Dublin’s global village: ‘It’s the most multicultural part of Ireland’

Parnell Street in Dublin is home to Brazilian, Nigerian, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese and – yes – Irish businesses, so should it be designated ‘Chinatown’?

Parnell Street East is, by some margin, the most multicultural part of Dublin. Along it you can find Brazilian, south Asian, African and Chinese supermarkets (three of the latter), two African hairdressers, and African, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Irish and Chinese restaurants (eight of the latter). It is also home to both a Romanian and an African congregation who gather for evangelical services every Sunday.

It’s an old story. Newcomers to a city find cheap places to anchor and build communities, and over time one group replaces another. The earliest ethnic shops on the street were established in the late 1990s by Nigerian people (none of those original businesses are still there) but more recently Asian businesses, particularly Chinese, dominate.

There are still old staples, such as Fibber Magees rock pub, Foley’s Chemist and TJ’s Coffee House. There are also some derelict buildings including the old Welcome Inn pub, once my local, and Neary’s hotel which was, for a period in 2015 and 2016, occupied by activist squatters (it’s still empty long after their eviction).

Parnell Street in Dublin photograph by Dara Mac Dónaill
Parnell Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

But gentrification is in the air. The Luas now goes through Parnell Street, and nearby Parnell Square is destined to become a cultural quarter. Some business people have also been lobbying to have the street officially designated “Chinatown”, although some of the non-Chinese business owners have worries about being erased in this process.

I love Parnell Street and walk through it several times a week. Recently, I spoke to the people who live or work there.

The window of Dublin Mouldings contains busts of Elvis, Michael Collins and Bob Marley. There’s even a relief of the Beatles as they appeared on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A drunk man comes in the door, points at Michael Collins, and asks, “Can you do me?”

They cannot. “We make those out of moulds,” says Vera Doran, daughter of the owner, Vincent, “and we don’t have any moulds of you”.

When I meet Vincent Doran, he’s sitting at a big heater in the middle of the room wearing a brightly coloured shirt. He was born around the corner in Sean McDermott Street and spent time in industrial schools as a boy. In the 1980s, he hired a plasterer who showed him how to do this sort of ornamental plasterwork and he’s been doing it ever since.

The previous tenants were robbed regularly. Nobody robbed their shop, says Vera Doran, because the locals knew the family

He’s been here since the 1990s, originally in a property across the road, when the street was really run-down. The previous tenants of number 99 sold prams and baby clothes, and were robbed regularly. Nobody robbed their shop, says Vera, because the locals knew the family. Vincent says it’s also because they never had money on the premises.

Their main business is handmade cornicing for hotels, cafes and homes but they also have a sideline making the colourful figures showcased in the window. Their biggest seller is the White Lady, which you’ll know from window sills all over the city, who Vincent likes to call “Sue Ellen”.

He shows me a busy workshop filled with plaster dust (“Wipe your feet,” he jokes) and he recalls businesses that have come and gone: Lucky Duffy’s; Paddy’s Pet Shop; and The Blue Lion pub where his dad, who was “served and barred in every bar in the city”, played piano.

He plays music himself, he says, and whips out a harmonica to play Whiskey in the Jar. I clap along.

Parnell Street: Vera and Vincent Doran with Vincent jnr. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Parnell Street: Vera and Vincent Doran with Vincent jnr. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

At one point a well-to-do customer walks in. “I’m just in this area for the first time and it’s like downtown Bangkok,” she says. “Nobody speaks English.”

But Vincent says he likes how the street has changed. “They brought this place alive,” he says. “It used to be dead.”

“My auntie had a salon back in Nigeria and I used to go there to hang out and play as a little kid,” says Caesar Omovbude. It’s pouring rain outside but in Mighty Caesar’s barber shop, reggae is playing, hair is being cut and people are chatting.

When Omovbude, a former public servant, arrived as a refugee in the early 2000s, he had no money and wasn’t allowed to work, so would hang out at a now-closed African barbers. When he eventually got his papers, he says, he started having dreams about cutting hair. “I said to my mum on the phone, ‘I see myself in my dreams cutting hair all the time... I’m scared’,” He laughs. “She said ‘Why are you scared? Just do it!’.”

So he remembered what he’d learned at his auntie’s salon and cut hair. When an impressed Irish client offered him his own space, the opportunity both excited and terrified him. There were cables coming out of the walls and there was gravel everywhere. He got a credit union loan to get started and took a night job at a factory.

African people don’t have the same pub culture as Irish people, says Caesar Omovbude, so the barber shop is an important meeting place

African people don’t have the same pub culture as Irish people, says Omovbude, so the barber shop is an important meeting place. “I see guys who come to hang out and I remember I used to do the same thing. To talk about home, politics, religion, love affairs, where else do you go?”

A barber is also something like a counsellor, he says. “To someone who is very warm and all of a sudden is quiet, you say, ‘I hope everything is okay?’ and they might say ‘I lost my job,’ or ‘My wife sent me packing’... You give a little advice: ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be okay.’ I believe in God. I believe there is no situation that will arise that will not pass by.”

From time to time drunks smash his window or shout racist things in the door but he seems stoical about this. He last visited Nigeria many years ago and while there he realised something: “Ireland is now my home… from today onward I must start to pray for Ireland.”

Parnell Street: Caesar Omovbude. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Parnell Street: Caesar Omovbude. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Bubble tea is a very cold, milky tea with balls of chewy tapioca floating within. It is incredibly popular in many Asian countries, but it is far too sweet for me, which I tell Dennis, the Malaysian finance student behind the counter.

“Interesting,” he says, as though he finds this hard to believe.

Mosa, an Asian restaurant and café, is a bright, warm and colourful place. There’s a big teddy bear on one of the benches and there are guitars in the corners upstairs and loads of post-its affixed to the walls. Dennis has travelled a bit and likes Ireland a lot, though he says it’s very “laid back” compared to some of the “really competitive” countries in which he’s worked. When it comes to get-up-and-go he scores Malaysia a five, the Philippines a seven and Ireland a three.

“I would say this is pretty much the Asian street,” he says. “The unofficial Chinatown. They say it was Moore Street first, then Capel Street and then here.”

A young Filipino business student, Clarence Malillin, comes in and greets Dennis. “This is a hangout place for us Filipinos,” he says.

Do they get lots of young people here? “Tonnes of teenagers,” says Dennis.

Malillin was seven when he came to Ireland, and his mother works here as a nurse. He shows me the post-its on the wall, which feature pen drawings of anime characters, aphorisms and paeans to K-pop stars. “People put their name and user name and people search it up and follow them on social media,” he says.

Someone picks up a guitar and plays Blackbird by the Beatles. It’s Brendan Davis, a language teacher here with a group of Brazilians and one Mexican. I tell them I’m writing about Parnell Street. “The most multicultural part of Ireland,” says Luis Gustavo, who lives on the street.

“I lived here too,” says his friend Bruno Bastos. “My ex-girlfriend is Taiwanese so we used to have lunch in the Chinese restaurants and then come here to drink bubble tea... Before I came here, I didn’t know a lot of about Asian food.”

He came to Ireland to learn about Asian food? He laughs. He works in Liffey Valley and while he is very friendly with his Irish co-workers, they never socialise outside of work. “It’s very easy to talk to Irish people but then it’s ‘bye’ and you never see them again,” he says.

They all live relatively nearby. Is it important to them to be near somewhere multicultural? Mayumi Wauke, who is of Brazilian, Italian and Japanese heritage, says this part of town reminds her of the Japanese part of Sao Paulo. “[Being here] makes adapting to a culture easier,” says Victor Manuel from Mexico. “Most people here are in the same situation as you… This is like a neutral area.”

Hong Ming Xie, like a lot of Chinese people in Ireland, has another name that he gives to westerners: he goes by Tim. He manages the Sichuan Chilli King restaurant. There’s been a restaurant at this address for some time but there have been a few different owners. Tim came to Ireland 15 years ago, initially working at a KFC. Now he runs a Spar and manages this restaurant.

Parnell Street: Tim, aka Hong Ming Xie. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Parnell Street: Tim, aka Hong Ming Xie. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

He isn’t quite sure why Chinese businesses first started coming to Parnell Street. “I think the government has plans to move all the Chinese [businesses] down here... They want this to be a Chinese cultural street.”

He welcomes this idea. “Every big city has a Chinatown.”

How do so many Chinese restaurants survive side by side? He explains how all the cuisine is from different regions in China and that people in the community have strong preferences. He also laughs and says that his Irish-born children “like KFC and McDonald’s better.”

Theresa Daly in TJ’s Coffeehouse, where I am eating a breakfast bap, recognises the value of having the Luas on Parnell Street. She didn’t feel quite the same when the work on it caused the footpath to collapse into their basement. There’s a framed picture of a scrabble board on the wall, given to her by a customer to welcome them back after a month out of business.

She and her husband John have been here since 1988. She remembers how rough the street felt in those days and thinks the new communities have brought life to it. The multicultural nature of the area is evident from the tenants living above the cafe. “Four Nepalese on the first floor, lovely young fellas. Two Brazilians and a Romanian girl on the second floor. And on the top floor more Brazilians and one Irish person.”

Parnell Street: John Daly and his wife, Theresa. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Parnell Street: John Daly and his wife, Theresa. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Accommodation is an issue here, she says. “A lot of buildings are after going Air BnB . That suits us, because it’s Air B usually, there’s never breakfast, so when they’re walking by, we’re the first place serving.”

They’ve had some unusual drop-ins. When the rugby matches were held in Croke Park, the IRFU produced maps that bypassed Parnell Street, but they got a few lost southsiders. “That’s actually quite nice,” said one of them. “Actually quite nice?” said Theresa. “Did you think I’d poison you?”

Three of Angela Merkel’s friends called in while on holiday once. She jokingly said, “Tell Angela we’re all working very hard.” A short while later Merkel sent her an autographed photo.

Felix Ajayi, a supplier of pastries, and Cynthia Okonkwo on Parnell Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Parnell Street: Felix Ajayi and Cynthia Okonkwo. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Cynthia Okonkwo’s shop, Cynthia Access Point, is partly a grocery and partly an unofficial community centre where people sit and chat. Originally from Nigeria, she has lived in Ireland for 19 years and has a daughter studying in Dublin City University. “The food I do is what I think people miss,” she says. “Most of them can’t do without it. If they go two or three days without the African food, they’re missing the whole world.”

People get very particular, she says. “‘I’m missing the peanuts from Africa.’ ‘But there’s peanuts in Tesco.’ ‘But it’s different!’” She laughs. “They give out to me! I can’t make peanuts!”

Why did she come to Ireland? “My daughter asked me that question the other day. I came from a little village which had most Reverend Fathers from Ireland... there was a little hospital called Mater, like up the road.”

She feels responsible for her customers. “They sometimes meet people from the same village. They meet them here and say, ‘I didn’t know I’d meet someone I knew!’... Sometimes people are just really, really depressed. When they come in, I allow them to sit and they don’t have to buy something and they get talking to other people and their mood changes.”

She calls over a man and introduces me. His name is Ukachukwu Okorie. He is the editor of AfricaWorld News and so is, in Okonkwo’s words, “able to talk”. He has been here for 13 years and originally came as a refugee. He talks about how homesickness is often held at bay by eating familiar food and he explains what different items on the shelves are: “Semolina… bitter leaf… we use it to cook soup.”

You have to be connected to your community. The Irish who emigrated 100 years ago, they are still connected

He thinks it’s important that African businesses survive on the street. He lists the names of shops that have closed. He worries that African shops will be edged out of the area by better-capitalised Chinese businesses (a fear reiterated by Francis Tutu, who runs the Intercontinental Foodcourt next door).

“This shop solves a lot of problems,” says Okorie. “You can come here and drop a message for people…. You may see an old pal you haven’t seen for a long time. Like this guy.” He pats a passer-by on the shoulder. “You have to be connected to your community. The Irish who emigrated 100 years ago, they are still connected.”

Mosa, which I visited earlier, is owned by Sunnie Sun, the Chinese businesswoman spearheading a campaign to have the area recognised as Chinatown. She has even dubbed that building, number 139, “the Chinatown building”. Sun first established a restaurant and the headquarters of her Emerald Media newspaper publishing company in 2002, in a building across the street.

She was the first Chinese businessperson to set up there. People got to know where the offices were and started calling in with requests for help. It became, she says, “an information centre for Chinese people”.

Parnell Street: Sunnie Sun. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Parnell Street: Sunnie Sun. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Slowly, Chinese businesses spread from Moore Street to Capel Street and onto Parnell Street. Sun refers to the “L” that goes up from Capel Street and across to Parnell Street and draws it on a page. “Now,” she says, “there are 10 Chinese-owned businesses on the street.”

She and her colleague, Wynne Liu, make the case for rebranding the area as Chinatown. There are 70,000 Chinese people in Ireland, they tell me. Every major city has a flourishing Chinatown area, and there’s evidence that increasing numbers of Chinese tourists are attracted to the area around Parnell Street.

When I note that some non-Chinese business owners worry there won’t be a place for them, Liu says that other cultures will always be welcome, “We want more cultures to join us”.

Sun and Liu talk about the year ahead. They talk about the special lanterns that will go up for Chinese New Year and the hoped-for installation of a proper Chinese arch on the street. “Everybody knows now Chinatown is Parnell Street,” says Liu.

Sovit Karki, who lives above TJ’s Coffeehouse, says that as a Nepalese person born between India and China he is completely at home living among Indian and Chinese restaurants. He’s an aspiring journalist and likes being able to see protests pass by from Parnell Square, and meeting friends in nearby rock bar, Fibber Magees. “If a place is more multicultural, being non-Irish living in Ireland, that makes you feel comfortable.”

Taiwanese students Jenny-Yi Li and Ramy Ou, who compare Taiwan’s relationship to China with that of Ireland to the UK, say that as soon as Taiwanese people came to Ireland they’re told about Parnell Street. “If we miss home, we can come here.”

At the Brazilian grocery, Brazuca’s Market, Roberta Teixera laments her English as she taps words into “my friend”, a translation app. She loves Ireland, she says, but it’s a bit of a culture shock. “In Brazil the people are…” She looks up the word. “More joyful. In Ireland the people are…” She looks up the word. “Withdrawn.”

Parnell Street: Michael Foley. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Parnell Street: Michael Foley. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Michael Foley shows me a picture of his chemist shop shortly after it opened in 1909. “That’s my grandfather,” he says, before pointing to the younger figure beside him. “I don’t have a clue who that is.”

Foley is the third generation of his family to work here. We are in a neatly organised backroom and on the shelves are both modern pharmaceutical packages and more old-fashioned jars for tinctures and creams. Foley is walking with the help of a crutch after a hip replacement. In the early part of the last century the whole family of 12 lived above the shop. Now Foley lives in Clontarf where his father moved a few decades later.

Pharmacy was destiny for Foley, who came with his father every weekend to mass at the Pro-Cathedral before helping in the shop. The area was surrounded by tenements then. “Every shilling was a struggle.” It got worse in the 1970s, when people were moved out to Fingal and “the street was dying.” In the late 1990s, he remembers the first African businesses coming to the street. Now, when he rents out flats upstairs and next door, which he also owns, the “tenants are all non-nationals.”

Foley’s will be here for at least another generation (his son is a pharmacist and they recently rebuilt the building) and he reckons the street will change again before long. The new businesses are hard workers trying to improve themselves, he says. “And what do people do when they improve themselves? They move away.”

Does he know his neighbours? He knows them mainly as customers, he says. He laughs. “My father used to say ‘You work here. You don’t drink here. You’re not their friend. You have to be their pharmacist’.”

Parnell Street: the original Foley’s Medical Hall. Courtesy of family collection
Parnell Street: the original Foley’s Medical Hall. Courtesy of family collection

Through an archway on the left of the street as you head towards Summerhill is the church of Mercy Christian Fellowship International. On Sunday a congregation largely made up of Nigerians – but also Zimbabweans, Malawians and at least one Czech woman – praise God, as a band and six singers perform some excellent gospel music.

Everyone is dressed up. The pastor Chuddy Anikwe sometimes takes to his knees and people chime in with affirmations. The man in front of me has a bible in one hand and a small child clutched in his other. The small child sporadically yells with glee. At one point, everyone shakes hands and another small child with a very serious expression on her face comes over and starts handing me Tayto crisps.

“Someone from a Catholic background, they might not like it,” chuckles Pastor Chuddy afterwards. “Too loud.”

“I brought an Italian friend once. He only stayed for 10 minutes. He couldn’t stand the noise!” says his Filipina wife, Maria.

Parnell Street in Dublin photographed by Dara Mac Dónaill

We are sitting in an office after the two-and-a-half-hour service. A separate congregation of Romanians are now filling the hall. Children in their Sunday best wander around. Prior to coming here, Chuddy and Maria ran a church in Beirut. They established a church in Foley Street in 2001. “Ireland has done great work in Nigeria,” says Pastor Chuddy. “Irish priests did a lot… Every good citizen would like to pay back in their own capacity and my capacity is the word of God.”

They came to this location in 2005 and now have around 200 people who come from as far as Navan to worship here before visiting the African businesses around the corner.

Increasingly, their congregation have issues finding homes and the pastor has set up a team to help. There’s a sense of the church as an extended family. “That’s why they call me ‘Mama’,” says Maria. “We share and pray together and carry each other’s burden.”

Their Dublin-accented daughter Aurelia, a college student and prize-winning gospel singer, says “It keeps me grounded... I’m only 100 per cent surrounded by my culture on Sunday, at church.”

Do they anticipate being here for years to come? “Recently NAMA sold it to another person and they want to develop the place,” says Pastor Chuddy. “So, I don’t know what’s going to happen next year.”