Walking down Moore Street
Mattia Del Conero 29 April 2011

In Dublin they say the truest reflection of social-demographic change in Ireland in the past twenty years can be found on Moore Street. They say that if you wish to see, smell, and touch the mishmash of ethnicities present on the island, Moore Street is the right place. And they are not mistaken. A reconnaissance of this street that unravels just to the north of the capital’s heart, between Trinity College, Temple Bar with its bustling pubs, and the bright lights of Grafton Street shops, provides an idea of how history has been overturned, resulting in a fast-moving evolution that has turned Ireland from a land of emigrants to one of immigrants, from a mono-cultural to a multicultural country. The numbers confirm this: foreigners currently make up at least 10% of the overall population (4.5 million), but in Dublin the percentage is even higher.

Babel lies beyond the cobblestones

Until twenty years ago, Moore Street and its characteristic cobblestones was the exclusive territory of Irish fruit and vegetable sellers, a market and a meeting place. Little has changed from this point of view. The fruit and vegetable stalls are still there, and many Dubliners continue to come here to buy carrots, courgettes, eggplants, tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, apples, pears and other goods—all natural goods, and all sold at lower prices than the often artificially grown goods found in supermarkets. Dubliners shop and exchange political opinions, talk about the weather and this and that. They talk as they always have, straight-talking, and in this sense Moore Street is always Moore Street.

But beyond the cobblestones, on the sides of the street, the revolution materializes and takes the shape of a real jumble of ethnic shops, run by Chinese, Africans, Singhalese, Indians, Pakistanis, Romanians, Poles and South Americans, where everything and more than everything is on sale; meat, spices, clothes, electronics, ciincaglierie e cianfrusaglie, wihs, make-up, mobile phones, shoes and objects for the home. In 2007 a shopping centre was opened, the Moore Street Mall, which is the indoor continuation of the Babel of languages, alphabets and people who have set up shop along the sides of the street.

The small version of the world on Moore Street and the Mall bears witness to two things. The first is that the “old Irish,” judging by the local clientele patronizing and shopping in this area, have become used to the “new Irish” and consider their presence in society a consolidated fact. The second thing is that some of these immigrants have now abandoned humble jobs, saved a little money and reinvested it, thereby also reinvigorating, as the Economist recently observed, the part of the city surrounding Moore Street that was previous in a state of abandonment and decay. These small foreign entrepreneurs have rented the old unused houses providing the district with colour and rhythm.

The multiethnic tiger

It was the economic growth experienced between 1995 and 2007 that gave rise to the Irish and Dublin melting pots. Thanks to European funds, to reforms, and to an economy increasingly based on services and finance, the island turned out progress and wealth, and it prospered. Many Irish people who in the ’80s had participated in the most recent migrations returned home, attracted by new opportunities. With them also came the immigrants, also attracted by the growth of the “Celtic Tiger” and in particular by the possibility of entering some sectors of the labour market that the Irish, financially and socially emancipated, no longer wanted. The authorities encouraged the arrival of foreign workers, stimulating the progressive success of the multicultural dimension, which has now established itself everywhere, from Cork to Limerick, and of course from Galway all the way to Dublin, to every street in Dublin with Moore Street leading the way.

The Polish colony

Among the many shopkeepers in the small street, the Poles play the leading role, especially inside the Moore Street Mall, where their presence is hegemonic. There is a bakery, an eatery, a bookshop, a beautician, a café-pastry shop and a butcher. The situation faithfully portrays the amazing growth of the Polish community in Ireland. Just a few years ago one could count the Poles on the fingers of one hand. Now instead there are at least 100,000, and some say even 150,000, if not 200,000 if one listens to others. No one knows exactly how many there are, but there are many.

Their arrival is the result of a brave and unconventional choice made by the Irish government in 2004 to open its labour market to citizens of the eight Eastern European countries that at the time joined the European Union. At the time Poland was not the strong and robust country it is today. There were very few jobs, the economy was stagnant, and the future hard to imagine. In many cases Poles travelled abroad in search of work and social mobility. Many came to Ireland. A thousand, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000, and more. Over a few years, the number of Poles rose exponentially and has surpassed the number of Chinese, whose numbers are high (about 80,000), which until five years ago (without taking the British into account—about 120,000) were the largest foreign presence in the country.

Poles have become Ireland’s couriers, waiters, masons, drivers, care-givers, hotel employees, and seasonal agricultural workers. During these six years, a Polish micro-economy has been established as Polish food shops (polski sklep), restaurants, and hair dressers have opened. The Poles have established themselves quickly and well, and the Irish have adapted to their presence. In two examples, Polish beer is served alongside the classic Guinness and from 2006, and the daily Evening Herald has a Polish insert, the Polski Herald, every Wednesday.

Those who leave and those who stay

Now, with Ireland crushed by the economic crisis and saved by a bailout, there is the risk that the Poles and others will pack their bags and return home. Some already have. After all, there are fewer jobs, especially in construction, which uses the most foreign labour and was the first to experience the effects of the crisis. One thing, however, remains certain. In recent years Ireland has changed, and the multicultural model will remain, even if some of the immigrants leave in search of new opportunities. Ireland will wait for other immigrants to come and settle on the island once this storm has passed.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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