Neighborhood Watch: the Northside of Dublin

The long-derided area north of the River Liffey is finally having its moment. 

Neighborhood Watch: the Northside of Dublin

Photography by Tim White

What do you call a Northsider in a suit? The accused.

So goes the old wisecrack, told and retold by people south of the River Liffey. Dublin’s Northside has long been labeled a scrappy neighborhood, a counterpoint to the cultured city to the south. It was different in the 18th century, when rows of grand Georgian townhouses were built here to accommodate the city’s elite. Walk around the Northside today and you can still see these buildings, some of them lovingly restored, but 50 years ago they would have been dank and decrepit, standing as an emblem of the neighborhood’s decline.

Northsiders, not surprisingly, see things differently. “There is pride here,” local restaurateur Elaine Murphy tells me from an ivy-draped riverside terrace. “We are the real Dublin.” While the “real Dublin” thing has inspired generations of storytellers, James Joyce among them, the neighborhood also has some of Dublin’s most notorious housing projects, and its commercial areas often have a weary feel to them. Even broad O’Connell Street, with its soaring steel spire and monumental statues, is dotted with fast food outlets and gambling parlors. But this, say those with a newfound stake in the area, is about to change.

Murphy is part of a small group of people who have bet the farm on a Northside revival. The flagship of her collection of businesses is The Winding Stair, which she opened in 2006. Set in a Victorian textile mill overlooking the famous Ha’penny Bridge, and with a quirky indie bookshop on the ground floor, The Winding Stair set a new standard for cool eateries in Dublin, and Murphy followed with several more, including, in an adjacent building, The Woollen Mills restaurant and new pizza shop The Yarn, both of which have also thrived.

While a few entrepreneurs have ventured into the Northside’s outer fringes—Murphy opened The Washerwoman in 2015, up on Glasnevin Hill—the regeneration is most visible near the Liffey, or in upscale pockets like Smithfield and Stoneybatter. But even on the frowzy back streets, with their fruit stalls and tool merchants, there’s a new sense of possibility, driven by an influx of young creatives, here to take advantage of the relatively low rents. “It’s still not lacking in grit around here,” says Murphy, “but it’s getting better.”

A couple blocks west of here is Capel Street, the heart of the Northside nightlife scene. And at the heart of Capel is PantiBar, a polka-dotted gay cabaret bar that opened in 2007, at the end of the economic boom. “We lost half our customers,” says owner Rory O’Neill, sitting in a changing room surrounded by wigs and dresses. “Businesses were closing everywhere.” By way of example, O’Neill recalls the short-lived Rhodes D7, a high-concept eatery opened on Capel in 2006 by English celebrity chef Gary Rhodes. “That never worked out,” he says, rolling his eyes.

PantiBar thrived in part because, for all its splashy décor and fake lashes, it never really bought into the excess of the Celtic Tiger years. “It’s a relaxed community bar,” O’Neill says. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Just up the street is Brother Hubbard, a smart bakery-café with a Middle Eastern twist. Its owner, the endlessly affable Garrett Fitzgerald, opened the café in 2012, and admits now that his timing wasn’t great. “We were not only on the Northside of Dublin, but on the wrong side of the recession,” he says. “Of course, everybody thought I was mad. But this was a bit of an adventure, you know. I’m excited by food.” Fitzgerald did more than survive: He has since opened a café next door to his first one, and is now opening a larger restaurant next to that, in the very building Gary Rhodes planted his flag. “It’s like a game of Monopoly,” he says with a grin.

On the other side of Brother Hubbard sits the new Klaw Poké seafood bar (pictured above). Here, to the sound of hip-hop, a woman with hoop earrings and platinum hair shucks oysters behind a counter. The restaurant claims to serve the largest selection of Irish oysters in the world, along with dishes like Jamaican jerk crab, and constantly hums with a young and fashionable crowd.

There’s a very different vibe at the Michelin-starred Chapter One, which is now in its 25th year—ancient by Northside standards. The restaurant occupies a basement in Parnell Square, the finest of Dublin’s Georgian enclaves, its four-story townhouses looming over a garden commemorating Ireland’s fight for independance. Next door is a glorious mansion housing the city’s Hugh Lane gallery, the highlight of which is the studio of the Dublin-born painter Francis Bacon, shifted from London in the ’90s and reconstructed in all of its chaotic, filthy glory. The Dublin Writers Museum and the Gate Theatre are also nearby, while a $100 million-plus library is due to open in 2020. They’ve started calling Parnell the “Cultural Quarter,” though this fact seems lost on the couple of guys brown-bagging in the Garden of Remembrance.

Inside, Chapter One is a warren of rooms with exposed bricks, white tablecloths and expensive-looking artworks. I have crispy lamb belly with pickled mustard and smoked anchovy, followed by stuffed leg of rabbit with mushroom tart and braised barley. Afterward, I pop into the bustling kitchen to say hi to chef-owner Ross Lewis. “This square used to be a place of merchant princes,” he says. “But it was [horrible] when I moved in.” He smiles and adds, “My timing was off. You’re supposed to be in an area for three years before it comes up. I undershot the runway by 20 years. They ought to build a statue of me in that park.”

From here it’s a short walk to Henrietta Street, whose Georgian houses have spent the last century or so quietly disintegrating. This fall, number 14 will open its doors to the public as The Tenement Museum, a government-funded space containing reconstructions of living quarters from the street’s slum years, when a hundred or so people might have been packed into a single house.

One room is set up as a 1950s bedroom: porcelain dogs on the mantelpiece, a copy of Pigeon Racing magazine beside the bed. In the basement there’s a room from 1913: dank laundry, a washbowl, a battered wooden chair. Standing in the half-light, you can feel the presence of those whose lives were spent down here. But it’s not all gloom—on the way out, I meet a woman whose grandmother used to live upstairs. “I have a lot of happy memories,” she says, smiling and dabbing at her eyes.

I end the day, as you do, at a pub: Frank Ryan’s, a cozy spot that serves a perfect Guinness and has a dog named Magoo. I end the day again across the street in the Dice Bar (pictured above), which is noisier, trendier and doesn’t have a dog. Then, I end the day one more time at the riverside Chancery Inn, a historic “early house.” Tonight, there’s a student-y crowd dancing to samba music, so times have changed.

The next morning, feeling the effects of all those day’s ends, I take a bracing walk along the river. I’m heading for Monto, which used to be Dublin’s red-light district. Monto is still a bit shabby, but it’s becoming a vital incubator for the local arts scene. The most visible example of this is the Fire Station, a complex of studios and residences that has been here for 25 years. But just around the corner, on James Joyce Street, is the Oonagh Young Gallery, a tiny space whose owner has big plans.

Young has spent much of the last decade working to rid the neighborhood of its old “Nighttown” reputation. This summer, she built a pavilion in a nearby park, painted red, yellow and blue. “I wanted to bring some color to the area,” she says. “Something different from everything else around here.” The space quickly became one of the city’s buzziest performance venues, and Young hopes to bring it back next year.

She’s also lobbying local authorities to fund a tree-planting project—The Treeline—starting on her street and extending into others. “There’s no use pretending this area hasn’t been neglected,” she says. “It’ll take imagination to change that.” Accordingly, her plan is to plant trees that are named after characters in Joyce’s Ulysses: Gladys Beech, Blanche Maple, Grace Poplar, and so on.

After lunch at the imaginative and hugely popular modern Asian restaurant Koh (I down betel leaves with crispy shallot, king prawns with chili paste and a succulent beef curry), I head to Smithfield, the focal point of the Northside’s first regeneration 15 years ago.

The centerpiece here is the Jameson Distillery, a beautifully restored 18th-century complex that produced whiskey until 1971, and which is now open to the public. Abutting this is the cobbled Smithfield Square, an old horse market that has long been touted as the city’s next hotspot—with limited success. But that, too, is changing.



Today, you can sip the city’s best brews at the new Proper Order Coffee Co., watch indie films at the Light House Cinema, hear live music at the Generator Hostel and eat ribs out of a billycan at My Meat Wagon. In 2014, Joe Macken (pictured above) made his first foray into the area, which would have been a fairly big deal for Dubliners. “I’m always looking for an ugly child,” Macken says of his knack for reviving unfashionable restaurants, “the red-headed sibling.” So far, he has six ugly children in Dublin, one of these being Jo’Burger in Smithfield.

I meet Macken in the Cobalt Café, a coffee shop that doubles as a crazy bric-a-brac store, next to his home on elegant North Great Georges Street. “Are you American?” asks the café’s owner, Eddie Kenny. I tell him I’m not; I’m English. “Ah!” he cries. “That’s worse!”

A moment later, we are moving at speed, Macken delivering a rapid-fire commentary: “That’s the Shakespeare—great little boozer … Fibber Magees—Mel Gibson drank here … Brendan’s Café—best breakfast in town …” Finally we arrive at Jo’Burger, a funky eatery located in a cobbled courtyard across from the distillery. Macken treats me to a huge burger with beetroot and horseradish, then points me in the direction of Stoneybatter.

A neighborhood of terraced Victorian houses, Stoneybatter was once the main byway for cattle headed to market (hence the alias Cowtown). You can still get a hot towel shave or buy a fireplace here, but you can also get upscale baby items at Moo Market, or a pint of artisanal lager at L. Mulligan Grocer, one of Dublin’s trendier drinking spots.

Nearby is the much-loved bookstore and publisher The Lilliput Press, established in 1984 by Antony Farrell, who still oversees the operation. Farrell can recall a time when his shop was a tiny bohemian outpost, albeit one with pigs living out the back. “This was a very working-class area when we opened,” he says. “Now it’s hipster central.”

Dinner is at The Legal Eagle, a riverside gastropub opened by Elaine Murphy earlier this year. I start with a trio of pickled eggs—jalapeño, mustard, beet—followed by roasted bone marrow topped with oxtail and Irish snails. It’s the kind of upscale-traditional meal you’d expect to get in London or New York—a testament to Murphy’s belief that the Northside is no longer the shoddy neighborhood of old.

My final stop is the Hacienda, a stucco bar a block west of Capel. It doesn’t look like much, but this place is legendary among locals, and it has a strict, if somewhat random, entry policy: Would-be patrons are required to press a buzzer upon arrival, watched by the owner, Shay, on a large CCTV screen. If he doesn’t like the look of you, he’ll turn you away. Otherwise, he’ll usher you silently inside.

I’m lucky enough to be admitted into the bar, which is every bit as odd as the buzzer-pressing ritual. The soundtrack is 1980s and the décor is nautical. Shay, who has straggly gray hair and wears untied bowties over patterned shirts, is the only person working the bar, and customers stack up at the counter every time he shuffles to the door with his keys. Luckily, the CCTV screen is visible to all, so we are able to pass the time watching Shay make up his mind. It’s fun.

On the way out, I ask our host how long the bar has been here and he says a hundred years. I ask him how long he has been here and he says 99. “Shay’s new,” remarks a slightly sozzled guy standing nearby. “He’s the new Northside.”

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The Roaring Noughties
After an embarrasing decade, restaurant and bar owners, who now remain authentic and genuine. 

Casting a shadow on the Northside revival are the so-called Celtic Tiger years, a decade-long debt-fueled ding-dong that ended badly in 2008. “No one looks back on that with fondness,” says Elaine Murphy, whose The Grand Social music venue used to be a Russian- themed vodka bar, part of what she calls “those heady days of nonsense.” This view is shared by Joe Macken, whose restaurants make a point of not trying too hard. “We all remember 2007: the high heels and Gucci bags. I want to see improvements, but what I don’t want is to pay 25 euros for an omelet. I don’t want to queue for two hours for a slice of pizza because it’s going to change your life. It’s not. It’s a slice of pizza.”


Happy Hour
A quick guide to the Northside’s many, many pubs. 

Bagots Hutton

This fashionable wine bar has red leather sofas, a hip clientele and a pedigree that stretches back almost 180 years.

John Kavanagh

When they call this an old-school pub, they mean it—people have been drinking here since 1833. It’s also known as “The Gravediggers,” due to its proximity to Glasnevin Cemetery.

The Black Sheep

This pub has a great beer menu and a relaxing atmosphere, heightened by the hypnotic olive-green walls.

The Church

A bit tourist-y by local standards, but worth a visit for its ecclesiastical architecture.

The Cobblestone

This venue calls itself “a drinking pub with a music problem,” which is another way of saying they put on great Irish music. And people drink.

Gin Palace

This overwhelmingly red bar has an endless menu of international gins and good food to mop it up.

Token

With dozens of retro video games and a food item described as “bacon battered Reese’s Cup,” Token caters to the local “IT” crowd.

Walsh’s

This pub promises “the very finest beers, wines and spirits,” but what really gets the locals going are its free “Cheesy Tuesdays.”