|Roll on … the Dice Bar, on Queen Street, is one of the district’s cool drinking destinations|
Temple Bar and Grafton Street get the tourist traffic but novelist Rob Doyle knows that Stoneybatter’s the cool neighbourhood to explore – if you want a taste of little Williamsburg by the Liffey
Until a few years ago, Dublin’s working-class neighbourhood of Stoneybatter and its environs, just north of the river Liffey, were run-down and little talked about. The O’Devaney Gardens high-rise flats – now eerily deserted amid fenced-off fields and wasteland – were particularly notorious. Following a surge of ambivalently received gentrification, Stoneybatter has become synonymous with Dublin hipsterism. Mountain beards and craft beers are de rigueur, and you needn’t look hard to find “hot yoga” venues, art spaces and community squats.
Alongside the greasy spoons and chippers, there are newer, more self-conscious cafes of the produce-our-own-newsletter variety. Through a double shot of sudden money and cultural ferment, the area has become something of a little Williamsburg by the Liffey. Dublin rents have become appallingly high of late: I felt lucky to move into a small but pleasant semi in Stoneybatter a year and a half ago at a relatively decent rate.
A 10-minute walk from the city centre, and served by the LUAS tram line, Stoneybatter still has plenty of the red-brick charm of old inner-city Dublin. It’s an interesting place to live during this vivid moment in the city’s history, as Ireland continues to cast off the shackles of old (in 2015 it became the first country to adopt LGBT marriage equality by popular vote). A newly sophisticated art and youth culture has also taken root in the area.
This being Dublin, visitors to Stoneybatter will find no shortage of opportunities to slake their thirst. Older pubs such as the much-loved Cobblestone on Smithfield Square, where traditional musicians gather for regular sessions, and Walsh’s, which hosts an informal folk music night on Mondays, compete with pricier, IPA-savvy gastropubs such as Mulligan’s.
Facing each other across a quayside street are the fun and frisky Dice Bar, where I’ve spent many a tipsy Friday night, and the agreeably diveish Frank Ryan’s. The latter always seems to have a shaggy dog running around, and is named after the Spanish civil war hero also commemorated in the classic Pogues song The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn. The bar staff will also whip you up toasted ham and cheese sandwiches no matter the hour.
Stoneybatter is bordered on one side by the Phoenix Park, western Europe’s largest city park, with its towering Wellington monument and roaming herds of deer. It’s something of an open secret that magic mushrooms grow wild in the park. Foragers – or my friends and I at any rate – stoop to their task in the shadow of the Papal Cross, erected in 1979 to mark the pope’s first and only visit to Ireland.
It’s a lovely place to trip: as the sun goes down you can sit on a hillside bench overlooking Chapelizod, the river, and the southern suburbs that stretch toward the mountains, all of it lighting up in hallucinatory shimmer. To the other side of “the Batter” is Smithfield Square, the site of an inner-city regeneration project some years ago, and now verged by cafes, restaurants, a Generator hostel popular with backpackers, and the excellent Light House cinema, which screens an agreeable mixture of mainstream and independent films.
In the aftermath of the culturally barren Celtic Tiger years, Ireland is said to be undergoing something of a literary rebirth. It’s now harder than ever to swing a cat in Dublin without skulling a handful of writers and dole-queue poets. Debut novels and short story collections are launched with pummelling frequency. Stoneybatter has become a hub of this renaissance.
The offices of the Lilliput Press, where the curious are welcome to wander in and browse shelves stacked with the publisher’s titles, play host to readings and literary events (as with much of Stoneybatter’s cultural life, social media is the best way to find out about upcoming events). The suave, silver-fox proprietor, Antony Farrell, keeps the press running with the aid of an ever-rotating crew of young interns, giving the premises the vibe of an affable and bookish Bond villain’s lair.
A word to the hungry: Stoneybatter’s tastiest almond croissants are found in theGreen Door Bakery on Manor Street – but only if you get there early enough, which I have managed on no more than two occasions. A few doors down is a real gem, still largely unheralded: the pleasant and unpretentious Biscotti Caffe, which offers what is hands down Dublin’s most satisfying full Irish breakfast (available all day, too).
On the same street, Mi Thai is a decent spot for Asian cuisine (it’s next door to the superbly named – and stocked – off-licence, Drinkstore). Nearby, the Slice cafe and Wuff bistro are popular daytime food stops, while Love Supreme is the go-to place for Stoneybatter’s nouveau coffee aristocracy. The brightly fronted K Chidoon Chancery Street is a great stop-off for inexpensive Mexican food – served out of a food truck.
For accommodation, the Ashling (doubles from €119, room only) and Phoenix Park (doubles from €69 room-only) hotels are well-situated, with the park, river and city centre all close by. A plaque outside the Ashling indicates that philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein lived and worked there for a couple of years in the 1940s: interesting to wonder whether he ever tried the magic mushrooms growing a stone’s thrown from his door.
Sites of cultural and historical interest in the area are plentiful. There is Collins Barracks, with its expansive courtyard, which houses the National Museum of Ireland’s Decorative Arts and History collection. Just behind the Barracks is Arbour Hill Cemetery, resting place of the leaders of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, which also has a wall commemorating John F Kennedy’s visit during his 1963 trip to Ireland. The cemetery and gardens are a nice place to enjoy a serene moment away from the bustle and the hipness. Back over on Smithfield Square, the Old Jameson whiskey distillery offers tastings and tours (from €14.40; I’ve never got round to trying it though), as does the hugely popular Guinness Storehouse across the river in the Liberties area (I have tried this: it’s fun).
Stoneybatter is not all working-class charm and gentrified allure. Over the past two years, opposition to government-imposed austerity following Ireland’s economic crisis has coalesced around the water charges being introduced by some of the people widely thought to have got us into this mess in the first place. Stoneybatter has been the most visible locus of the protest, with many residents blocking the installation of the water metres outside their homes, and determined not to pay up regardless.
If you aren’t put off by a high density of boutique moustaches and pedantic coffee connoisseurs, Stoneybatter is a worthwhile deviation from Temple Bar, Grafton Street and the other well-trodden tourist zones. As with all that is best about the city, it feels like a village, but with the perks of a (currently exhilarating) capital.