Meath Street: outpost of a disappearing Dublin

The Street: the once-bustling market area has undergone huge transformation but refuses to sell its soul. Despite ongoing social problems, a sense of togetherness endures

Street series: Meath Street has Churches, charity shops, hairdressers, bookmakers, greengrocers, butchers and street markets. The guidebooks say it's the real Dublin. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

The foreigners say it’s European. The old-timers say it’s declining. The guide books say it’s the real Dublin. And the artists say it’s, like, far too dear to get a flat in the area. Whatever Meath Street is, it’s not boring.

In just a few hundred metres bustling with personality, you will find ancient churches abutting secular Steiner schools; charity shops alongside with three bookmakers and a casino; two greengrocers, a fishmonger’s, a chicken shop – and enough butchers’ to feed a small pride of lions.

You will also find a street in transition. Jack Roche, an energetic 70-year-old and the unofficial mayor of the market street, has been selling fruit and veg for decades from his bright, tidy lean-to at No 26. Speaking underneath a photo of himself with Imelda May (“She’s a great girl; her father usually pops in”), he says the area has changed greatly in the last 20 years, between the ravages of the recession and the increasing numbers of new residents.

“I was born and reared on these streets,” he says, his face animated behind white whiskers. Back when he started helping his father as a young man, the swarms of people from the tenements meant the street seemed to be overflowing.

“I was born into it. It’s more of a weekend street now; there’s a good buzz then. It’s gone during the week a bit.

“There’s a bit of history around the street. People who lived in the area who lived in tenement houses, they’ve moved out to Crumlin, to Kimmage, to Ballyfermot, but they have a connection and still come back. It changed a long time ago.”

Cosmopolitan population What it has lost in numbers, though, it has gained in variety. “We’ve such a cosmopolitan population here since the ’90s; the only one I haven’t had into me is an Eskimo,” says Roche. “That, I suppose, is the biggest change in the area.”

Enter Marco Cuzzlino, an Italian in his 20s, who has been living here since July. He raves about the shop’s Italian section, replete with imports that come, via Sardinia, from his native Naples. “It’s one of the best.”

With the arrival of Lidl at Cork Street and Thomas Street, passing trade for grocers such as Jack has been squeezed, but established shops supported by regulars continue to do well, mainly due to unique offerings and bargains.

Some have thrived in the recession. A few doors down from Jack’s at Cut Price Jewellers (Slogan: “We buy everything!”), Patty Massey has seen it all. “My own mother had a stall for 40 years in Thomas Street, and Henry Street before then,” she says. “We’d have to stay there for days on end to fight for our pitches.

“I remember going down to stand at the side of the stall to mind it when my mother would go off to buy stuff. It was just as Bill Cullen said in his book [It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples]; he was right about having to be down there at six in the morning, otherwise you didn’t get what you wanted.”

Massey, a trader since the age of 16 and a dressmaker for 50 years, now helps out her son, Fran, the co-owner. They see fewer people selling gold now, due to the fall in prices, and they concentrate on manufacturing jewellery and undercutting city-centre outlets. They allow customers three or four months to pay. “It’s gone back to the way it was years ago, like the old pawnshops,” Patty says.

 

Storied history

The street has a storied history. Turning out of the jewellers, past the casino, and the chipper, to the junction with the Coombe, a guide points the way to a portico immortalising the area’s characters. Among those remembered are Stones in the Pockets, Jembo No-Toes and Mary Wallpaper. Last July, the street bade farewell to one of the last of the characters, the loquacious poet Paddy Finnegan. Our guide, a kindly writer, says the area’s drug problem has drawn a curtain on the era of lovable eccentrics.

Marie Stanley knows all about the street’s social issues. She points across to three empty shopfronts, standing in a row. “They used to be great businesses, and a great atmosphere,” she says sadly. “Saturday afternoon used to be buzzing here, but it’s changed. The likes of Lidl and Aldi have done a lot of damage. And the drugs is a big problem at the moment. It’s rampant, and it’s getting worse.”

Stanley (70) is another stalwart of a slowly disappearing Dublin era. She chairs the South West Inner City Network, which helps more than 400 children from disadvantaged families, all funded by donations. “The biggest challenge is really keeping the funding going. We could do with a bus,” she says.

Despite these difficulties, a sense of togetherness endures. Towering over the street, both in height and longevity, looms St Catherine’s of Alexandria. There has been a church here for 800 years. This structure, built in 1852, has seen famine, war and insurrection, but nearly shut permanently two years ago after a disturbed man threw a match on the crib. Joyce Reid – a volunteer at the parish office who also helps to feed the homeless at Little Penny Dinners across the road – remembers the aftermath.

“The roof burnt, and the organ was all melted,” she says. “We were desperate, because it’s our community; it’s our home.”

She points out features in the church’s awe-inspiring interior. Above us, the death mask of 18-year-old Kevin Barry, hanged in the War of Independence, looks down from a column in the nave. “He was snuck up there,” Joyce says, winking. “I don’t think the British realised.”

She remembers the street’s heyday in the 1960s, when “Lugs” Brannigan patrolled the streets. “At its height you couldn’t even walk down Meath Street, particularly at Christmas. There were paintshops, draperies, haberdasheries, Woolworths. There’s a lot of empty shops now. The Iveagh Market is lying idle since the recession; inside it’s like something out of Avatar. It could be made into a community centre, which we don’t have.”

There are plans for the market to be redeveloped into “Dublin’s answer to Covent Garden”.

After initial uncertainty over its future, St Catherine’s reopened last December, a triumph for the community. Reid leads the way out to the bustling main drag, where a horse and trap trots by, back into the grotto, a calm space away from the din. Mass numbers are down, she says, not helped by a new Polish church that has opened to serve that community. “They’d be very welcome here,” she says.

“A lot of the NCAD students come in looking for miracles around exam times. We have an elderly population, but there’s quite a lot of young people moving into the area. Unfortunately the newcomers don’t mix too well with the indigenous population.”

Meath Street, home to newly landed Huguenots in times past, has traditionally welcomed immigration. This latest wave is the most transformative in living memory. It could be the rain keeping them away, but there seems a noticeable lack of “outside” customers for a Friday afternoon at the covered Liberty Market, a sort of Irish bazaar. Integrating the newcomers, who live but seldom shop there, while preserving the street’s unique character, could prove difficult.

 

New breed

There is also a new breed of Irish resident, squeezed out of Dublin 6 and Portobello by high rents, and drawn to the street’s melting-pot atmosphere. Cara Christie, a 27-year-old part-time actor working at Vicar Street, is one. “I’ve been living here 2½ years,” she says. “It’s probably the best ever place I’ve lived in, I think. It’s much safer than you’d think as well.”

Butcher Michael Martin (45) has been working on Meath Street for 30 years. He sells a mind-boggling variety of meat, including delicacies that have disappeared elsewhere, such as pig’s tongues and beef hearts.

“In a week we’d sell about 150 individual tongues, salted and fresh, beef and pork,” he says, wiping his apron. He is the owner of Tony Martin and Sons, which he bought from his father. With his own two sons, aged 20 and 23, now working with him, he’s in no doubt that the tradition will be carried on.

“It’s still a market street. Lidl has done a bit of damage. But you have your regular customers, and we’ve built up a reputation,” he says. “This is the inner city: if we sell cheap, we sell more. I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do it. It’s the people. The people are great.” 

 

Next week: series concludes with a trip to Main Street, Belmullet

 

 

TWO-WAY STREET READERS’ STORIES

  • The Beggars Bush area (South Lotts Road/Bath Avenue/Grand Canal Street) has changed dramatically over the past 5 years. Where there was once a single greasy spoon there is now Foodgame (a cafe I run on South Lotts Road), Chophouse, Juniors, Farmer Brown’s, The Bath, Paulie’s Pizza, The Old Spot, and Slatterys and the Beggars Bush pubs, which have been there years. It has turned into a real gastro area and a mecca for foodies. Ross Staunton
  • On Galen Weston’s 24th birthday, he applied for planning permission to build a shopping centre in Phibsborough. That was in 1964. The Phibsborough Centre on Phibsborough Road, Dublin 7, was duly built, with an office block on top, completed in 1968. On October 29th, at 7pm, upstairs in McGeough’s Bohemian Lounge, local historian Des Gunning will tell the story of the Phibsborough centre over its first 50 years: the romance, the opposition, the deals, the reportage and the clock tower that never was. And looking ahead: could a redeveloped Phibsborough Centre incorporate badly needed community facilities? A theatre perhaps? Or some civic space? All are welcome and it’s free. Gerard Feeney
  •  

We want to hear your stories of Dublin streets and those farther afield. Email thestreet@irishtimes.com with your memories and observations

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