Dublin's Parnell Street was derelict before the Africans began to move in, in the mid-1990s. Now the Asians have replaced them and we have a minister for integrationby Colin Murphy / December 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
“Them days was before the Africans came to Parnell Street”—so the character Janet introduces her story of life in Dublin in the early 1990s in Sebastian Barry’s new play, The Pride of Parnell Street.
Them days was before I came to Parnell Street too. The street is one of the main axes of north inner-city Dublin but, before the Africans came, it had become a byword for dereliction. In 2003, after three years living in southern Africa, I moved into a flat around the corner from Parnell Street, on Mountjoy Square.
This grandly proportioned square saw its heyday in Georgian times, when Dublin was the second city of the empire. But by the end of the 19th century, the north inner city was already the site of the worst urban deprivation in Europe, with the same Georgian buildings housing whole families, and more, in a single room.
Some of these buildings have been elegantly restored—I was lucky to rent a flat in one of them, complete with its original dizzying proportions. One morning, I noticed a fellow malingering on the doorstep and went out to accost him. He was a designer from a theatre in London, he explained sheepishly, and they were staging Sean O’Casey’s war of independence play, The Shadow of a Gunman, set in a building like ours—albeit then a tenement. He was hoping to have a look inside.
I didn’t know it then, but the actual house where O’Casey wrote parts of Gunman and his other great Dublin works was just a few blocks away, on the North Circular Road. I found it late one night when I was a few sheets to the wind and having adventures. There was a discarded washing machine in the small front yard, and a weatherbeaten laminated A4 sheet on the door humbly admitting the house’s flirtation with greatness.
As I stood on the steps peering at the house in the dark, two of the residents arrived home and invited me into a building that seemed as if it had barely been refurbished since O’Casey’s time. They’d been here from Poland a year, but had little English. I did my best to convey my inebriated excitement at being in the room where, perhaps, O’Casey had stoked the grate while labouring on some of the greatest plays in the Irish canon.
It was the existence of such quasi-derelict buildings that, in…