There’s no mistaking the Dublin brogue, it’s practically a dialect in its own right. Grian Chatten, frontman of the band Fontaines D.C., the city’s most compelling new rock act, couldn’t be from anywhere else. He’s just come off stage at the Forbidden Fruit Festival in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, where the band belted out one of the catchiest songs of the summer, Liberty Belle, an ode to the Liberties neighbourhood of the city known for its art college and drinking dens. When Chatten sings the line “asleep in a phone booth” he delivers it as “asleep in a phone boot”.
The singer is on a hometown high after dates in England and Spain. “Playing to a Dublin crowd feels like getting a half-time team talk,” he tells me. “When we play our most overtly Irish tunes, it makes for something communal. But the crowd is rarely lairy or loutish; they’re loving and affectionate and acutely aware of the now-ness of the event.”
Fontaines D.C. are, in many ways, representative of the new face of Dublin. They met there, they still live there and they’re intimately connected to the fabric of the city, through the songs they write and the music scene that they’re part of. Just 10 years ago that might not have been the case. The Irish capital has been on quite a ride in the past 25 years, surfing a wave of prosperity that began in the 1990s before crashing when the global economic crisis of 2008 arrived. The depression that followed not only undid much of the economic growth of the previous decade, but it also sparked a mass exodus of young people, forced to look abroad for work or to express their creative urges.
But Dublin is booming again, this time in a different way, fostering a new wave of local talent that wants to take its creativity to the world, but which still calls Dublin home. With Brexit looming over London, you might even say that Irish capital is on the way to becoming the most welcoming, creative and cosmopolitan English-speaking city in Europe.
There is still poverty in Dublin, and rocketing house prices and rents are problematic for young artists, but youthful start-ups are in love with the idea of being adjacent to the Liffey. The government set up the Digital Hub in 2003, offering office support to new tech companies, and over 200 of them have passed through the initiative since. Walking around Grand Canal Plaza, with its Daniel Libeskind-designed theatre and futuristic Martha Schwartz landscaping, you can see the new energy. To one side sit U2’s studios, which have been here for what feels like forever, when the area was all but deserted. Now they are hemmed in by the so-called Silicon Docks, where workers from Facebook and Google head to the rooftop bar at The Marker Hotel every night. “For a small nation at the edge of Europe, we are at the centre of the conversation on the worldwide digital landscape,” says Conor Davies, digital coordinator for the creative agency Baluba, which specialises in fashion, retail and lifestyle brands.
Away from the Silicon Docks, Davies likes to hang out at Token, a new bar in the old area of Smithfield, also enjoying a blast of enterprise and energy. Token is the archetypal new wave Dublin millennial bistro: come for the “Cheap Skate” meal deal and you get 10 tokens to play on the vintage arcade games. “It’s a scene that’s reminiscent of the 80s,” says Davies, “straight out of Stranger Things.”
Fashion is looking into Irish culture and reinventing it for the new world
Token’s signature dish is typical “dude food”. If you can eat the two kilos of Parmesan fries, smoked brisket and chilli ’n’ cheese fries within 20 minutes, they’ll give you a free T-shirt to commemorate it. The food scene elsewhere in Dublin is being elevated by sophisticated new kitchens. Mark Moriarty is perhaps the most celebrated chef under 30 in the city, having won the inaugural San Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year title in Milan in 2015. He took his own pop-up restaurant on a world tour in 2016 and currently cooks at The Greenhouse. He describes his style as “classically based and seasonal, presenting Irish food in a modern sense, with a touch of theatre”.
In addition to The Greenhouse, he points to Forest & Marcy, Locks and Forest Avenue as the best places to find cutting-edge Irish cuisine. He also loves Dax, which cooks classic French dishes using Irish ingredients, and the burgers at Bunsen, and recommends seeking out bread from the young bakers of Scéal, based in Stoneybatter. “Shane Palmer and Charlotte Leonard Kane are producing the best bread in the country,” he says. “They mill their own flour to produce sourdough bread with an unmatched depth of flavour.”
“This feels like a golden age for cuisine in Dublin,” says fashion designer Hannah Mullan, who runs the womenswear label Tissue with illustrator Gráinne Finn. “We really like eating at Happy Out, which is in a shipping container on Bull Island, reachable via cycle path. We also like Luncheonette, the lunch spot at the National College of Art & Design.” Mullan and Finn’s label is defined by minimalism, modernity and sustainability, and the pair feel Dublin is a place to stay. “There is a stronger feminist voice in the fashion industry right now,” says Mullan. “While it’s hard to say to what degree Brexit is affecting the creative industries, it’s prompted a new discussion about borders and identity, which can be fertile ground for creativity.” Mullan and Finn point to local fashion stylist Kieran Kilgallon and milliner Laura Kinsella as two particularly strong young talents in the industry.
“The fashion scene right now is full of fresh points of view from a generation that’s looking inwards, into Irish culture and reinventing it for the new world,” says designer Aisling Duff, who was a nominee in the One to Watch category at least year’s Fashion Innovation Awards, and who is now on the team at Ireland’s Eye Knitwear. “It’s becoming less about label name and more about label ethos. It was important to me to work for a company that was based here in Dublin, to know the men and women making the garments personally, and to know they are made fairly with good quality yarns. In terms of other designers, I like We Are Islanders as well as Chupi, and Capulet & Montague for cool jewellery, and Electronic Sheep for cool graphic knitwear. There is so much going on creatively right now, from fashion to music. I like listening to Soulé and Elle – two girls with a fresh, adventurous and very Dublin point of view.”
Music, like literature, has been a key Irish export industry for years. And now is a great time to engage with live bands in the capital. Wyvern Lingo are three women in their twenties – Caoimhe, Karen and Saoirse – who were childhood friends and are currently getting attention for their genre-defying R&B and pop, reviewed by The Irish Times as music that “plonks itself down on your lap, coils an arm around your shoulder and seduces you to listen to every note”.
For the most interesting new music you haven’t heard yet, The Workman’s Club, much loved by the members of Fontaines D.C., is the place to gravitate. “They keep a really keen eye on what’s happening in Ireland,” says Grian Chatten, “and base their bookings on what they think is genuinely good music without any care for how many Instagram followers the band has or how ridiculously tight the singer’s trousers are. It’s a cutting-edge place because it’s run by music freaks.” Chatten also recommends going to Garage Bar: “We’ve been introduced to so much incredible music there,” he says. “There’s also a burgeoning poetry scene: John Cummins ‘The Poetician’ and Lewis Kenny write and perform their work with many others in underground rooms and warehouses in the city.”
Since 2010, the Dalkey Book Festival has been providing a platform for young Dublin writers as well as international luminaries. “It’s about global names with a local vibe,” says co-founder Sian Smyth. “We had 15,000 people visit this June over four days, with appearances by Anne Enright, John Banville, Roddy Doyle and Michael Ondaatje. We also had Irish writers presenting debut novels, including Danny Denton and Andrew Meehan, and Caoilinn Hughes, whose book Orchid and the Wasp stood out for me.”
From the Georgian squares that provided the backdrop for Oscar Wilde’s childhood and his statue today, to the fastidiously reassembled Francis Bacon studio at Hugh Lane, Dublin has a visible record of its contribution to literature and art. A new generation of artists are now adding to this heritage and fashioning a new aesthetic at the same time. Last year, Shane Berkery was hailed as one of the “10 Irish painters under 30 to watch” by RTÉ Culture, and he won the National University of Ireland Art and Design Prize on graduation in 2015. His first solo show in 2017 sold out. His figurative work is ravishingly coloured and features subjects partially dissolving into space, “in an attempt,” he says, “to capture the sensation of a half-remembered dream.” His work can also be polemical. A recent portrait of Donald Trump shows the POTUS as a ghoulish, gauche figure in red Make America Great Again baseball cap, finger raised at the podium, mid-rant. It is a strong, fresh, arresting image.
It’s not just tech companies opening up around the old docks that are casting light on new Dublin creativity, it’s about a change in attitudes across Ireland that’s most pronounced in the city. The result of the recent abortion referendum highlighted a liberal mindset that was unthinkable in a once fiercely Catholic country. As Berkery says, “There is a very progressive attitude in the people right now, and a real desire to be involved in the betterment of the city.” Fontaines D.C. singer Grian Chatten echoes the view: “The Irish youth was collectively activated by the recent 8th Amendment referendum,” he says. “We’re at the point where we’re seeing our friends on national TV questioning old ideas regularly. We became utterly empowered overnight. Ireland is in the hands of its youth now.”