Dublin underground: the entrepreneurs working below street level

Many of Dublin’s Georgian basements have been resigned to a life of rusty railings and discarded rubbish, but there’s a new generation of entrepreneurs burrowing away below street level


There’s something cool about knowing how to find somewhere when it’s not on street level. When your business is underground, chances are you don’t rely on passing trade and some of the city’s new and established businesses operate on a solid basis of word-of-mouth, referral and reputation. From music shops to bars, cafes to personal tr ainers, there’s more to Dublin than meets eye level.

Ron Black’s
The Dawson Lounge
Known as the smallest pub in Dublin, The Dawson Lounge is entered through a discreet door on street level with steps leading down to the low-ceilinged, wood-panelled bar.

“Years ago it was popular with people who didn’t want to be found,” says Derek Duffy who, in an ironic twist, is well over 6ft tall and has managed the pub for nine years. “There are stories of staff from a local business running up the fire escape while their manager was coming down the front steps,” says Duffy, who adds that the bar was also popular with artists, musicians and antique dealers in the 1960s and 1970s. Now it’s mostly curious tourists and regulars stopping in for a swift one on their way home, or indeed, on their way to work.

“People like the secretive nature of it because they’re coming down the stairs and they don’t know what to expect. “A lot of people ask if it drives me crazy working with no sunlight, but it’s no problem for me.” Licensed since 1850, it has a capacity of just 40 people. “Even if you have 20 people in here the atmosphere is great – tourists mix with locals and have great banter.”

Merle O’Grady
Design studio
Having worked in many a dungeon-like studio in the past, jewellery designer Merle O’Grady is now happily ensconced in a Baggot Street basement that has plenty of light and space and the bonus of a back yard. It had been empty for years when she discovered it last year. “We found milk in the fridge from 2008,” she says. The metalworker, whose fans include Beyoncé and Ellie Goulding, shares the basement space with furniture designer Jenny Walsh (known for her laser-cut bird clocks) and milliner Martha Lynn (whose colour-pop head turners are seen at Irish race days).

Basements can offer flexible terms for small businesses and these designers are grateful to have a landlord willing to accommodate three sole traders in one space. “It’s a little off the beaten track,” says O’Grady, “but there’s plenty of parking for customers.”


Form School
Pilates studio
It took model Aoife Cogan and her husband – Irish rugby star Gordon D’Arcy – a year to convert the space below Grattan Street in Dublin 2.

With the help of Kilkenny interior design company Gild and Cage they brought it from from boxy basement to New York-style loft.

The couple runs Form School, a studio specialising in Reformer pilates, a discipline that uses metal bed-like frames with straps and foot bars for greater resistance when exercising.

They also hold classes in Ballet Barre which incorporates pilates and ballet exercises. While the reception area is surprisingly bright for a basement, the studio is moody and dark.

“The low lighting at the back suits us because it’s a more flattering light when you’re working out,” says Cogan.

“The basement works because it’s off street level and we want to create a Zen-like atmosphere – everything is calm, there are no cars driving by and there’s no big window for people to look in when clients are working out.”


Brand consultants
Brand consultant and graphic designer Owen Barry works from a bright, west-facing basement on Mountjoy Square that’s been given a thorough makeover by its architect landlord. Painted throughout in grey and apple green, it’s a welcoming space that takes clients by surprise. Out front, there’s a bright, airy room for meeting, while behind is the office, with computers and story boards for their latest projects. Create works with Government bodies and private business producing websites, brochures, social media campaigns and fliers. Recent projects include a revamp of Temple Bar’s Irish restaurant Gallagher’s Boxty House in conjunction with Think Contemporary interior design, where the logo, website, menus and even the staff uniforms were updated.

“When we were offered this space seven years ago we were a bit sceptical about working in a basement, but we’ve been surprised,” says Barry.

“We’ve had the opportunity to move to ground level properties with the recession, but this space seems very creative and gives us room for expansion.”


No 17
Personal Training
The small foyer of number 17 Merrion Square’s basement contains a tiny office in an underground tunnel, opposite which is a studio space with rubber flooring, kettle bells, competitive charts on the wall and metal frames for exercising. Wine storage cellars are used for storage of towels and robes, while outside is a large garden with more exercise equipment.

Despite its masculine interior, owner John Belton says that 70 per cent of his clients are women who prefer the private service that Belton and his colleagues offer.

Belton looked at many basement properties before choosing number 17 . “A basement is best – dropping heavy weights on the floor can be a noisy business,” he says. He calls the place a “spit and sawdust type of gym with robes in the changing rooms”. No 17 specialises in personal training. “We cater for time-strapped people with 30 minute sessions – 90 per cent of our clients are under so much pressure they don’t have any more time than that.”

Belton agrees that it takes someone with confidence in what they do to operate from a basement. “Location isn’t what has built this business . . . it’s reputation,” he says.


De La Punc
Clothes store
De La Punc clothes shop is located on South William Street, under the Hide Out pool hall. It’s owned by Hong Kong native Gina Liu and her partner of eight years Karl Knuttel.

Having graduated from the National College of Art & Design in 2008, Liu wanted to introduce Dubliners to designers from Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan. “I felt there wasn’t that many shops for young people here that were a bit different, and that it would be amazing to have some Asian-type fashion of high quality here,” she says.

“There are loads of great designers over there, so we feature some of those brands as well as some Irish accessories designers and my own designs.”

Starting out at markets such as the car boot sale at the Bernard Shaw and the Point Village Market in Dublin’s Docklands, Liu also had a small space in a shop in George’s Street Arcade before opening De La Punc, a “vintage-modern” store that stocks new clothes and accessories that are vintage-inspired. For Liu it’s about quality rather than quantity. “We really wanted to operate on South William Street because there’s a great atmosphere here.

“I also thought it would be great to have a basement shop – people really remember it once they’ve been here and I think it’s more personal – I’ve become great friends with many of my customers,” she says.


Yoga school
Going down the stairs to Anahata Yoga, on Dawson Street, feels like escaping the rat race. Fragrant perfume and gentle music meet you as you leave the rattle and hum of the Luas works outside. Established by Nabin Thapa from Nepal, who has been based mostly in Dublin since 2001, the studio specialises in Hatha yoga and Thai massage, but offers a wide range of treatments from facials to deep tissue massage, reiki and holistic massage.

Taking up the entire basement of the building, it’s warmer than you’d expect, though one imagines it takes a lot of energy to keep the place at such a cosy temperature.

Massage therapist Stefanie Desini says the basement property is ideally suited to massage therapy and yoga, being buffered from the noise of the city outside. The studio, which fits 14 people, is at the front of the building, facing west, and is brighter than the areas at the back which have been made into individual rooms for private treatments and changing rooms for those attending yoga classes.


Educational Music Services
Music shop
Sarah Dowdall’s Educational Music Services, which specialises in saxophones, flutes, trumpets and clarinets, has been based underground on Mountjoy Square since 1979. She took over the business in 1996 from her grandmother, though it was her father, international flautist William Dowdall, who established the shop.

It’s not a premises that gets much passing trade, but its reputation and the fact that a bus that passes by the Royal Irish Academy of Music stops close by, ensure a steady stream of business. Thanks to a loyal stream of students, and amateur and professional clients such as the Garda Band and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Dowdall has little need to be located above ground.

Customers keep coming back for the service, that includes instrument maintenance and repair.

“It’s a niche business, but it’s important to keep up our standards,” says Dowdall, whose family is steeped in music.

“Dad was principal flute in the National Symphony Orchestra for 35 years and is head of wind and brass at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. My three sisters are professional string players and my little brother is a professional trumpet player, so the fact that it is a family business is very important,” says Dowdall.

“We’ve dealt with generations now where teachers bought their instruments here as children, so location doesn’t really matter to us.”

Dowdall says she was “practically reared” in the back of the premises, and history is repeating itself, with her nine-month-old baby Eddie now a regular sight among the instruments and sheet music.


Tea Garden
Marcel Polak’s Tea Garden on Ormond Quay makes the best use of its basement location by capitalising on the cosy atmosphere and quiet. Here customers can take tea, smoke hooka and shisha pipes, knit and chat. Established in 2008, the Tea Garden offers its customers an alternative to the coffee and pub culture usually associated with socialising in Ireland.

Polak’s menu offers quality teas from China, Japan, South America, South Africa and beyond, including Brazilian mate tea (considered a tonic and a stimulant for the digestion and the metabolism) and Japanese matcha tea renowned for its exclusivity and fineness.

The tea menu at Tea Garden is an education in itself – there are descriptions of the years of harvest, the origin and the characteristics of the teas, reminiscent of any restaurant wine list.

“The Chinese have an expression that states ‘Better three days without food than one day without tea’, and we believe that tea has both therapeutic and refreshing qualities,” says Polak.

If tea isn’t your choice, you’ll find milkshakes, fruit juices (though no commercial soft drinks) and spiced teas. Tea Garden is strictly a coffee-free zone but for added stimulation there are flavoured shisha or hooka pipes with herbal fruit mixes that are nicotine-, tar- and tobacco-free.


Bagots Hutton
Going down the steps into the world of Bagots Hutton on South William Street takes you into a cosy, club-like atmosphere . The restaurant cum bar opened in 2012 and its Sicilian pizza and antipasti have been a favourite since then .

The premises was once a wine importers and tea merchants, established in 1829. The original family business, Bagots & Hutton, existed until the 1980s and included a cellar used as a whiskey tasting room .

Dubliners Giovanni Viscardi and Brian Deery were looking for a new business venture when they discovered the basement, which had never had a change of license. Dark leather sofas, a good wine selection, tasty food and a rotating exhibition of artwork, by photographer Alex Sapienza among others, contribute to the atmosphere . Viscardi’s Great Dane, Voltan, an impressive 6ft when he rises up on his hind legs, is a regular fixture,

Deery and Viscardi inherited lots of memorabilia – old Bagots & Hutton invoices, posters and bottles. Customers keep coming with more, and stories of the old business. Being underground draws a knowing crowd. “At the start people used to say ‘Don’t worry we won’t tell anyone where you are’,” says Deery. “We were saying ‘Please do!’. ”


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