Photos by Conal Thomas

Shortly after midday, across the bridge from St Patrick’s Church in Ringsend, a group of people cluster at a bus stop outside a boarded-up premises. It’s quiet in this urban village save for the cars shooting through.

Further up from the bus stop, there is another vacant retail unit, a former off-licence. Opposite the library, at the village’s far end, two more units lie idle.

It’s a state of affairs that Dave Lee finds confusing.

Ringsend is close to the thriving Docklands and not far from the city centre. To him, those should be ingredients for a vibrant hub of small businesses.

“Small businesses are what makes the world go ’round,” says Lee, who has lived in the area for two years. “But Ringsend has kind of been forgotten about.”

Over the Bridge

Inside the Bridge Café opposite St Patrick’s, Joanne Moran dries cutlery. Though ready for the lunch hour, she says business has been slow of late.

It’s now 12:45pm as her left hand does a sweep of the café, stretching to the back, where a handful of people sit over cups of coffee and tea.

In the last few years, at least three businesses in Ringsend have closed.

The Artisan Parlour & Grocery closed in May 2016. Restored café, a community outreach centre serving tea and coffee as well as selling gifts, also closed last year.

Clyne’s Butchers, in operation for over 90 years, has been shuttered for the past three weeks. (Clyne’s could not be reached for comment.)

Yet the population of the wider area has, on the whole, been growing, according to the last two rounds of Census data from the Central Statistics Office.

Pembroke East’s population rose 3 percent to 5,063 between 2011 and 2016. Pembroke West’s rose 7 percent to 5,011 during that period. Over the river, the population of North Dock grew 13 percent to 7,768. In South Dock, though, the population dropped 3 percent to 6,940.

Those who live and work in the area suggest that a constellation of issues is behind the village’s recent fortunes, and that some might be easier to tackle than others.

Rising Rents

Pastor Sharon Perry, who helped operate Restored on Fitzwilliam Street, knows the struggle small Ringsend operations face to stay afloat.

There are always different dynamics dictating why a business does or doesn’t succeed, she says. “But the village has the D4 address and that obviously seems to pump up the [rents],” she says.

Before Perry decided to call it a day, their space was due a rent increase. Coupled with management fees, it simply wasn’t worth it for a non-profit.

“Those management fees went up 15 percent in the last year we were there,” says Perry. “We were run by volunteers and that can be difficult to maintain and sustain.”

Commercial rents have increased in Ringsend of late, says Michael Kelly, a local estate agent who has worked in the area for 40 years. “In the last three to four years they’ve gone up by about 20, 25 percent,” he says.

But there’s also a limited supply of property in the village, he adds. “These are small units,” says Kelly, who currently has the former Artisan Parlour & Grocery, which covers 119 sqm, on the market to rent for €35,000 per annum.

As Kelly sees it, rents in the village will continue to increase to an extent. “But the business profile will probably change,” he says.

Past the bridge, opposite the bus stop on Bridge Street, is Thorncastle Street. Around the corner is Fitzwilliam Street where the former Artisan Parlour & Grocery is currently up to let.

As the main arteries of the village, all three streets are, or were, home to small businesses – barbers, bookmakers, pubs, a pharmacy, a chipper, a launderette, an optician.

Ringsend was historically made up of working-class communities, says Kelly. Labourers who worked as dockers or at the Irish Glass Bottle Company, which closed in 2002. “There’s a great indigenous community here,” he says.

To a certain extent, that’s still reflected in its shopfronts.

But business from the recent development at Grand Canal Dock, and the growth of the tech companies, hasn’t filtered through to the village, he says.

That’s a problem that has affected more than one small business in the area.

More Feet Needed

Fine Gael Councillor Paddy McCartan has run his opticians on Thorncastle Street since 1987.

Some years back, he and other business owners tried to set up a forum to revitalise the business community in Ringsend.

“There was enthusiasm about it at the beginning. But it never took off,” he says. “People didn’t turn up to the meetings.”

When Google set up shop on Barrow Street in 2003, the opticians gained repeat business from across the bridge for a time, says McCartan, until Google set up its own in-situ optician. (Google did not respond to queries asking if this was still the set-up.)

At Facebook and Google, there are also canteens for employees, which means they generally don’t come across the bridge to Moran’s café, it seems. “There’s a tendency for them not to go outside their area,” says McCartan.

His Fine Gael colleague, Kieran Binchy, agrees. The advent of the nearby Grand Canal development hasn’t brought Ringsend more business or employment, he says. He wants to see the tech giants get more involved in the neighbourhood.

“You look at the old businesses that were there out on the Poolbeg peninsula or the glass factory. All the manual labour went away and what came in to replace it is not something that people who grew up in the area are getting jobs in,” he says.

That has in turn created uncertainty among the Ringsend and Irishtown communities, says Sueann Moore, who works at the community-focused Spellman Centre. As residential and commercial rents have increased, locals feel less secure, she says.

“Generations of families who have always been secure in the knowledge that they’d have their roots here, it’s broken those links,” says Moore. “It’s breaking employment and trade ties as well.”

However, one of the major struggles for small businesses in Ringsend is the physical nature of the village itself, she adds. “Ringsend doesn’t attract strangers,” says Moore. “There’s very little passing trade.”

That’s one problem that Dublin City Council is working to solve.

Finding a Focus

“The issue with Ringsend is that there’s no real focal point to it,” says McCartan.

People don’t stop and hang around in the village, and so they don’t patronise the local small businesses. “But there’s huge potential there,” he says. “Both in terms of highlighting businesses but also providing a proper open space.”

In June, this year councillors approved an ambitious Local Environmental Improvement Plan (LEIP) for Ringsend and Irishtown.

Among the plans for the area is the redesign or refocusing of the area around the village library, which could, the plan notes, serve as a focal point for Ringsend.

As it stands, the library area is clogged with parking and the the village itself is unfriendly to pedestrians. “There is a strong sense of the through traffic taking priority over village life,” the council notes in the plan. “The traffic generates noise, pollution and a sense of danger.”

Such measures, as well as more lighting, more street furniture and increased permeability – meaning that there are more routes to, from, and through Ringsend Park – are aimed at increasing footfall there.

That might help small business operations and bring a bit of vibrancy back to the local community, says Perry, who helped run Restored. “Because of the library and the way the parking is, your shopfront is blocked from view,” she said.

Perry also says that, in recent years, the village does not appear to have benefited from the advent of nearby technology companies. With increasing rents too, perhaps the new plan is the best solution, she says.

It could certainly help refocus the village, says Kelly, the local estate agent. “If you look at Ranelagh, Rathmines, and Stoneybatter, you’ve got a main road through the middle of them,” he says.

The layout of Ringsend, with its main streets either at right angles or tucked away, means small businesses there have a tough time getting noticed, he says.

But if commercial rents continue to rise in the area – and the development of 3,500 homes on the nearby lands in Poolbeg West goes ahead – some wonder what will mean for the future for small business in Ringsend.

McCartan wonders if those in the new development will feel part of, and therefore patronise Ringsend. Or if they will spin-off in their own independent ecosystem, and bypass the village altogether.

“It’s very difficult to predict exactly what the future is for Ringsend,” he says.

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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