It’s 7.15 am on a recent Saturday morning, dark and 1°C and frosty out, and the flickers of light from taxis as they coast through the backstreets of the fruit markets area seem to catch Paul Farrell’s attention.
“How many of ‘em?” he says, with a smile. He is stood at the end of the bar, dressed in a black polo-neck jumper and jeans, his glasses perched on his forehead, and he draws himself up and scans the streets outside, and waits for them to arrive.
The group of lads and girls turn the corner and assemble in a crowd outside, and he walks to the door, unlocks it and his silhouette blocks the doorway as he vets them – because if there’s one thing you learn quickly at The Capel, it’s that nobody passes without Farrell’s okay.
And the kids spill into the room, and spread out with the rush of air, some heading to the bar, others to a table in the corner and the chatter and the how-are-yas break through the quiet.
It’s taking a bit of time for the news to spread that one of Dublin’s early houses has reopened about three weeks back, after a refurb.
To some, The Capel on Little Green Street might mean stairs down to a water-logged basement, broken toilets, a yellow stench. Or, as Farrell who runs the bar puts it as he pours a morning coffee: “It was a dirty, smelly kip.”
Now, it’s sparse but there are flowery, upholstered seats, the basement is off-limits, the toilets are fixed, and there’s a pool table in the middle of the room.
“I walked in here and I was like. Is it the same fucking place?” said Jonathan-or-Wayne — he tells me both at different times — who was first to arrive this morning, and is propped at the bar with a pint of Clonmel.
Jonathan-or-Wayne, though, has always thought the place was deadly.
It’s a place where you come for the characters rather than the decor, full of those who don’t want to go home and those who have no home to go to, all looking for a space where they can ignore time and sit out the bleak onset of the day.
“I like the company,” says Jonathan-or-Wayne. “I’m like a boomerang, as they say . . .”
On a recent Saturday morning, they arrived in dribs and drabs from 7.15 am onwards. At first, a few echoing voices. Later, a wash of chatter and jukebox tunes.
“Ninety-nine percent of them are respectful, and one percent of them just are arseholes. I just don’t let them in,” says Farrell.
Today, it’s convivial, that kind of convivial atmosphere and edgy politeness that comes from not being sure who’s packing what. The kind of place where you have quizzical and funny conversations that go like this:
The guy at the bar pauses and thinks. “I’ll give you a laugh, as well, yeah?” he says.
“About . . . a year or two ago . . . I was having a cigarette out of that door there. I just looked up and, if you walk out that door there, right, and look to your right. What’s the name of the street?” he asks.
“Err . . . Little Britain Street, is it?” I suggest.
“Right! I didn’t know that! I’ve fuckin’ been here for years. Little Britain . . . I’m breaking my bollocks laughing,” he leans forward in his seat, and starts to chuckle again.
“Little Britain Street, I couldn’t get over it . . . fuckin’ hell . . . we’re probably still paying the fucking rent to the bleedin’ Queen…”
In the centre of the room, yellow and red balls clatter around the pool table. Sometimes, it looks like Farrell might lose. But he always seems to win.
On the wall by the bar, there’s a hall of fame with caricatures of regulars: the guy they call Mary from the Corpo with a luminous jacket and fishnet tights, a guy in a Free State uniform, and Farrell himself, shovelling piles of salt into a safe — an insider reference to how he started to stash his salt cellar in a safe, after it kept going missing in the mornings.
A thin face lingers at one of the windows, then quickly disappears. A few minutes later, a small figure, all jumpers and coats with a woollen hat that falls over his eyes, appears at the door.
Nordin Nahas comes inside and makes his way to the end of the bar, and joins the growing number of morning-after clubbers, and greying old-timers. A pint of Guinness seems to materialise on the counter in front of him.
“He’s homeless,” Farrell tells me. “So, we have customers, and then we also have homeless people who have–”
“–no income, no nothing, no nothing, no nothing,” interrupts the man, with dark, weathered skin. “Just living.”
For eight years, he’s been coming to The Capel on and off. “Where do you go, if you have no money? Where do you go?”
Nahas proceeds to tell a story about how he came over to Ireland to meet a ship he worked on in Italy, and one thing led to another – the details aren’t totally clear – but he’s still here. Stuck.
On the far side of the room, a group of cleanish-cut lads, who say they ran out of beers at home, screw up their faces and wail to the synth-strains and power chords of Westlife on the jukebox. “You’re more beautiful than I have ever seen. I’m gonna take this night and make it evergreeeeeeen!” one guy sings to the room.
At the bar, Nahas continues to tell his stories. He talks about how in Italy, he was in prison for six years, six months, and 23 days for 1 kilogram and 200 grams of heroin. And how in prison there, he drank so many coffees each day.
He pushes his stool back from the bar to give himself more room to pace around and wave his hands, to illustrate being transported from prison to prison in Italy, led like a fugitive on a chain gang. He straightens his arms out as if in fake handcuffs and marches back and forth, seeming to delight in the black humour of the pantomime, as if he can’t quite believe the story he is telling of his life.
The darkest part, perhaps: he talks about how he wants to go home to Morocco, but he doesn’t have any papers because years ago, a landlord threw his stuff away.
“I have nothing to do here, I’m all . . . for surviving . . . If I want to shave I have problems, if I want shower I have to take . . . if I want to smoke, I have to . . .” he throws his hands up. “I don’t want to sleep in the street, I don’t want to go back in prison, I want to go back home.”
“Like a dream. I swear . . . Like a dream,” he says. “You know, I was 14 years in Italy, I remember day by day. But 17 years here, it’s like I sleep and I wake up.”
Around the bar, the tables are scattered with rollies and tobacco and empty packets of cigarettes. A few grey-haired guys are sat quieter in the corner, or stood or perched at the bar. There’s golf playing on the television on the wall, faraway scenes of manicured fairways and starched white trousers.
Another trio is sitting at a table by the door. One guy, with a kind, round face, says that he woke up that morning in Pearse Street Garda Station, with a stamp from Copper Face Jacks on his hand and drips of blood on his sleeve, and still isn’t quite sure how he ended up there.
His friend can’t stop moving, and he flops off his chair, and turns the fall into a dainty floor-roll. Farrell heaves him up and puts him back on his seat, with a stern look that makes the guy’s eyes grow even bigger.
The door swings open as people duck out for smokes, and leave it ajar. A guy reaches around and shuts the cold of the day outside.