Parnell Street in Dublin is home to Brazil­ian, Nige­rian, In­dian, Viet­namese, Korean, Chi­nese and – yes – Ir­ish busi­nesses

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Pa­trick Freyne

Parnell Street East is, by some mar­gin, the most mul­ti­cul­tural part of Dublin. Along it you can find Brazil­ian, south Asian, African, and Chi­nese su­per­mar­kets (three of the lat­ter); two African hair dressers; African, In­dian, Viet­namese, Korean, Ir­ish and Chi­nese res­tau­rants (eight of the lat­ter); and it is home to both a Ro­ma­nian and an African con­gre­ga­tion who gather for evan­gel­i­cal ser­vices ev­ery Sun­day.

It’s an old story. New­com­ers to a city find cheap places to an­chor and build com­mu­ni­ties, and over time one group re­places an­other. The ear­li­est eth­nic shops on the street were es­tab­lished in the late 1990s by Nige­rian peo­ple ( none of those orig­i­nal busi­nesses are still there) but more re­cently Asian busi­nesses, par­tic­u­larly Chi­nese, dom­i­nate.

There are still old sta­ples, such as Fib­ber Magees rock pub, Fo­ley’s Chemist and TJ’s cof­fee house. There are also some derelict build­ings in­clud­ing the old Wel­come Inn pub, once my lo­cal, and Neary’s ho­tel which was, for a pe­riod in 2015 and 2016, oc­cu­pied by ac­tivist squat­ters (it’s still empty long after their evic­tion).

But gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is in the air. The Luas now goes through Parnell Street, and nearby Parnell Square is des­tined to be­come a cul­tural quar­ter. Some busi­ness peo­ple have also been lob­by­ing to have the street of­fi­cially des­ig­nated “Chinatown”, although some of the non-Chi­nese busi­ness own­ers have wor­ries about be­ing erased in this process.

I love Parnell Street and walk through it sev­eral times a week. Re­cently, I spoke to the peo­ple who live or work there.

The win­dow of Dublin Mould­ings con­tains busts of Elvis, Michael Collins and Bob Mar­ley. There’s even a re­lief of the Bea­tles as they ap­peared on the cover of Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A drunk man comes in the door, points at Michael Collins, and asks, “Can you do me?”

They can­not. “We make those out of moulds,” says Vera Do­ran, daugh­ter of the owner, Vin­cent, “and we don’t have any moulds of you”.

When I meet Vin­cent Do­ran, he’s sit­ting at a big heater in the mid­dle of the room wear­ing a brightly coloured shirt. He was born around the cor­ner in Seán McDer­mott Street and spent time in in­dus­trial schools as a boy. In the 1980s, he hired a plas­terer who showed him how to do this sort of or­na­men­tal plas­ter­work and he’s been do­ing it ever since.

He’s been here since the 1990s, orig­i­nally in a prop­erty across the road, when the street was re­ally run-down. The pre­vi­ous ten­ants of num­ber 99 sold prams and baby clothes, and were robbed reg­u­larly. No­body robbed their shop, says Vera, be­cause the lo­cals knew the fam­ily. Vin­cent says it’s also be­cause they never had money on the premises.

Their main busi­ness is hand­made cor­nic­ing for ho­tels, cafes and homes but they also have a side­line mak­ing the colour­ful fig­ures show­cased in the win­dow. Their big­gest seller is the White Lady, which you’ll know from win­dow sills all over the city, who Vin­cent likes to call “Sue Ellen”.

He shows me a busy work­shop filled with plas­ter dust (“Wipe your feet,” he jokes) and he re­calls busi­nesses that have come and gone: Lucky Duffy’s; Paddy’s Pet Shop; and The Blue Lion pub where his dad, who was “served and barred in ev­ery bar in the city”, played pi­ano.

He plays mu­sic him­self, he says, and whips out a har­mon­ica to play Whiskey in the Jar. I clap along.

At one point a well- to- do cus­tomer walks in. “I’m just in this area for the first time and it’s like down­town Bangkok,” she says. “No­body speaks English.”

But Vin­cent says he likes how the street has changed. “They brought this place alive,” he says. “It used to be dead.”

“My aun­tie had a sa­lon back in Nige­ria and I used to go there to hang out and play as a lit­tle kid,” says Cae­sar Omovbude. It’s pour­ing rain out­side but in Mighty Cae­sar’s barber shop, reg­gae is play­ing, hair is be­ing cut and peo­ple are chat­ting.

When Omovbude, a for­mer pub­lic ser­vant, ar­rived as a refugee in the early 2000s, he had no money and wasn’t al­lowed to work, so would hang out at a now-closed African bar­bers. When he even­tu­ally got his papers, he says, he started hav­ing dreams about cut­ting hair. “I said to my mum on the phone, ‘I see my­self in my dreams cut­ting hair all the time . . . I’m scared’,” He laughs. “She said ‘ Why are you scared? Just do it!’ ”

Ex­cited and ter­ri­fied

So he re­mem­bered what he’d learned at his aun­tie’s sa­lon and cut hair. When an im­pressed Ir­ish client of­fered him his own space, the op­por­tu­nity both ex­cited and ter­ri­fied him. There were ca­bles com­ing out of the walls and gravel ev­ery­where. He got a credit union loan to get started and took a night job at a fac­tory.

African peo­ple don’t have the same pub cul­ture as Ir­ish peo­ple, says Omovbude, so the barber shop is an im­por­tant meet­ing place. “I see guys who come to hang out and I re­mem­ber I used to do the same thing. To talk about home, pol­i­tics, re­li­gion, love af­fairs, where else do you go?”

A barber is also some­thing like a coun­sel­lor, he says. “To some­one who is very warm and all of a sud­den is quiet, you say, ‘I hope ev­ery­thing is okay?’ and they might say ‘ I lost my job,’ or ‘ My wife sent me pack­ing’ . . . You give a lit­tle ad­vice: ‘Don’t worry, it’s go­ing to be okay.’ I be­lieve in God. I be­lieve there is no sit­u­a­tion that will arise that will not pass by.”

From time to time drunks smash his win­dow or shout racist things in the door but he seems sto­ical about this. He last vis­ited Nige­ria many years ago and while there he re­alised some­thing: “Ire­land is now my home . . . from to­day on­ward I must start to pray for Ire­land.”

Bub­ble tea is a very cold, milky tea with balls of chewy tapi­oca float­ing within. It is in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar in many Asian coun­tries, but it is far too sweet for me, which I tell Den­nis, the Malaysian fi­nance stu­dent be­hind the counter.

“In­ter­est­ing,” he says, as though he finds this hard to be­lieve.

Mosa, an Asian res­tau­rant and café, is a bright, warm and colour­ful place. There’s a big teddy bear on one of the benches and there are gui­tars in the cor­ners up­stairs and loads of post- its af­fixed to the walls. Den­nis has trav­elled a bit and likes Ire­land a lot, though he says it’s very “laid back” com­pared with some of the “re­ally com­pet­i­tive” coun­tries in which he’s worked. When it comes to get-up-and-go he scores Malaysia a five, the Philip­pines a seven and Ire­land a three.

“I would say this is pretty much the Asian street,” he says. “The un­of­fi­cial Chinatown. They say it was Moore Street first, then Capel Street and then here.”

A young Filipino busi­ness stu­dent, Clarence Malillin, comes in and greets Den­nis. “This is a han­gout place for us Filipinos,” he says.

Do they get lots of young peo­ple here? “Tonnes of teenagers,” says Den­nis.

Malillin was seven when he came to Ire­land, and his mother works here as a nurse. He shows me the post-its on the wall, which fea­ture pen draw­ings of anime char­ac­ters, apho­risms and paeans to K-pop stars. “Peo­ple put their name and user name and peo­ple search it up and fol­low them on so­cial me­dia,” he says.

‘Most mul­ti­cul­tural’

Some­one picks up a guitar and plays Black­bird by the Bea­tles. It’s Bren­dan Davis, a lan­guage teacher here with a group of Brazil­ians and one Mex­i­can. I tell them I’m writ­ing about Parnell Street. “The most mul­ti­cul­tural part of Ire­land,” says Luis Gus­tavo, who lives on the street.

“I lived here too,” says his friend Bruno Bas­tos. “My ex-girl­friend is Taiwanese so we used to have lunch in the Chi­nese res­tau­rants and then come here to drink bub­ble tea . . . Be­fore I came here, I didn’t know a lot of about Asian food.”

He came to Ire­land to learn about Asian food? He laughs. He works in Lif­fey Val­ley and while he is very friendly with his Ir­ish co-work­ers, they never so­cialise out­side of work. “It’s very easy to talk to Ir­ish peo­ple but then it’s ‘bye’ and you never see them again,” he says.

They all live rel­a­tively nearby. Is it im­por­tant to them to be near some­where mul­ti­cul­tural? Mayumi Wauke, who is of Brazil­ian, Ital­ian and Ja­panese her­itage, says this part of town re­minds her of the Ja­panese part of São Paulo. “[ Be­ing here] makes adapt­ing to a cul­ture eas­ier,” says Vic­tor Manuel from Mex­ico. “Most peo­ple here are in the same sit­u­a­tion as you . . . This is like a neu­tral area.”

Hong Ming Xie, like a lot of Chi­nese peo­ple in Ire­land, has an­other name that he gives to western­ers: he goes by Tim. He man­ages the Sichuan Chilli King res­tau­rant. There’s been a res­tau­rant at this ad­dress for some time but there have been a few dif­fer­ent own­ers. Tim came to Ire­land 15 years ago, ini­tially work­ing at a KFC. Now he runs a Spar and man­ages this res­tau­rant.

He isn’t quite sure why Chi­nese busi­nesses first started com­ing to Parnell Street. “I think the gov­ern­ment has plans to move all the Chi­nese [ busi­nesses] down here . . . They want this to be a Chi­nese cul­tural street.”

He wel­comes this idea. “Ev­ery big city has a Chinatown.”

How do so many Chi­nese res­tau­rants sur­vive side by side? He ex­plains how all the cui­sine is from dif­fer­ent re­gions in China and that peo­ple in the com­mu­nity have strong pref­er­ences. He also laughs and says that his Ir­ish-born chil­dren “like KFC and McDon­ald’s bet­ter.”

Theresa Daly in TJ’s cof­fee house, where I am eat­ing a break­fast bap, recog­nises the value of hav­ing the Luas on Parnell Street. She didn’t feel quite the same when the work on it caused the foot­path to col­lapse into their base­ment. There’s a framed pic­ture of a scrab­ble board on the wall, given to her by a cus­tomer to wel­come them back after a month out of busi­ness.

She and her hus­band John have been here since 1988. She re­mem­bers how rough the street felt in those days and thinks the new com­mu­ni­ties have brought life to it. The mul­ti­cul­tural na­ture of the area is ev­i­dent from the ten­ants liv­ing above the cafe. “Four Nepalese on the first floor, lovely young fel­las. Two Brazil­ians and a Ro­ma­nian girl on the se­cond floor. And on the top floor more Brazil­ians and one Ir­ish per­son.”

Ac­com­mo­da­tion is an is­sue here, she says. “A lot of build­ings are after go­ing Airbnb . That suits us, be­cause it’s ‘Air B’ usu­ally, there’s never break­fast, so when they’re walk­ing by, we’re the first place serv­ing.”

They’ve had some un­usual drop- ins. When the rugby matches were held in Croke Park, the IRFU pro­duced maps that by­passed Parnell Street, but they got a few lost south­siders. “That’s ac­tu­ally quite nice,” said one of them. “Ac­tu­ally quite nice?” said Theresa. “Did you think I’d poi­son you?”

Three of An­gela Merkel’s friends called in while on hol­i­day once. She jok­ingly said, “Tell An­gela we’re all work­ing very hard.” A short while later Merkel sent her an au­to­graphed photo.

Cynthia Okonkwo’s shop, Cynthia Ac­cess Point, is partly a gro­cery and partly an un­of­fi­cial com­mu­nity cen­tre where peo­ple sit and chat. Orig­i­nally from Nige­ria, she has lived in Ire­land for 19 years and has a daugh­ter study­ing in Dublin City Uni­ver­sity. “The food I do is what I think peo­ple miss,” she says. “Most of them can’t do with­out it. If they go two or three days with­out the African food, they’re miss­ing the whole world.”

Peo­ple get very par­tic­u­lar, she says. “‘ I’m miss­ing the peanuts from Africa.’ ‘But there’s peanuts in Tesco.’ ‘But it’s dif-

Tim ex­plains how all the cui­sine is from dif­fer­ent re­gions in China and that peo­ple in the com­mu­nity have strong pref­er­ences. He also laughs and says that his Ir­ish-born chil­dren ‘like KFC and McDon­ald’s bet­ter’

fer­ent!’” She laughs. “They give out to me! I can’t make peanuts!”

Why did she come to Ire­land? “My daugh­ter asked me that ques­tion the other day. I came from a lit­tle vil­lage which had most rev­erend fa­thers from Ire­land . . . there was a lit­tle hos­pi­tal called Mater, like up the road.”

She feels re­spon­si­ble for her cus­tomers. “They some­times meet peo­ple from the same vil­lage. They meet them here and say, ‘ I didn’t know I’d meet some­one I knew!’. . . Some­times peo­ple are just re­ally, re­ally de­pressed. When they come in, I al­low them to sit and they don’t have to buy some­thing and they get talk­ing to other peo­ple and their mood changes.”

She calls over a man and in­tro­duces me. His name is Ukachukwu Oko­rie. He is the edi­tor of Africa-World News and so is, in Okonkwo’s words, “able to talk”. He has been here for 13 years and orig­i­nally came as a refugee. He talks about how home­sick­ness is of­ten held at bay by eat­ing fa­mil­iar food and he ex­plains what dif­fer­ent items on the shelves are: “Se­molina . . . bit­ter leaf . . . we use it to cook soup.”

He thinks it’s im­por­tant that African busi­nesses sur­vive on the street. He lists the names of shops that have closed. He wor­ries that African shops will be edged out of the area by bet­ter- cap­i­talised Chi­nese busi­nesses (a fear reit­er­ated by Fran­cis Tutu, who runs the In­tercon­ti­nen­tal Food­court next door).

‘Still con­nected’

“This shop solves a lot of prob­lems,” says Oko­rie. “You can come here and drop a mes­sage for peo­ple . . . You may see an old pal you haven’t seen for a long time. Like this guy.” He pats a passer-by on the shoul­der. “You have to be con­nected to your com­mu­nity. The Ir­ish who em­i­grated 100 years ago, they are still con­nected.”

Mosa, which I vis­ited ear­lier, is owned by Sun­nie Sun, the Chi­nese busi­ness­wom- an spear­head­ing a cam­paign to have the area recog­nised as Chinatown. She has dubbed that build­ing, num­ber 139, “the Chinatown build­ing”. Sun first es­tab­lished a res­tau­rant and the head­quar­ters of her Emer­ald Me­dia news­pa­per pub­lish­ing com­pany in 2002, across the street.

She was the first Chi­nese busi­nessper­son to set up there. Peo­ple got to know where the of­fices were and started call­ing in with re­quests for help. It be­came, she says, “an in­for­ma­tion cen­tre for Chi­nese peo­ple”.

Slowly, Chi­nese busi­nesses spread from Moore Street to Capel Street and onto Parnell Street. Sun refers to the “L” that goes up from Capel Street and across to Parnell Street and draws it on a page. “Now,” she says, “there are 10 Chi­nese- owned busi­nesses on the street.”

She and her col­league, Wynne Liu, make the case for rebranding the area as Chinatown. There are 70,000 Chi­nese peo­ple in Ire­land, they tell me. Ev­ery ma­jor city has a flour­ish­ing Chinatown area, and there’s ev­i­dence that in­creas­ing num­bers of Chi­nese tourists are at­tracted to the area around Parnell Street.

When I note that some non- Chi­nese busi­ness own­ers worry there won’t be a place for them, Liu says that other cul­tures will al­ways be wel­come. “We want more cul­tures to join us”.

Sun and Liu talk about the year ahead. They talk about the spe­cial lanterns that will go up for Chi­nese New Year and the hoped-for in­stal­la­tion of a proper Chi­nese arch on the street. “Ev­ery­body knows now Chinatown is Parnell Street,” says Liu.

Sovit Karki, who lives above TJ’s Cof­fee­house, says that as a Nepalese per­son born be­tween In­dia and China he is com­pletely at home liv­ing among In­dian and Chi­nese res­tau­rants. He’s an as­pir­ing jour­nal­ist and likes be­ing able to see protests pass by from Parnell Square, and meet­ing friends in Fib­ber Magees. “If a place is more multi- cul­tural, be­ing non-Ir­ish liv­ing in Ire­land, that makes you feel com­fort­able.”

Taiwanese stu­dents Jenny- Yi Li and Ramy Ou, who com­pare Tai­wan’s re­la­tion­ship to China with that of Ire­land to the UK, say that as soon as Taiwanese peo­ple came to Ire­land they’re told about Parnell Street. “If we miss home, we can come here.”

At the Brazil­ian gro­cery, Brazuca’s Mar­ket, Roberta laments her English as she taps words into “my friend”, a trans­la­tion app. She loves Ire­land, she says, but it’s a bit of a cul­ture shock. “In Brazil the peo­ple are . . .” She looks up the word. “More joy­ful. In Ire­land the peo­ple are . . .” She looks up the word. “With­drawn.”

Michael Fo­ley shows me a pic­ture of his chemist shop shortly after it opened in 1909. “That’s my grand­fa­ther,” he says, be­fore point­ing to the younger fig­ure be­side him. “I don’t have a clue who that is.”

Fo­ley is the third gen­er­a­tion of his fam­ily to work here. We are in a neatly or­gan­ised back­room and on the shelves are both mod­ern phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal pack­ages and more old-fash­ioned jars for tinc­tures and creams. Fo­ley is walk­ing with the help of a crutch after a hip re­place­ment. In the early part of the last cen­tury the whole fam­ily of 12 lived above the shop. Now Fo­ley lives in Clon­tarf where his fa­ther moved later.


Phar­macy was des­tiny for Fo­ley, who came with his fa­ther ev­ery week­end to mass at the Pro- Cathe­dral be­fore help­ing in the shop. The area was sur­rounded by ten­e­ments then. “Ev­ery shilling was a strug­gle.” It got worse in the 1970s, when peo­ple were moved out to Fin­gal and “the street was dy­ing.” In the late 1990s, he re­mem­bers the first African busi­nesses com­ing to the street. Now, when he rents out flats up­stairs and next door, which he also owns, the “ten­ants are all non-na­tion­als”.

Fo­ley’s will be here for at least an­other gen­er­a­tion ( his son is a phar­ma­cist and they re­cently re­built the build­ing) and he reck­ons the street will change again be­fore long. The new busi­nesses are hard work­ers try­ing to im­prove them­selves, he says. “And what do peo­ple do when they im­prove them­selves? They move away.”

Does he know his neigh­bours? He knows them mainly as cus­tomers, he says. He laughs. “My fa­ther used to say ‘ You work here. You don’t drink here. You’re not their friend. You have to be their phar­ma­cist’.”

Through an arch­way on the left of the street as you head towards Sum­mer­hill is the church of Mercy Chris­tian Fel­low­ship In­ter­na­tional. On Sun­day a con­gre­ga­tion largely made up of Nige­ri­ans – but also Zim­bab­weans, Malaw­ians and at least one Czech woman – praise God, as a band and six singers per­form some ex­cel­lent gospel mu­sic.

Ev­ery­one is dressed up. The pas­tor Chuddy Anikwe some­times takes to his knees and peo­ple chime in with af­fir­ma­tions. The man in front of me has a bi­ble in one hand and a small child clutched in his other. The small child spo­rad­i­cally yells with glee. At one point, ev­ery­one shakes hands and an­other small child with a very se­ri­ous ex­pres­sion on her face comes over and starts hand­ing me Tayto crisps.

“Some­one from a Catholic back­ground, they might not like it,” chuck­les Pas­tor Chuddy af­ter­wards. “Too loud.”

“I brought an Ital­ian friend once. He only stayed for 10 min­utes. He couldn’t stand the noise!” says his Filip­ina wife, Maria.

We are sit­ting in an of­fice after the 2½-hour ser­vice. A sep­a­rate con­gre­ga­tion of Ro­ma­ni­ans are now fill­ing the hall. Chil­dren in their Sun­day best wan­der around. Prior to com­ing here, Chuddy and Maria ran a church in Beirut. They es­tab­lished a church in Fo­ley Street in 2001. “Ire­land has done great work in Nige­ria,” says Pas­tor Chuddy. “Ir­ish priests did a lot . . . Ev­ery good ci­ti­zen would like to pay back in their own ca­pac­ity and my ca­pac­ity is the word of God.”

They came to this lo­ca­tion in 2005 and now have around 200 peo­ple who come from as far as Na­van to wor­ship here be­fore vis­it­ing the African busi­nesses around the cor­ner.

In­creas­ingly, their con­gre­ga­tion have is­sues find­ing homes and the pas­tor has set up a team to help. There’s a sense of the church as an ex­tended fam­ily. “That’s why they call me ‘ Mama’,” says Maria. “We share and pray to­gether and carry each other’s bur­den.”

Their Dublin-ac­cented daugh­ter Aure­lia, a col­lege stu­dent and prize-win­ning gospel singer, says “It keeps me grounded... I’m only 100 per cent sur­rounded by my cul­ture on Sun­day, at church.”

Do they an­tic­i­pate be­ing here for years to come? “Re­cently Nama sold it to an­other per­son and they want to de­velop the place,” says Pas­tor Chuddy.

“So, I don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen next year.”

If a place is more mul­ti­cul­tural be­ing non-Ir­ish liv­ing in Ire­land, that makes you feel com­fort­able


Top: Cae­sar Omovbude at Mighty Cae­sar’s bar­bers. Above left: Theresa Daly and her hus­band John at T&J’s Cof­fee Bar; Above right: Cynthia Okonkwo of Cynthia Ac­cess Point with Fe­lix Ajayi of Kunle’s Kitchen. Left: Tim, aka Hong Ming Xie at the Sichuan Chi­nese res­tau­rant.


Top: In­fras­truc­tural gen­tri­fi­ca­tion on Parnell Street, where Asian busi­nesses, par­tic­u­larly Chi­nese, dom­i­nate. Above, cen­tre and right: Fo­ley’s Chemist on Parnell Street in 1909 and to­day – Michael Fo­ley is the third gen­er­a­tion of his fam­ily to work here. Above, left: Vin­cent Do­ran with his wife Vera and son Vin­cent jnr at Dublin Mould­ings Left: Sun­nie Sun Edi­tor of Emer­ald Me­dia.

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