An Irishman's Diary
ST NICHOLAS of Myra church in Francis Street, in the centre of Dublin's Liberties, is in some ways no different from many public places today, with its 24-hour closed circuit television and video recording as well as a request to switch off your mobile phone before you go in. But in other ways it is unique, with its richly ornamented interior and its beautifully restored Harry Clarke stained glass window.
As I walked in the door the other day, the choral singing sounded almost too good to be real, and in a sense it was: it was coming from the church's audio system. But it induced a suitably reverential tone in the church, whose building was begun in the year of Catholic Emancipation, 1829, completed in 1834 and finally dedicated in 1854.
There has been a church on this site since at least the 12th century, when a Franciscan monastery stood here; it is indeed part of the most historic area in Dublin. As for St Nicholas of Myra himself, there's a long story attached, that brings in Turkey and includes the claim that he was the original Santa Claus.
The parish itself was also the smallest in Dublin, a little over two hectares. When the Coombe Women's Hospital was in its original location in this immediate area, all the births there were registered in this church. At one time, it was even the parish church for the Isle of Man, so its early registers contain baptismal entries for that island. A Manx emblem can be seen in the ceiling panels. A modern plaque commemorates Very Rev Conleth Curley, parish priest here from 1993 to 2005, the year he died; he is interred in the crypt.
On the other side of the road, at 100 Francis Street, a battered plaque announces that a room in the Myra Hall there was where Frank Duff founded the Legion of Mary on the evening of September 7th, 1921.
Francis Street is steeped in history. Towards the end of the 17th century, many of the houses were the so-called "Dutch Billys", the tall, narrow, gable-fronted houses then so popular in Dublin. By the middle of the 19th century the street was full of small shops, including nearly 20 groceries shops and several dairies. Slightly more exotically, John Doherty, a brogue maker, lived and worked at Number 11, while at Number 46 was Daniel Murphy, a literary teacher.
By 1900 the street had turned into a Liberties slum. No fewer than 45 houses had been turned into multi-occupancy tenements, although one M.M. Maugham, a surgeon, was ensconced at Number 108. By the middle of the 20th century, Francis Street had become more workaday and housed many manufacturers of beds, cabinets, sheet metal and shirts. These have now gone, as have some more recent fixtures, such as the Old Dublin restaurant, which in its heyday was a much-loved place in which to dine on Russian and Scandinavian food.
About 20 years ago, the antiques trade began drifting towards Francis Street from the quays, and today the street has the highest concentration of antique dealers in Ireland. The most spectacular shopfront is that of O'Sullivan Antiques, founded in 1991, close to the church; the shop has a black grand piano hanging off its upper front wall. Some stylish modern shops have opened up, such as those of Michael Connell and Niall Mullen, both opened recently. Other personalities in the trade here include the Johnston brothers, Kevin Jones and Esther Sexton. Several art galleries also have their home in Francis Street.
Up at the top of the street, close to Thomas Street, is the Tivoli Theatre, with O'Reilly's auction rooms, founded in 1948, close by. Also nearby is the MABS (Money Advice and Budgeting Service) centre, for people with pressing financial problems. For despite the upmarket trade of the antique shops, Francis Street remains rooted in the working class realities of life in the Liberties.
Much of the street's future depends on the planned development of the derelict Iveagh Market, which has been closed for just over a decade now. It had been a thriving market since 1906. If elaborate plans work out as intended, the site will become Dublin's equivalent of Covent Garden, complete with a luxury hotel, cafés and restaurants and a myriad of arts and crafts. If that happens, it may lift the down-at-heel air that still pervades much of Francis Street. But gentrification would dispel that air of workaday scruffiness that seems part of the real spirit of the street.