Years ago, the pub next door to Toni’s on James’s Street was open and thriving, says Rachel O’Reilly, manager of the take-away, standing behind the counter on a rainy recent Monday afternoon.
“It was always buzzin,” O’Reilly says.
Toni’s smells like fresh chips, the gleaming metal counter is warm. Through a window in the counter, stacks of empty red and yellow boxes for fried chicken are visible.
“It was a great pub,” she says.
A photo dated 1999 shows 162 James’s Street as a neatly kept three-storey building, painted red at ground level, the two upper storeys painted a pale yellow with red trim. The sign says “The St. James’s Inn” in gold letters on a black background.
To its right, there’s a different take-away, Lorenzo, where Toni’s is now. To the left of the pub, number 163 has a red-and-white sign for a dry cleaners, and its brickwork is painted a dull green.
Since then, this little row of buildings right by the Luas stop at the entrance to St James’s Hospital has been crumbling. The ones that were once home to the pub and dry cleaners are now empty and derelict – and so is the next one down the row, then after that there’s a gaping hole in the terrace.
“It’s an eyesore,” says O’Reilly, of this strip of buildings, 162–165 James’s Street, in an otherwise well-used part of the street.
After years of watching the buildings decline, though, O’Reilly might see some improvements, as the buildings were recently bought. Although plans and a timeline for redevelopment are yet to be decided.
Further and Further into Dereliction
In Kennedy’s pub, a few doors down on James’s Street from the derelict strip, further towards Mount Brown, four men are sitting under a TV showing horse racing on Monday afternoon.
The pub is warm and quiet, the lighting low, and the men are playing poker for coins. John Malone, who lives nearby, says he remembers when the derelict buildings weren’t derelict.
There was a tropical fish shop, he says, the dry cleaners, and the pub. The pub was O’Malley’s, Malone says. A black and white photo dated in the 1960s shows it as it was then. After that, a new owner took over and it became the St James’s Inn, he says.
“There were 13 pubs along here,” Malone recalls. “If you got barred from one you could just go on to the next.”
In 1999 Ardenhall Developments applied to the council for planning permission to knock down 163 and 164 James’s Street, next to the St James’s Inn. The plan was to build 23 one- and two-bed apartments in a four-storey building with basement parking.
The council refused that application, though, saying that it would involve demolishing a listed building, and that “The proposed development would involve the further loss of original streetscape character on James Street.”
Number 163, the building that used to be a dry cleaners, and which now has boarded-up windows and steel beams holding up its pale-green facade, is on the council’s register of protected structures.
It was built around 1800, and “retains its early scale and proportions typical of Georgian Dublin townhouses”, according to the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. “It contributes to the historic character of James’s Street.”
A new crowd, Thomas O’Connor, Donal Connolly and James Campion, applied in 2003 to the council for permission to develop numbers 163, 164 and 165. Their plan was to build 22 apartments, and preserve the listed building.
That plan got permission in 2004, but with loads of conditions – including that the developers had to preserve not just no. 163, but also no. 164.
In May 2006, not long before the global economy cratered, the council’s Commencement Notice Register included a listing for construction based on this planning permission. This document lists the owner and the builder as “G & D Maguire Ltd”.
It’s unclear what happened then, but the development never went forward. By 2009, an image from Google Maps shows that strip of buildings in rough condition.
Part of the top level of no. 163 is missing entirely. Shrubs are growing out of windows. Someone is selling advertising space on the derelict buildings.
O’Reilly, the manager at Toni’s takeaway, says she recalls a couple of fires there. “Once we had to evacuate,” she says.
The buildings have been on the derelict sites register since June 2019.
New Owner, New Plans
In August of last year, Dublin City Council moved to acquire 162–165 James’s Street through a compulsory purchase order.
A notice posted on one of the buildings invited the owner to step forward if they had any objections.
When Labour Councillor Darragh Moriarty put in a question to the council’s chief executive if the council knew who owned the buildings, and what the council was doing to bring them back into use, he got his reply in September.
The response said “ownership details are known and are published on the Derelict Sites Register”.
However, the public version of the derelict sites register available on the council’s website does not show any ownership information for any site. The council press office has not responded to a query sent 24 February asking who the owner was.
At the time, in early September, the council told Moriarty that the period for objections by the owner was due to end later that month, if the owner didn’t object, the council would move forward with acquiring it through a compulsory purchase order.
And then, all of a sudden, there they were: the owner popped up, and lodged an objection.
By January of this year, Nial Dully, of the council’s derelict sites section, was telling Moriarty in response to another query that the owners had said “the sale and the purchaser’s plans to subsequently develop the site are both at an advanced stage. In light of same the acquisition has been deferred.”
On 2 March, a spokesperson for the HSE said it had bought the properties for €2.425 million.
“The acquisition will enable and support delivery of clinical services and the development of facilities at St. James’s Hospital,” they said. “Timelines for development will be subject to ongoing discussions and processes.”
This is not what O’Reilly, in Toni’s, said she’d like to see happen to the strip of buildings. She said what the area needs is something like a Dunne’s, with groceries downstairs, and a few clothes for sale upstairs.
“I’d really like to see a shop there,” she says.