Ballsbridge revisited... How Dublin 4 got its groove back
Published 20/07/2015 | 02:30
Writer Emily Hourican looks at the reinvention of Dublin 4.
First, it was a bohemian stomping-ground for writers, including Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan. Later on, it settled into discreet, middle-class suburbia, home to low-key, old-money solicitors and bankers, as well as the occasional ostentatious property developer. These days Dublin 4 is reinvigorated by artisan cafes, pubs serving craft beer, techie types, rugby players in tight T-shirts, and a hint of higher consciousness
Something has happened to the discreet and leafy suburbs of Dublin 4. Another incarnation, another turn of the wheel in this most psychologically significant of residential spots, close to town, RTE and UCD, dominated by green spaces and grand old examples of Georgian and Victorian architecture. From writerly bohemia to quiet, affluent suburb - and now a kind of hipster playground, inhabited by techie types, rugby players, their Wags, and people who know their way around single-estate coffee and chocolate.
Now, of course, not all of Dublin 4 is a homogenous mass of middle-class values; as Ruairi Quinn once said: "I can tell you that Dublin 4 stretches all the way from the city quays to Ailesbury Road . . . from skid row to embassy row." In fact, with pockets of deprivation, multi-culturalism and transient dwellers, there is far more social diversity in Dublin 4 than in, say, Mount Merrion; but somehow, much of that gets discounted when 'D4' is used in a generalised sort of way. Then, it becomes what Eoghan Harris once called "almost a state of mind". In that narrative, D4 isn't a postcode or a suburb, or a collection of streets and houses in varying states of shabbiness or grandeur. It's a signifier, a psychological hinterland that tells us something about the rest of the city, and the country.
In one of those pyramids that PR people like to draw up, D4 wouldn't be the top layer, the 'Innovators' (that's the folk in Stoneybatter or around Wexford Street), and possibly not even 'Early Adopters' (I'm thinking South Circular Road and Rathmines for that), but 'Early Majority'. Basically, the tipping point - just before something goes totally mainstream, reaching even the outer suburbs of Stillorgan and Malahide, it establishes itself in D4. This is true of Bikram yoga just as much as it is of craft beer. And so, when D4 explodes with trendy bistros, bars, cafes and delis, it's worth taking a closer look at.
Once, this was as close as the city got to bohemia - land of Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh, who lived at number 62 Pembroke Road for 15 years, and wrote his famous poem about Raglan Road. For Kavanagh, it was all about a handful of pubs, including the old Palace Bar and the Waterloo, where he put up with what he called "the tiresome drivel between journalists and civil servants" because he also found writers and would-be writers to talk to. Mary Lavin lived here, as did DP Moran, who coined the phrase "Irish Ireland".
Gradually, of course, the writers and bohemians dried up and were priced out of the market, and Dublin 4 slid quietly, happily, into more muted suburban affluence. A place of solicitors, doctors, senior partners, RTE top brass and the odd astute intellectual, drawn by proximity to town, two universities, St Vincent's Hospital, and a host of excellent schools (Muckross Park College, The Teresian School, St Michael's College, St Conleth's College). These were the people who objected so strenuously, and successfully, to Sean Dunne's plans for the old Jury's and Berkeley Court hotels; the staid, traditional, wilfully discreet residents for whom the idea of Dunne's proposed glitzy 'Knightsbridge-style' development - a 37-storey structure, featuring an ice-rink, and glass pyramids modelled on the Louvre in Paris, along with the full complement of upmarket hotel, cafes and boutiques - was pure poison.
The fact that Dunne, and wife, Gayle Killilea, lived on Shrewsbury Road and epitomised a creeping new style of Dublin 4 resident - voracious property developers - didn't help. The chocolate fountains, helipads and Hummers - along with Johnny Ronan's legendary parties in his 'Pink Palace' on Burlington Road and high-profile relationship with then girlfriend Glenda Gilson - were the cause of much rumbling discontent among the sniffy 'old-money' sort of residents, who weren't altogether disappointed when the end of the boom years put a hiatus on all that "nonsense", as one diamond-dripping yummy mummy of my acquaintance, herself the daughter of an older incarnation of property developer, disparagingly called it.
Another woman, Judy Stephenson, formerly Boland, now lives in London but she grew up in the area in the 1970s and 1980s. She recalls: "We moved to a pretty converted Victorian house on Belmont Avenue in 1977. My grandparents lived on Ailesbury Road. Dublin 4 in the 1970s and 80s was a sedate place, very much worried about what the neighbours might think. It was so empty and quiet; the cars made swishy sounds against the concrete when they passed on Eglinton Road. There were three pharmacies, one shop - owned by a terribly posh old man who looked disparagingly at all customers, especially children wishing to spend their money on his goods - and a big Spar beside the rugby club.
"There were no coffee shops or places to hang out. Street life and leisure generally were looked down upon by the well-to-do middle classes. Baggot Street was not a place that you got out of the car until the late 1980s. The playground in Herbert Park consisted of a rocking barrel and three swings. The mean old dowagers always looked annoyed, as if you might disturb the ducks when you played. I wasn't allowed play with the kids who were having fun in the cul de sac; maybe those kids remember it better.
"On Sundays, everything was closed - apart from Donnybrook Church, where the service was an hour and a half. I still remember the sermons blaming us for even thinking about abortion or divorce. Church was followed by Sunday lunch in some big house, which was a grown-up affair, full of red wine and cigar smoke, and straight into the back of the car. There were certain families who entertained on a grand scale, but only for the grown-ups. I remember so many 'dens' and halls and cold conservatories, to where the kids were consigned, until the claret had run out. Bankers and judges laughed loudly, and were sometimes more touchy-feely than they should be.
"Looking back, I think the best thing about growing up in Dublin 4 was how close it was to town. From the age of about 16, I took to walking in. I kept walking. I walked in and out of Trinity for four years, and then I walked off all together.
"When I visit my sister in Dublin 4 these days, I marvel at how much fun she has; how open it is for kids, and adults, of all persuasions. There's no nostalgia for the old days. People in Dublin 4 were afraid of something then; their glossy front doors were a front for middle-class angst about old money, and positions, and religion and 'being seen to do'. We are all better off now, hipsters, cafes and playgrounds and all."
The staid solicitors and doctors with their "middle-class angst" may have set the tone for the area, but there weren't enough of them to populate it entirely. The slack was picked up by students and young hopefuls, living in immediately discernible bedsits and apartments the length of Baggot Street, Raglan Road, Leeson Street and beyond. The grotty lace curtains, peeling front doors and grimy windows interspersing the smart, done-up houses, were dead giveaways.
That was my Dublin 4, the stomping-ground of my college years: grand-but-grotty apartments on Leeson Street, Hatch Street, and Clyde Road - where I lived below architect Sam Stephenson - followed by a spell around Beggars Bush and Grand Canal Street as an actual working person, but one who earned very little money. Back then, Raglan Road was student land, Clyde Road was mostly offices and embassies, and Baggot Street was a series of greasy 'delis' (I use the word advisedly; one tub of slimy coleslaw does not a deli make) and hopeless, rapidly changing cafes serving foul coffee and sad sandwiches.
Ten years ago, change began in earnest. At the time, I had moved beyond the edge of Dublin 4 and into Dublin 2, but I sent my son to the Montessori in Ballsbridge, where I met other parents of small children. Many of them were young couples with two or three kids, and were busily renovating these former bedsits and student dives. They were painstakingly putting the beautiful old houses on Wellington Road and its environs back together into family homes. Taking down the flimsy partitions, the grotty one-to-a-floor bathrooms, the posters of Beatrice Dalle in Betty Blue, and replacing them with large, glass-heavy kitchens, complete with marble-topped islands and duck-egg-blue units. Their children are now the ones who own Herbert Park, nipping around on bikes and scooters, wearing leather jackets and wallet chains, trailing sugar-free, fruit-based snacks and energy drinks based on guarana and ginseng.
Now catering to these families - as well as, crucially, to the hip, young, international employees of Google, Airbnb, Facebook and Twitter - are so many cafes, bars, delis and restaurants, that the entire feeling and fabric of the area has changed. In particular, the area around Beggars Bush, Grand Canal Street and Bath Avenue are newly heaving, in what I call 'the Juniors effect'. Juniors is the cafe run by brothers Paul and Barry McNerney, and is open since 2008. Back then, it was a rather lone beacon of light - one, however, spotted by the Leinster rugby lads, who were regulars from the start. Brian O'Driscoll and pals could often be found in situ, consuming the aptly-named 'Breakfast of Champions'.
Then over on Grand Canal Street, the brothers opened a second restaurant, Paulie's Pizza, with the Prohibition-inspired Barry's Bar upstairs. It seems constantly full, often with queues out the door, and excited rumour has it they will soon open a high-end supermarket behind Slattery's pub. On Bath Avenue, they co-own The Old Spot with the owners of the Bath Bar, Brian O'Malley and Stephen Cooney, who also own the Leopardstown Inn in Stillorgan. Phew!
Then there is The Chop House, co-owned by Kevin Arundel; Food Game; Farmer Browns (which features in various 'Top Ten Burgers in Dublin' lists); the Olive Green Espresso Bar, and Sober Lane (where black-pudding pizza is the thing). All are within a mile radius of each other, and all are furiously pushing the boundaries of foodiness, with various marinades for olives; a thousand ways with bacon and ancient Aztec grains; the words 'local', 'sustainable', 'artisanal' indelibly printed on the cute chalkboards that serve as menus.
Nothing is deliberately fancy - these are not stiff-tablecloth-and-silver-cutlery kinds of places. Often, the tableware is charmingly mismatched and assorted. No, the emphasis here is substance, with style kept carefully raw.
One long-time resident of the new hot zone sums it up: "Bath Avenue was like a ghost town for decades, a quiet, slightly shabby residential area - now, it seems that every second front room has been converted into a bistro or a brasserie. Sandwiches called 'The Reuben', and rainbow flags in pubs. Google offices. Bouncy furniture and ping-pong tables for blue-sky thinking. Serious-looking chefs with hipster haircuts. The melancholic drunks have been shunted out by loud music and fancy beer. This is the land that the recession forgot. Your local 'barista' doesn't take your order, he just places "el usual" discreetly by your elbow as you thumb through the abundance of newspapers - national and international - provided.
"'How was that for you?' is the new rallying cry. Every spare square metre is being transformed into a coffee dock or a fancy sandwich bar. The Grand Canal is lined twice weekly with Korean, Mexican, and German lunch options as part of a wandering farmer's market. The days of a pint and a toasted sandwich are over. Hip young waiting staff call out to you by name as you shuffle over to the Spar for milk. This is a place for the strong, the successful; for those on top of their game; those who are doing exciting things with ricotta. Gone are the wistful failures who used to sip pints in Slattery's all day, ogling young women who passed in front of the window. There are so many smart women to ogle now that it's hardly worth the effort."
It is no accident that much of this is happening within a stone's throw of the Aviva and the Leinster Rugby grounds. Not only are rugby supporters driving it, as customers, but rugby players, and former rugby players, are creating it. Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and the Kearney brothers, Rob and Dave, are co-owners of The Bridge 1859 bar, where quinoa and goat's cheese salad with beetroot tapenade and rocket sits alongside craft whiskies, gin and poitin made by Glendalough Distillery, a venture that counts Brian O'Driscoll among its investors. Maybe only men as obviously masculine, underneath their hipsterish metrosexuality - the breadth of shoulder and thickness of neck giving the lie to the pink T-shirts and Aussie surfer shorts - could have pulled off the remarkable feat of making stuff like food provenance and seasonality a thing that 'real men' can care about.
Further proof that something is hot right now in D4 comes from Ross Lewis, legendary chef and creator of Chapter One, who, after considering a second restaurant for many years, finally took the plunge, right here. Osteria Lucio is located on Clanwilliam Terrace (I know it is technically Dublin 2, but by a whisker and no more). So why did he choose to open there? "I really like that area, and there are plans for another 30,000 people to work here in the next five years. I've been driving through there every morning for the last 20 years, and it's an area I've always found great. During the recession, it's the one place where rents didn't dip, relative to other dips. It held strong, and real-estate prices held strong."
Down the road in Irishtown, Martin Thomas is, in his own way, a funny kind of living embodiment of the Dublin 4 'journey' (as it would be known were this a reality-TV show). As anyone who watched RTE series Connected - of which he was the unexpected hit - will know, Martin opened The Artisan Parlour & Grocery in Ringsend ten months ago. Before that, in the 1980s, he lived for years on Raglan Road - "you could rent half a huge house for £100 a week" - and was a music and club promoter running some of the hippest nights in town, where U2 and their pals might be squashed in alongside It girls and about-to-be-famous actors.
Now, he's firmly among the new breed of foodies. "When we opened the Artisan Parlour first, this was essentially a grocery shop where you could also get a nice glass of wine and have a plate of cheese. Within six weeks, it grew into a full-blown restaurant, because that's what the demand was. Before we opened, people were telling me, 'You won't be able to sell €6 sandwiches in Ringsend'. Well, I proved them wrong! The demand was for a bigger and bigger food offering. At the moment, we're doing a special, an open crab sandwich using Vaughans of Liscannor Irish Crab, along with a salad, at €13, and we have consistently sold out in the last few weeks."
Customers, are "all sorts" he says. "Workmen, families, people living in the local area, people who work for Airbnb and other tech companies," which is the way he likes it. "I remember Baggot Street in the 1980s and 1990s. All the businesses on the street were there to cater to the office workers around the area, and at weekends and at night, the place was dead. It still is. We don't want that - we want to make sure we cater for the entire community, those who have lived here for three or four generations, as well as the ones who came in during the boom and bought townhouses for €700,000."
So far, so good. Thomas buys from the butcher next door, and supplies sandwiches to the pub across the road, showing the kind of synergy that can develop between old and new. "It is still a challenge to get people across the bridge and into Ringsend," he says. "This is not yet the kind of hub that Grand Canal Street and Bath Avenue are, but we're getting there. The Artisan Parlour is becoming a destination, and that will continue to develop. I'd love to see some more restaurants, maybe a gastropub, opening. But barely a week goes by that someone doesn't come in here asking if we know of any units to rent."
But what of nightlife in all of this? The places that come up when the sun goes down? Finally, on Lower Leeson Street, something exciting is happening, with House Dublin, at number 27, as the centre point. This is not the old-school style of basement club, complete with over-priced Liebfraumilch and Piat D'Or, where on a good night you might spot a Hothouse Flower or U2 roadie in between the heaving crowd of hairdressers and commerce students. It's not Joys, either, where Eamon Dunphy, Shane McGowan and Antonia Leslie could be found, sharing floor space with the senior counsels and politicians who made up so much of the nightlife of the time that the club was known - rather off-puttingly - as The Galway Tent In Town.
No, the new Leeson Street has a touch of genuine glamour, and has played host to Idris Elba, Michael Fassbender, Tinie Tempah, Lily Allen and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, along with more home-grown stars, including Nadia Forde, Rory McIlroy, Rosanna Davison, Keith Duffy, Andrea Roche and Pippa O'Connor. This is where to spot the new post-Krystle generation of clubbers: more grown-up and health-aware (think cocktails containing superfoods), and carrying a touch of more mystical, almost New Age attitude.
So, in among the bars and food business, the Pilates and yoga studios, and the general shorthand whereby everything now is 'gourmet', or 'mindful', or maybe just 'authentic'; the buff guys in carefully faded T-shirts throwing Frisbees to each other, and the girls who used to walk around in head-to-toe designer gear with huge Burberry handbags, now to be found clutching yoga mats and chai lattes - is there any real change? Is Dublin 4 a different, more spiritual and genuine kind of place? More in keeping with the values of post-boom Ireland? Or is 'authentic' still just a buzzword for menus? Does the fact that these girls still have the same expensive highlights, glittering rocks and year-round tans hint that the trappings may be different, but the fundamentals are the same? That, post-boom, the same old smug materialism reigns?
One friend, a long-term resident who grew up in Donnybrook and now lives a stone's throw from Herbert Park, first reminds me sternly that "D4 is not just four really trendy streets and two really expensive ones," then says,"It is different. I am surprised at the amount of families with young kids now. On Halloween night, every second house has decorations up. That's new."
She points out that "the appeal of Dublin 4 has never worn off. House prices here recovered faster than elsewhere and are probably still growing faster. A house on Herbert Park, no matter what it goes on sale for, is never on sale for very long. But," she insists, "there are plenty of myths about Dublin 4. There are plenty of people here who struggle to make ends meet, just like anywhere else. The other parents I meet at the school gates are a broad socio-economic mix, with a range of backgrounds. There are definitely more bohemian types, compared with, say, Foxrock, which attracts more conservative people. The Desperate Housewives-Yummy Mummies - that's a south County Dublin thing, not a Dublin 4 thing. Here, women work, or they are very busy with cultural projects. They don't spend the day boutique shopping, having coffee and going to yoga classes."
Essentially, the New D4 is, literally, a revolution - the full turn of a demographic wheel, the process by which young families grow middle-aged and then old; children grow up and leave, and eventually, in waves that run along streets and through neighbourhoods like a series of small tremors, the inhabitants move on, to retirement homes or the grave, and the young families buy back in.
The New Dublin 4 seems to be back at the beginning of that revolution, only this time the resident population is supplemented not by broke, grungy students, but by high-earning young techie professionals. Together, these families and Facebookers are attracting the undisputed accessories of the age: rare-breed-pork, gluten-free brownies, craft beer and the language of higher consciousness.
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