPO. “It’s the only place you can get all the back issues of the year’s stamps,” she says. “My mother collects them.”
Mosaab Alsuwaishel, a thoughtful Kuwaiti medical student who is manning the Discover Islam stall at the GPO, tells me I’ve just missed an arrest. “Two plain-clothes gardaí, a man and a woman, pulled the guy to the ground.”
He has been chatting to Keith Armstrong, “a believer in Jesus”.
“We were having a wide-ranging discussion,” says Armstrong. “I’ve found that as Ireland becomes more secular there is less interest in spiritual matters. Muslims are generally very interested in spiritual matters, so I like talking to them.”
Most people ignore us, says Alsuwaishel, and some people come up to argue. “They regurgitate things they’ve seen on TV about Islam.” He likes the more philosophical discussions. “When you’re trying to explain something it gives you a more panoramic view, I think.”
Beneath the awning of Austin Cregan’s news stand five people are taking shelter from the rain. Ann Moroney, a regular customer, thinks O’Connell Street looks great. “I was really against the moving of the big trees, but actually I think the small ones are really successful, and the island in the middle of the street is a success,” she says. “There’s a lot of life on the street.”
“All human life is here all right,” Cregan says with a sigh.
“The lack of seats on the street is a disgrace, though,” says Moroney.
“And the lack of public toilets,” says Cregan.
Cregan’s friend Ann Nolan is also here. “Ah, it’s good craic,” she says. “The other day a guy came up and said, ‘Could you give me a loan of the Star?’ ‘Not ‘Can I buy the Star?’ but ‘Give me a loan of the Star.’ And Austin gave it to him.” She chuckles.
“Did he bring it back?” asks Moroney.
“He did,” says Cregan. “The next day.”