Once a forgotten part of Dublin’s north inner city, the area around Smithfield and Stoneybatter has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. With new restaurants and independent shops opening, there’s never been a better time to see what all the fuss is about
Stoneybatter and Smithfield are two of Dublin’s most storied neighbourhoods. It’s unsurprising, really, they go back more than 1,700 years. When the Normans invaded the city, the Vikings were pushed back outside the city limits to what is now Stoneybatter, hence the street names you’ll see there such as Viking Road,Olaf Road, and the fantastically named Thor Place.
Smithfield was once a huge cattle market and the plaza – now devoid of livestock – was the scene for one of the great urban planning mistakes of the modern era. When its redevelopment was announced in the mid-’90s, it was hoped the plan would revitalise an area of the city that had long fallen into disrepair – the plaza was something of a nowhere land; not in the suburbs, but not quite the city either. It was a place to pass through rather than stop. But the redevelopment was a failure.
While planners hoped the square would develop into a Continental-style meeting place, the reality was a windswept and barren vacuum. Ironically, while Smithfield stagnated, the area around it did enjoy a renaissance – mainly due to Stoneybatters’ red-brick housing being so attractive to young professionals – who in turn attracted independent stores, bars, restaurants, and even one of Europe’s best cinemas.
The area now stands as a testament to organic development, with none of the pretensions of the so-called Creative Quarter on the southside, or the Technology Hub that is the Docklands. Dublin 7 (the area’s postal district) has managed to hang on to a quirkiness and rough edges that make it – post-Celtic Tiger – Dublin’s most interesting neighbourhood by far.
This part of Dublin 7 now links the centre of the city with the Museum District (including Collin’s Barracks, the National Museum and IMMA), with the LUAS (the city’s light rail and tram system), connecting it to the rest of Dublin. The recession was felt keenly in Smithfield, with many businesses closing their doors, but that in turn led to more affordable rents and places such as the Third Space and the Old Butcher Studios providing creatives with space.
“In the past few years in Dublin there has been some super new design and craft businesses set up,” says Jennifer Slattery, who set up Old Butcher Studios two years ago. “Smithfield property rents were reasonable so small businesses and creative people flocked here. There’s a wonderful mix of people that have lived here forever, students and young families that have made the area their home. It makes for a great sense of community.”
One business that has survived through thick and thin is The Cobblestone pub, a mainstay of Dublin’s traditional music scene. Located at the northern edge of Smithfield’s Square, the pub has seen all the changes in the area, some good and some bad. “I’m here 26 years give or take, and the change in the area is drastic,” says Tomás Mulligan, whose father owns the pub. “There was quite a lot of investment here before everything went to pieces in the mid-noughties. The whole border of the square is new, but then it stopped when recession hit. Most of the creativity in the area seems to have sprung up from that. Austerity seems like it breeds that sort of stuff.”
It’s true that without the recession, high rents would have meant it unlikely that most of the independent outlets would have opened. Unfortunately much of Dublin’s city centre looks similar to an English high street, which makes areas like Stoneybatter all the more refreshing.
Down at the other end of the square, on Queen Street, is The Dice Bar, the polar opposite of The Cobblestone, but equally ingrained on the area’s psyche. Its owner, Kieran Finnerty, has seen lots of changes. “I’ve been here 20 years but it’s only in the past two or three years that you started getting restaurants opening up,” says Finnerty. “When we opened Dice Bar, Benburb Street was quite possibly the worst street in Ireland.”
There’s still a rough edge to parts of the area, but that only adds to the charm. As independent deli/cafe Lilliput Store’s manager, Aoife Cronin, says, it’s the mix that makes the place tick. “I think the business popped up initially because there were a lot of younger people moving into this old neighbourhood and then it naturally grew. I think what makes Stoneybatter and Smithfield unique is that synergy between old and new.”
One place to stop by in the old is the Church Of The Sacred Heart, where where the remains of the 1916 leaders are buried. A doorway at the edge of the graveyard will bring you into the UN Peacekeepers’ Veterans Garden, which houses an impressive anti-tank gun. Nearby Lilliput Press welcomes visitors, and you could spend an afternoon browsing through the publisher’s huge range of titles.
Around the corner from Lilliput Press is the aforementioned Lilliput Stores, a deli-cum-grocer that serves delicious sandwiches, salads and more. It’s the perfect place to stock up before a visit to Phoenix Park.
The area’s best coffee stop-off has to be Love Supreme – a few minutes away on Manor Street. They also do mouthwatering sausage rolls and pies; it’s fairly decent comfort food for the colder months – and there are plenty.
While Smithfield Square lacks the charm of Stoneybatter, it does have its attractions. As well as the wonderful Lighthouse Cinema – which shows live performances from the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon, there’s the Generator Hostel, where non-residents can go and party until the small hours. The Old Jameson Distillery is next door, and of course, The Cobblestone looks on from the north of the square.
So what’s the future for Dublin 7? Hopefully more independent shops, restaurants and art spaces will spring up, with the area resisting the inevitbale urge to bow to the pressure of global brands.
The new Grangegorman campus (located northeast of Stoneybatter) should bring an influx of students, and the hope is the place won’t, as Cobblestone manager Mulligan says, “go the same way as Temple Bar”. He’s optimistic, however, and that’s down to something Dublin is good at producing: people. “There’s people I know around the square that I’ve known all my life, some of the most decent folk I’ve ever met and then there’s people who’ve moved here from all over the country – and further afield who just come in and interweave, getting on with everybody. The community around here is my favourite thing about the area. I think it’s the best place in Dublin to live… and that’s down to the people.”
Words and images: Conor Purcell