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Pól Ó Conghaile: Do we really want Dublin to turn into Dundrum Town Centre?

The small, independent businesses that make Dublin special are facing into a tough January, our Travel Editor writes


Sweny's Chemist in Dublin. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Sweny's Chemist in Dublin. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Sweny's Chemist in Dublin. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

"You can write your own Ulysses," PJ Murphy grinned.

An American visitor had just stepped into Sweny's, the Lincoln Place pharmacy that features in James Joyce's masterpiece, seeking a literary souvenir. At the time, I was interviewing PJ, one of the volunteers running the shop. I loved his suggestion: a diary with an image of Ulysses as its cover.

Sweny's is dyed-in-the-wool Dublin. A pharmacy dating from 1847, immortalised by Joyce ('Smell almost cure you like the dentist's doorbell,' Leopold Bloom muses), closed in 2009 but rescued from oblivion by a group of volunteers who have sold books and soap, held readings, sang songs and poured cups of tea ever since. That moment was a year ago, and it couldn't have happened anywhere else.

Soon, it may not happen anywhere at all. Because there's a chance that Sweny's will close by summer.

Until recently, the not-for-profit has survived on small sales and donations. But the rental market in Dublin "has gone bonkers," its team wrote recently on patreon.com.

"As a result, our rent has doubled. Yes, doubled."

It is now calling for donations, inviting people to become patrons for as little as €1 a month (you can help at sweny.ie). But for how long can this tiny institution survive?

Sweny's isn't alone. Last week also saw the abrupt liquidation of the Jo'Burger Group, an independent clutch of restaurants - including Jo'Burger, Hey Donna and Crackbird - that was influential in rebooting Dublin's post-Celtic Tiger casual dining scene. The closures were due to several factors, including "challenging trading conditions", it said.

Coming so close to Christmas, the developments feel ominous. Along with rising rents and rates, January will usher in a higher VAT rate just as Brexit comes to the boil and consumers suffer a seasonal hangover. There is dark chatter on social media about the outlook for small food and retail businesses.

Cities need change. They also need malls, chains and international brands. But small businesses like Sweny's and Jo'Burger balance those big, bland storefronts with local colour and creative ideas. They support community and foster social fabric. They are the kind of places Dublin needs more, not less, of.

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The Starbucks and H&Ms of this world can ride out all kinds of "trading conditions", but do we really want Dublin to become a Dundrum Town Centre?

This also matters from a tourism point of view.

Dublin needs to distinguish itself from cheaper competitor cities like Prague, Valencia and Edinburgh. We may not see the urgency to this now, with visitor numbers booming, but we will when the inevitable slowdown comes.

As a visitor destination, Dublin can't compete on price, transport or cultural infrastructure. Beyond big hits like the Guinness Storehouse, Trinity College and St Patrick's Cathedral, tourists love the city for its atmosphere, its rich tapestry of streets, pubs, shops and restaurants. To stand apart, Dublin needs to preserve and develop that, to support quirky shops, independent restaurants serving Irish food, unique strips like Capel, Drury and Parnell Streets, or enclaves like the Blackrock Market. It doesn't need more Starbucks and superpubs.

As an individual, it's easy to feel helpless. What can one person do with Dublin's destiny in the hands of developers, chains and faceless 'investors'? We can protest, of course. But we can also snap out of our fog of distractedness, break habits of convenience and actually re-engage with the small businesses that make our city special.

You don't have to upend your life. But one small change can make a difference. Starting in January, why not make an effort, once a week, to support a small business in one new way? Buy your meat at a butcher instead of the supermarket; eat at an independent restaurant rather than a big franchise, shop at the Gutter Bookshop rather than Amazon, try a small cafe over a big chain. In a small way, you'll support community... and you'll feel a little better, too.

Not all of us can write our own Ulysses, but we can help create our city. Sadly, it's too late to drop into Jo'Burger. But there's still time to buy a bar of soap in Sweny's.

We get the Dublin we deserve.

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