Moore Street, in the heart of Dublin’s north side, is a paradox. Ostensibly little more than a market street with fruit and vegetable stalls, flowers and fish (and the mixed odour one would expect with these), one could hardly call it a significant or even memorable Dublin street. There’s no Georgian architecture or other fine buildings, nothing to mark this street as an essential one for all tourists to see. It hosts only one wee pub, which, for those who’ve been to Dublin and are familiar with its drinking culture, makes Moore Street seem bereft. The status-vibe of the street is decidedly working class, and it doesn’t have any high-end or expensive retail outlets. But Moore Street is one of those accidentally rich international streets, a peculiarly European hive of activity a little locus of multinational mixed business where Dublin meets the rest of the world.
It’s hard to define what typifies the modern European city, or what trait makes any major city peculiarly European at all. A picture of hard economic prosperity mightn’t do justice to the soul of the diverse peoples that live there, just like perceiving only a city’s cultural reputation could belie the difficulty of living and working there. The very cobbles on the streets of Antwerp, for instance, feel especially moulded for literary feet, but besides boutique retail stores and waffle shops, the town’s artistic airs now blow thin; all that’s left is the slight breeze of a well-dressed ghost town.
Economically speaking, Ireland experienced its first excited flush of wealth and economic sophistication with the Celtic Tiger phenomenon of the early ‘90s. The Irish government of the time provided lucrative benefits and tax breaks for multinational companies (especially in the field of IT) to base themselves on Irish shores. The consequent boom in property speculation forced the cost of housing up along with everything else, and a rush of building work commenced to accommodate these companies in slick new premises.
It’s still the case that wherever you see sky in Dublin, you’ll not only see an overcast grey sky but numerous gaunt industrial cranes. On a recent train trip, looking only out of the windows to the eastern side of Dublin, I counted 30 cranes in a single vista. This new wealth and impressive real estate changed the social and economic status of many areas throughout Dublin, and rebuilding and refurbishment was (and still is) the order of the day for businesses, and for retailers especially. New shopping centres flourished and major retail streets like Henry and Grafton streets (the latter now one of the five most expensive in the world) shops underwent major facelifts if not entire reconstructive surgeries. In that spirit, if modern economic success means flashy retail buildings and exorbitant rental prices, then Dublin has well and truly entered into the spirit of modern European cities.
But little Moore Street does not adhere to any of the text-book signs and symptoms of the Dublin prosperity surrounding it. In fact, for a centrally-located street surrounded by the wealth and retail throng of Henry Street to the south, and the fast-developing Parnell Street to the north, Moore Street has remained curiously poor, underdeveloped, and dirty. The north side of Dublin doesn’t particularly embody the rosy economic mood, but in many ways Moore Street is the more honest and true-to-life representation of Dublin than the real estate agents would like to project. And importantly, you wouldn’t expect such a street (reminiscent of a poorer multicultural ghetto) to be so close to new wealth and refurbishment. It’s like discovering a refreshingly low-key, mixed business store selling falafels and nuts in the Trump tower.
Let’s take a quick impressionistic tour of Moor Street. It’s either overcast or already raining. The bustle and interpersonal chaos of Henry Street begins at the base of the Millennium Spire (a stainless steel needle-like monument also called “the Stiletto in the Ghetto”). Careful as you walk, as people in Dublin seem to be congenitally afflicted with the habit of walking into others, thereby making any venture onto a crowded street a thoroughly haphazard and jaunty experience. Henry Street is lined with shoe stores and brand-name fashion boutiques and department stores. It also has a tide of people walking into you continually for a pedestrianised street it’s not the kind of avenue where you could sit down and observe life floating by. You must enter into Retail as often as possible or else keep moving, it seems to say. But already a relaxed side street beckons on the right, with flower stands and people standing around smoking. A breather from the bustle.
Moore Street is a market street, a splash of natural yellow and orange and fresh varieties of produce amongst inner-city drab. Fruit and flower stands seem to stretch all the way down its short length. In an alley on the right, a florist cuts his wares and wraps the flowers in bundles for display. A fruit seller leaves his stand in the middle of the street to talk to the next guy, and both of them are smoking. There are butchers on the right as well as on the left, three in all, and all doing a roaring trade. North Dubliners seem to travel here especially for their meats. There are more fruit and veg stands up the centre of the street, mostly tended by hardened women with guttural though authentic Dublin accents; they are friendly folk but won’t let you manually handle or pick the items you want. They all smoke continually and periodically walk off to confer in groups and spread the latest news, cigarette ashes flying in the wind.
Under a large, incongruous ‘Bingo’ sign is a mixed business run by an Indian family. In their shop they sell everything from electrical fittings to large sacks of rice. The owners are always distracted and busy and probably forgetful of exactly how much stock they’ve got. I’ve inadvertently stood dazed and confused in the very back corner of the store on several occasions, lost in looking for ice-cube trays or a floor mat or a large brass presentation bowl that I didn’t really need. I’ve been going there for years, now, and they still haven’t fixed a creeping damp problem or a leaky roof in the back that threatens their goods.
Back on the street there’s a two-euro discount shop and another opposite which is slightly gaudier and tackier. Even though everything inside costs two euros and Ireland has long adopted the European currency, it’s still called Pound City. The shopgirls indeed look about as dejected as though they’re only earning a pound an hour. The eye is drawn to another mixed business selling African food (as an ‘Afro-Caribbean Foodstore’) beside an African hair salon with long and diverse hair extensions in the window enough hair talent to keep a female R&B act in stock for months. There’s several stairways leading to hair salons upstairs, each specialising in braids and hair treatments, ‘dreadlocks, twist and silky locks’. African kids run around in the family atmosphere; all the shopkeepers know each other and seem to mind each other’s kids regularly.
After an always-attended and busy public notice board, there’s an Asian mixed business, the first of several with a girl sitting in a small booth selling cheap phone cards under posters of Asian film stars and movie titles. The girls are bored and almost always texting on their mobiles. But if they lean out of their little cubicles they can just see and shout out to the next girl over, their laughing chatter mingling with the fruit seller’s calls of specials by the dozen. There’s a cornucopia of Asian wares and dry products inside the stores (and the earthy dry smells of Chinese spice and roots), and racks are stocked high with sauces, dried plants, and noodles. Business here is conducted strictly ins cash. In the shop’s narrow entryway people come and go all the time, they meet, disband or come together again as though there’s no real boundary with the street.
Otherwise a gang of youths, or men in suits take a side doorway leading upstairs to one of several Asian restaurants; there’s menus pasted on several stairways along the way but few are in English. The fare upstairs is good and affordable if you don’t mind cheap fittings and chipped china, or taking the odd guess with your order. Dublin doesn’t have an official or designated Chinatown, but these restaurants (or maybe ‘lunch-rooms’ would be more appropriate) have the feel of the kind of crowded, cut-rate eateries you find in back streets of Chinatowns everywhere. They are noisy, bustling, and essentially Asian.
Back on the street, the smell of refuse from the market stalls becomes significant: there’s fruit peels and offcuts littering the unwashed street and pigeons scurrying to a fro. Limp and squashed cardboard boxes soaked with the detritus of old fruit lie stacked for collection; some of the stall keepers (still smoking) are packing away what’s left into vans as drivers who made wrong turns block up the end of the street. Moore Street is infuriatingly mono-directional and unkind to drivers desperate for a park the fruiterers and their vans don’t budge and hence in this sense at least Moore Street is typical of the rest of Dublin traffic: complexly congested and chaotic.
There’s one more food bazaar, the Medina Asian Food Co, whose sign says it all: ‘The Taste of the Sufis, Asian/Mediterranean Eastern European, Halal Butcher co.’ A feat of multicultural cross-category advertising I wonder if the owner left anything out of that sign. Two dogs rush past to chase each other back down the street and explore all the interesting odours. A large Russian family steps out of their illegally parked van to go shopping at the new Lidl discount supermarket (another symbol of European integration and cheap market-surplus food and goods). This is the end of the street, the corner at Parnell and the return to new building development and economic prosperity. An expensive-looking corporate hotel dominates the corner on the right, and further along the left stands a massive cineplex nestling an Australian-style pub in its frontage. The Georgian buildings continue again; if you walk a little further you’ll be back on fancy retail ground, again.
Looking back, Moore Street seems even more dirty and haphazard, the way all marketplaces do at the day’s end when only trash and crates are left for the birds and the garbage men. But there’s a definite, detectable vibe in the air. It’s the resonance of African, Asian and Dublin sounds and smells creating a strong melange of phenomena, an historical after-echo of what a market in Constantinople might have been like 500 years ago, when many cultures met under the auspices of mixed business. Or it could be a resonant frequency from Dublin’s own direct past, before Moore Street had reached its current incarnation and flavour.
But that’s really all there is to Moore street. It’s almost a non-street in terms of overall impact and aesthetic value. Even in Ulysses, James Joyce’s gargantuan novel of Dublin, Moore Street is only mentioned twice and then in only minor, referential ways. Yet it’s one of the few spots where some of the most distinctly Dublin-esque people mingle with the European face of multiculturalism. Dublin isn’t culturally segregated by broad block-areas the way Brussels is, or the way New York has its designated neighbourhoods. In its brief 250 metres, Moore Street inadvertently draws the best portrait of modern and diverse Dublin that can be drawn; it mixes the banal and plain elements of small business with the unexpected contiguity of being surrounded by gaping commercial wealth. Completely unostentatious, it’s a contained nutshell of diverse people-interaction, unspoken cultural harmony, and cheap, delicious food. Try the noodle soup.