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Monday 18 November 2019

Why the beating heart of the capital is still pulsating with life ...

From dance to song and poetry to history, this famous street never fails to inspire

Street dancer Patrik Gluchowski gets into the groove on Dublin's Grafton Street. Photo: Frank McGrath
Street dancer Patrik Gluchowski gets into the groove on Dublin's Grafton Street. Photo: Frank McGrath
Street artist Hugh Murphy [80] from Cavan entertains the people by playing the spoons, on Dublin's Grafton Street.
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

Before the Luas starts to roll, and commuters' bodies bang against each other, there's something spectral about Grafton Street. Flower sellers stack hydrangeas and hollyhocks in plastic crates on the corner of Chatham and Harry Street, windows are wetted down and wiped, and the sun starts to edge up the sides of buildings.

And then with a flurry, everything suddenly jumps into life: crowds spill off buses and bikes, and a tide of humanity ebbs and flows along the twisting street.

Spanish exchange students yap loudly, men in suits roar down phones, American tourists in dazzling white runners plod about, and yoga mums push their designer buggies towards Avoca Handweavers.

For me, Grafton Street has always felt like the primary chamber of Dublin's heart: at the centre of everything and pulsing with life.

With Tourism Ireland predicting a record number of visitors to our shores, the buzz and hum engulfing the street seems to have intensified this summer.

Around 11am, once the daily delivery vans have withdrawn, buskers start to line the streets.

Hugh Murphy (80) from Louth has been playing the spoons on Grafton Street for the past 56 years.

"This stretch could give 42nd Street in Manhattan a run for its money," he says proudly.

While the deftness with which Hugh plays the spoons cannot be questioned, he rarely makes a decent wage from the performances.

"Once you factor in the cost of travelling up and down there's very little left," he explains.

"But I don't do it for the money, I do it for the enjoyment. I spent my life working on tanker ships - playing for the crowds is a joy."

The quality of performers on Grafton Street ranges vastly.

Yes, we all know this is where Glen Hansard and Mundy started out, and where Bono likes to head on Christmas Eve.

But it's also home to angst-ridden teenagers singing Ed Sheeran covers, travelling poets, and, worst of all to my mind, roving bands of mime artists.

But according to Patrik Gluchowski (22), a street dancer from the Czech Republic, the variety adds to Grafton Street's unique selling point (USP).

"Everyone brings something different," he says. "From dance, to song, to magic. We're lucky to perform on this stage."

Further up the street, Akos Voros, a middle-aged actor from Budapest, is applying a thick layer of silver greasepaint to his face and adjusting an over-sized witch's hat.

"It took 11 weeks to put this outfit together," he says. "The silver catches people's eyes."

Nowadays, Grafton Street is a busy thoroughfare, but back in the 18th Century it was a residential street - established by one of the country's wealthiest families, the Dawsons, and named after Henry Fitzroy, the first Duke of Grafton.

In the 19th Century, private buildings turned into boarding houses and vendors began setting up shop and selling their wares along the byway.

It wasn't long before Dublin's commercial centre had shifted from the environs surrounding Dublin Castle to Grafton Street.

The building of Switzer's department store in 1838, and Brown Thomas in 1848, secured its setting as the ultimate destination for window shoppers.

Over the years, the opening of different shops and cafes have helped breathe new life into Grafton Street, Bewley's Oriental Cafe threw open its doors in 1927, US chain McDonald's arrived in 1977 and the street was pedestrianised in 1979.

For those of a certain age, the unveiling of Captain Americas marked a kind of cultural threshold.

In the 1970s, this was the place where hipsters could listen to Chris de Burgh's dulcet tones as they munched on their cheeseburgers. "The opening of Captain Americas was very important," Ian Lumley, a heritage officer with An Taisce explains. "It helped bring in a new generation."

According to Mr Lumley, maintaining the cultural integrity of Grafton Street is integral.

"It can't just turn into a British high street," he says.

"So many of the country's greatest writers have used Grafton Street as a source of inspiration or a backdrop for their poems, plays and prose."

Let's not forget this is where Leopold Bloom admired flimsy ladies' underwear in the windows of BTs, where Brendan Behan sank pints and where Patrick Kavanagh tripped lightly along the street ledges.

"Every corner has some social or cultural history attached to it," Mr Lumley said. "We need to retain that sense of history to maintain the character of Grafton Street, and ensure it remains a popular tourist destination."

Moving through the shoals of tourists on a sticky summer day, I bump into Caroline Surer, a young tourist from Switzerland. "Maybe you are used to it but it feels like a carnival," she says. "Everywhere you look there's something different and something beautiful."

Irish Independent

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