(IRISH INDEPENDENT, June 12th, 2015)
They get knocked down but they always seem to get up again. The indomitable denizens of Dublin’s Liberties, deep in the heart of the inner city – whose famous wit is set in the very DNA of the metropolis itself – have been through their fair share of ups and downs over the generations.
Not least of the downs was a 1980s wrecking ball fest that saw the Liberties lose many of its buildings to a city access route, and more to the decrepitude that preceded it as business owners refused to invest amidst the confusion. Mass demolitions tore through Clanbrassil and Cork Streets and the area is still reeling from it.
History rich and vivid runs through this characterful place of ancient origin, which has lived through interesting times. The non blow-ins have known genuine hardship, which might explain the salt and sarcastic put-downs that permeate Dublin wit and legend.
The latest loss is the 262-page Local Area Plan to transform the Liberties, which was adopted in 2009 by Dublin City Council but since seems to have had the kibosh put on it by the latest economic bust.
They are a resilient lot around here though, and today the imposing medieval Christchurch and St Patrick’s Cathedrals, and historic buildings like the 17th-century Tailors’ Hall, co-exist comfortably with bustling markets and cool cafes, Francis Street’s antique quarter, the high-end Digital Hub and the Guinness Enterprise centre for start-up tech firms.
Thrifty NCAD art students and trendy young professionals rummage for bargains in the Liberty Market on Meath Street, or buy their fruit and veg at the stalls at Thomas Street.
The Liberties, much like Connemara, doesn’t appear to have hard and fast maplines. Roughly, it runs between the river Liffey to the north, St Patrick’s Cathedral to the east, Blackpitts to the south and St James’s Hospital to the west. Though many will disagree. Largely pinned under the Dublin 8 postal code, it has also been shaped down the years by grinding poverty and official neglect to go with all those jewel and darlin’ yarns and children’s skipping songs.
The area’s name derives from various free jurisdictions, or “liberties”, which lay outside the city walls of Viking and medieval Dublin. While linked to the city, they retained their own authority and administration.
In the 17th century, the tanning, woollen and weaving crafts were established along the Poddle river by the immigrant French Huguenots fleeing the persecution of Louis XIV, and who settled in numbers in the Coombe area and found a ready labour market locally in Pimlico and Blackpitts. A healthy export trade grew up as a result.
Three ancient highways converged to form the backbone of the Liberties: The Slighe Mor (today that’s Thomas Street and St James’s Street); the Slige Dala (now Cork Street, the Coombe and Ardee Street); and the Slighe Chualann (New Street and Francis Street).
This prime location and the Dutch and Flemish protestants who arrived later in the same century, helped to establish the area as a centre of the linen, wool and silk industries.
Around 1700 there were seven Huguenot families living in Mill Street, including one called Disney, the ancestors of Walt Disney. These high times did not last, as British trading restrictions and increased competition from imported cloth heralded the area’s economic demise. By the 19th century poor quality housing abounded, mostly due to overcrowding and unemployment.
The area would have been lost altogether economically if it wasn’t for the Guinness Brewery at St James’s Gate, which has been providing employment locally since the 18th century, as well as providing the rich aroma of burning hops and malted barley around The Liberties.
Housing initiatives like the Iveagh Trust and the Dublin Artisans Dwellings Company, and the Dublin City Council in the early to mid-20th century, did much to clear appalling slums and hazardous dereliction, and low-cost housing and parkland were developed around Reginald Street and beyond.
There are plenty of tours to experience in the area and a good starting point is Christchurch Cathedral or Dublinia Viking Museum. Alongside magnificent St Patrick’s Cathedral is Marsh’s Library, one of the oldest in Europe. From there, it is a short walk along The Coombe to Francis Street, with over a dozen art and antiques dealers.
On the same street is the Tivoli Theatre, the popular entertainment venue, particularly for stand-up comedy.
Walk down historic Thomas Street with its merchant buildings, elegant churches and former distilleries and you will come to the Guinness Storehouse, a huge tourist attraction. Today, the profile of Liberties dwellers is young, dynamic and increasingly international. The area benefits from proximity to Temple Bar.
Arthur’s on Thomas Street is a classic, old-style Dublin pub, while The Thomas House specialises in punk, rock and reggae and has live performances. Fallons, at the bottom of Francis Street, is a great old-fashioned bar and claims to have been serving a great pint of Guinness since the end of the 17th century.
Manning’s bakery and cafe on Thomas Street is an institution, while Caffe Noto on the corner of Thomas Street and Francis Street, with its big windows, is a great place to people watch. The Cathedral Cafe, on Christchurch Place, and the Queen of Tarts on Cow’s Lane, are also well worth a visit. Caffe Comino, on St Augustine Street, is “Absolutely the best Italian restaurant in Dublin! Trust me … I’m Italian!”, according to a reviewer on Tripadvisor.
Anyone thinking of moving to the Liberties will be heartened by the prices.
First-time buyers would come in at around €150,000 for a one-bedroom apartment, according to Michael McDonagh of Young Auctioneers. A one-bedroom terraced house would go for up to €250k, while a two-bed cottage would rarely go over €300k.
There is no higher end of the market here. These houses are popular with young professional couples, says Ronan O’Malley of Sherry FitzGerald. Anecdotally, the market is strong. The rush of investors at the end of last year, before the tax cap cut-off point, has ended, and the apartment market has dropped off accordingly.
The rise in demand is such that open viewings are again the order of the day, says McDonagh. “Typically, property is on the market for two to four weeks, and sellers are getting their asking price.”
MOD Properties has placed 62 Reuben Square, a one-bed apartment, on the market at €135k; Young’s has 29 Hammond Street, Blackpitts, a one-bedroom terraced cottage, at €195k; Sherry Fitzgerald is asking €225k for 11 Pimlico, The Coombe, a two-bed terrace.
As well as primary and secondary schools, there is the National College of Art & Design (NCAD) and Liberties College, a constituent College of the City of Dublin Education and Training Board. The British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM) branch offers degree and diploma courses.
Transport: Dublin Bus runs an extensive service locally, Heuston Station is nearby and there is also a Luas stop.
- Proximity to the city centre and key transport links
- Vicar Street live venue
- Demolition of St Theresa’s Gardens flats complex and planned park off Cork Street
- Beautiful historical buildings
- Parking a nightmare for shoppers at the weekend
- Regeneration plans that are not acted on, or are much watered down
- Character and unpolished charm means shabby and rundown to others