Early Monday morning at his pharmacy in Ballsbridge, Paddy Byrne greets regular customers with a familiar nod. Two bushy Christmas trees with fairy lights stand outside the door.
There’s been a pharmacy here since 1936, family-run since 1973, says Byrne, in the little consultation room off the main pharmacy floor.
He took over from his father. That makes him the fourth-generation pharmacist in his family, he says. “A very rare breed.”
Byrne has lived in Ballsbridge for 28 years. When he was a kid, it was mostly just homes in the area, he says.
Now, there are blocks of offices. Over the years, apartment blocks went up that seemed to be mostly for renters who didn’t stay long, he says. “You’d just be getting to know somebody, then they’d be moving on.”
Things have started to change again in recent times, he says. More home-owners seem to be moving into the area, reinvigorating it, says Byrne, who has been trying to help this process along.
The Ballsbridge Living initiative, which Byrne helped set up a few years ago, when the community work he and others were doing started to take up too much time, is hoping to tap into it in the coming year.
They are planning more community events, from a new Tidy Towns group, to open-air comedy nights, storytelling nights in local pubs, and a Fourth of July party, to recognise the area’s American connections through the nearby embassy.
A Community Pharmacist
On the other side of the door, pharmacy staff laugh and chat with customers. There’s a hum of conversation, mingled with Christmas music.
“What people forget about pharmacists is that our title is actually community pharmacist,” Byrne says.
“The people who need us are generally the people who are sick, and sometimes they need a little bit more minding, and that’s what we do as community pharmacists – we tend to reach out to them,” he says.
The role can involve work that isn’t so much pharmacy work as “community work”, especially when it comes to older people, or those living alone, Byrne says.
“Independent community pharmacists have survived so long in Ireland because we’re so embedded in the community. And that’s where we like to be,” he says.
In the 1970s, all the pubs and hairdressers in Ballsbridge were hopping at the weekends, says Byrne. That’s coming back.
Pubs are starting to reach out to the community in different ways. Some are planning literary nights next year, for example.
In spring, community organisers are looking at bringing comedy nights in Herbert Park. The idea was inspired by comedy nights in Washington Square Park in New York, where Byrne spent some time in the 1980s. “That kind of vibe should exist in this area,” he says.
Byrne trained as a carpenter. When the building industry collapsed in 1984, he repeated his Leaving Cert and retrained as a pharmacist.
In 2010, he and others in the area set up the Ballsbridge Village Association. But they had no funding and no time. Just ideas.
After severe flooding in 2011, Byrne dedicated six years to ensuring the flood works were prioritised. The damage affected the community profoundly, and it took a lot of working together to pull them out.
Local pubs in the area made sandwiches for those who had lost their homes and everything in them.
Byrne rattles off details about different folks who live in the area, their backgrounds and personalities.
He mentions the local newspaper delivery guy, the man who has coffee every day in the Insomnia next door, any number of customers who walk in daily, and a growing list of business owners nearby.
“The unsung hero of this area, is the newspaper delivery guy,” says Byrne.
Liam Bolton has delivered papers in the area since he was a kid. Like Byrne, he knows a lot of the folks who live locally.
“What people don’t realise is, he’s the eyes and ears of this area, from 2 to 6 in the morning,” says Byrne.
Last March, when the country was snowed under, Byrne helped Bolton deliver his newspapers a few days over the week
“He rang me in the morning and said, ‘Where are you?’” says Bolton, over the phone.
“He said, ‘Give me a list and I’ll give you a hand.’”
“He takes after his father. He’s an early riser. He’s even starting to look a bit like his father,” says Bolton, who is recently retired. “If you want something done, he’ll get it done.”
Two doors down, Pádraig Allen was on his second coffee of the day. Sat in the bright window of an Insomnia, he was wrapped in an overcoat, near the door, reading a paper.
Byrne shakes his hand and checks in, before running back to the pharmacy. Allen has lived here since the late 1980s and got to know Byrne a few years later.
Byrne became a friend and mentor to Allen, who was going through a separation at the time. He later went on to become a founder member of Aware, the mental-health charity, though these days he’s mostly retired, he says.
“There’s nothing more that I enjoy than coming down to Insomnia every morning,” he says. He’s been coming for 14 years.
Like Byrne and Bolton, Allen has found the community supportive through the years.
“People will acknowledge you and have time for you,” he says, and he’s befriended most of the staff in the café.
Across the Dodder, and down Shelbourne Road, a small, old dog dozes with one eye open in the window of the Bridge Jewellers.
Jimmy Cullen, the owner, set up shop in 1977, and moved here in 1996. He was a neighbour of Byrne’s, and friendly with his father.
Over the years, Cullen has seen the area grow more business-focused and more multinational, he says.
His son James comes in from the back room. Byrne is “the go-to person. He always tries to set up the Christmas trees in the area; trying to bulk buy so everyone can get a good deal,” he says.
When his father, Cullen Sr. had a stroke a couple of years ago, Cullen says Byrne organised an exercise machine for his rehabilitation. Later, the Cullens donated a new one, allowing Byrne to ship it out to anyone else who needed it.
“He’s an early starter,” says Cullen. “His father would get up at four or five in the morning and give the newspaper man breakfast.”
A few doors down again, the younger Cullen points out another Christmas tree, organised by Byrne, flanking the hairdressers, where his sister Darragh Byrne works.
“We worked in the chemist on Sundays and holidays,” says Darragh Byrne. “We met a lot of people in the area through working there. Paddy would have learned a lot from our father.”
She remembers her brother delivering groceries to older residents in bad weather, along with their medications. “It’s not just about the pharmacy,” she says.
In the coming new year, locals will start to see more changes being made, which Paddy Byrne hopes will reinstate a sense of community in the area.
It’s all part of the Ballsbridge Living project. They got the seed money for it from bigger businesses in the area, like the RDS and Sherry Fitzgerald, and then handed over the management to a brand and events agency.
“We lack a kind of community focus in the area, and that’s one of the things we’re trying to do,” he says, before disappearing back behind the shelves stacked with scripts and medications.