Old Fashioned – The Allure of Antiques on Francis Street and Concerns About A Future For The Past

Posted 7 months ago in Arts and Culture

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“I remember when there were junk stores around. Now they go as antique boutiques.”

The bronze cast woman sits in pose on a marble base. She reads from a manuscript, while resting her elbow against a gilded clock decorated in garlands of foliate and acanthus leaf.

“This timepiece doesn’t just tell the time. It gives a performance”

29 inches long and 19 high, this Neoclassical mantle clock dates to the 19th Century. It strikes every thirty minutes and counts down each second with a rich, muscular tick. Inanimate though it is, one cannot but project onto it an aura of confidence. This timepiece doesn’t just tell the time. It gives a performance.

Passing through the showroom inside O’Sullivan’s Antiques, the sound of the French clock is a reminder of how little time there is to appreciate what is on sale. There are tables and chairs crafted from the commercially extinct Cuban mahogany tree, and 19th century brass lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Towering over customers are a pair of eleven and a half foot bookcases, flanked by columns in the style of the Acropolis. A giltwood trumeau mirror, surmounted by an oil-on-canvas painting enables one to admire both their own reflection and an artist’s depiction of a garden.

It is difficult to challenge the owner, Chantal O’Sullivan, when she insists that hers is the best shop in Dublin’s Antique Quarters, to which her assistant Clodagh adds, “and we are being objective.”

One of fifteen antique shops on Francis Street, a visit to O’Sullivan’s feels different in that the experience of setting foot through its door is more akin to that of entering a museum. The showroom is spread across two buildings, with each wall and crevice providing an insight into Irish Georgian craftsmanship.

But deep within the shop’s plethora of rooms, the Strahan Suite is what serves as the main attraction. The work of Robert Strahan, one of Ireland’s foremost furniture designers, the suite was created circa 1840, and comprises a Victorian walnut centre table with six side chairs, two library chairs, two armchairs and a stool, all of which are upholstered in original Moroccan hide. This very suite had been on display at the Great London Exposition of 1862, a catalogue resting on the lobed table reads.

“There’s the table,” says O’Sullivan, with each syllable in this brief statement of fact emphasising the historicity of the furniture standing before her. “I want this to stay in Ireland.”


Martin Fennelly lifts up a heavy, framed map of Dublin, which had been propped up against one of the glass cases in his shop, Martin Fennelly Antiques. Produced by James Malton in 1792, it depicts the capital as it was in 1610, going into considerable detail on all that is contained within the old city walls.

Francis Street, originally the site of a 13th century Franciscan monastery, sat outside the walls, adjoining Thomas Street. “The main road into the old city came in through Thomas Street,” Fennelly says. “If you were coming down there, and didn’t want to have to go into the city, you’d come this way, up Francis Street, and this street developed because of that.”

In the 18th century Francis Street had become a hub of craftsmanship, offering furniture and shoe repairs, Fennelly says. “This street had, so to speak, business on it.” Poetic, then, was its gradual evolution into an antique quarter over the course of the 20th century. Here, in one era, items were mended so as to remain useful for future generations. And in another, respects and cash were paid by those generations for such pieces with the ability to last.

The first antiques shops didn’t emerge until the 1970s. But the quarter’s roots came much earlier. In 1931, when Francis Street was occupied predominantly by tenement homes, a Jewish man by the name of Sam began trading in the area. Sam built a name for himself with Sam’s Junk Shop in number 35, stocking “everything”, be it a second-hand toy, a sign or even a chipped tea set. “Bicycle chain bits,” says local historian James Merrigan. “That’s what they all remember Sam for.”

Sam’s Junk Shop sold “everything people discard from their homes,” the owner told broadcast journalist Frank Hall in an episode of Ireland’s Eye from 1980. Family heirlooms were one fraction in Sam’s “everything,” and which he said, his customers referred to “not as antique, but as anti-ques.”


In the early 1970s, Paul Cooke purchased number 59 Francis Street, says Niall Mullen of Niall Mullen Antiques, situated two doors down in 57. “His mother was disgusted that he could even think of going and having a shop in this area.” Cooke Antiques was the store’s name, and Mullen says, that opened the floodgates.

Chantal O’Sullivan was employed by Cooke between 1980 and ‘89, before opening O’Sullivan’s in 1990, she says. Mullen was taken on part-time in the 80s, while studying in college. Upon graduation then, he says, he became full-time. “It morphed into a much bigger operation, that had up to 45 people working there at one time. A massive, massive shop.”

Francis Street, by the 1990s, was still very much a place known only to locals, and people who wandered into it by accident, Martin Fennelly says. “Now it’s on the map. It’s a destination.”

By 2003, as the number of businesses increased, and the Celtic Tiger roared with blissful ignorance, Francis Street was officially recognised as Dublin’s Antiques Quarter. It was a title earned, Fennelly says, arguing that it came organically in contrast to Temple Bar, which had the label of Cultural Quarter foisted on it by Charles Haughey. “A quarter tends to create itself.”

“There were a lot of people, still on the street with what I would regard as having a creative bent, a caring bent about Dublin”

Fennelly had arrived on the street only about a year before it received the official title of a quarter, he says. “I was forty years of age, in management in the bank. Various branches. Stephen’s Green. College Green. Did okay there. And then I decided that, if I didn’t change careers at this stage, I never would.”

Over the years, he had amassed a considerable collection of antiques. “I was interested in history, specifically about Irish history, and specifically about Dublin history,” he says. “So that historical bent in me marries very much into what would initially have been an interest in paintings, old paintings, engravings, old prints, and furniture.”

Fennelly handed in his notice at the bank, to which his employer suggested he take a year off, but, he says, “I never went back.” From the moment he began trading on Francis Street, he was committed wholeheartedly. “At that stage, there were a lot of people, still on the street with what I would regard as having a creative bent, a caring bent about Dublin,” he says. “About what Dublin means, and this part of the city means.”

For antiques, art and bespoke creative crafts, this was the area to be in, he continues. “There was no stopping it. What stops it now is the value of property.”

Down the Local

“Tom’s an institution, we’re very fond of him,” local historian James Madigan says as he steps into Tom’s Curios on the corner of Francis Street and Carman Hall. Madigan has been collecting religious iconography and 20th Century Irish folk art from this shop for years, he says.

Owner Tommy Dempsey says proudly that it is the last store of its kind in the Liberties.

The shutters outside are partially down, with a couple of fluorescent lights inside illuminating its array of bric-a-brac, pieces of Irish artwork and pub memorabilia. The walls are decorated with painted landscapes, busts of the Virgin Mary, and a Coca Cola advertisement printed on a red oversized novelty bottle cap.

In cabinets, on floors and shelves are porcelain figurines, old Guinness bottles, vases, candlesticks, tea seats, scales, handbells, and ashtrays. Pub-owners favour him when collecting items to display around their respective establishments, Dempsey says.

Dempsey sits at a desk on which there are rolls of tape reading “Fragile”, items of silverware and a candle trimmer from the 1780s, which rests on a long rectangular plate. Behind him are two clocks; one a replica of the type found in Connolly Station during the mid-19th century, the other a cuckoo, which ticks away as he talks.

Now seventy-one, Dempsey is one of the longest-serving antique traders on the street. He is a Liberties man, he says, born in the Coombe hospital and baptised right across the road from his shop in the Church of St. Nicholas of Myras.

When he was two, he was placed in an industrial school in Kilkenny. From ten to sixteen, he went to another industrial school in Artane. Aged seventeen, he left Ireland for London, gaining employment in hotels and a gentleman’s club.

Upon returning to Dublin, he couldn’t find any jobs, and with his wife, decided to try selling bric-a-brac at markets in Carlow, Athy and Navan. “It was up at 4am, loading the van,” he says. “A lot of hard work.” In 1982, he was taken on-board in Liberties Antiques right next-door to Sam’s Junk Shop. “Sam would always stand outside the door,” he recalls.

Francis Street was run-down at that point still, he says. “There was a butcher’s shop, pawn-brokers, a cinema, a lot of stuff and it went down. A lot of shops closed, so a lot of dealers moved in because the rent was so cheap. Some people got squatters rights. They got shops for nothing. And the whole street was rebuilt, and in the 80s, this street started flying.”

Dempsey went from Liberties Antiques to a unit in a neighbouring antiques arcade. In 1988, he opened his first shop. Sixteen years later, he started Tom’s Curios in a former sweet shop.

James Merrigan says he comes to Tom’s for memorabilia tied to the Liberties. “There’s a brewery gone one hundred years and I got an ashtray from that,” says Madigan. “Donnelly’s Sausages, closed in the ‘90s. He got me a poster from the ‘80s, and I remember doing a walking tour up Cork Street. I did Donnelly’s Sausages for it, and I could just stand there with this poster. It was so visual and expressive.”

Designed in Vintage’s Image

Niall Mullen’s father was an auctioneer. He sold antiques on the first Tuesday of each month for fifty years. “So we grew up with antiques around us in the house that we lived in,” Mullen says. “The plan was that I’d take up the business after college.”

After a stint with Paul Cooke, and a momentary departure from Francis Street, Mullen co-opened one store in 1994. Then in 2001, he branched out, operating in a warehouse in the docks, specialising in art-deco pieces. “The market was full for what we would call traditional classical brown furniture.”

Five years later, he had his own shop on Francis Street in 105, Niall Mullen’s Antiques. “Then the crash happened.” The owner of a futon shop in 57 closed, and Mullen relocated to the space, before sharing it with Gallery Zozimus, which traded in local and international artworks.

The buying trends over the ensuing decade makes Mullen sigh as he contemplates them. What draws a customer is no longer what is contained within an item, be it the information or the actual quality in the craftsmanship, he says. “It’s not the quality of an item now. It’s the look.” A battered leather chair will sell, even if the damage is a deliberate feature. “The more battered the piece, the better it looks.” That which is genuinely vintage isn’t as appealing as an item made in the image of vintage. Though it may be mass produced, the advantage is that it is cheaper.

An antique from the Victorian era now picks up for less than its IKEA equivalent, he says. “They both have four legs to stand on, but the difference between buying the real Victorian is that there’s no styrofoam cardboard rolling around. A Georgian chest of drawers has sixteen times lower a carbon footprint than a brand new drawers.”

Price outweighs the greener option, he argues. “I hear too much ‘I love vintage’. But they don’t. They love the image, and every shop that closes here on Francis Street becomes a lifestyle shop.”

Sense of Place

An organic antiques quarter has a shorter shelf life than an inorganic cultural quarter, and while Francis Street’s official title isn’t in immediate jeopardy, a new generation of traders seems unlikely, Mullen says. “I have three kids. They won’t be antiquers. They don’t want to be.” He gestures to the front door of his shop where a man is loading a clock into a car. “His brother is the youngest antiques dealer in Ireland. He’s about 45, 46.”

“I hear too much ‘I love vintage’. But they don’t. They love the image, and every shop that closes here on Francis Street becomes a lifestyle shop”

The shops aren’t proliferating any longer. When one closes, the sign above the door isn’t replaced by the name of a new antiquer. The shutters go down. The faint outline of old lettering hangs around for a while like a scar or a ghost. Francis Street as an antiques quarter is moving in the direction of Francis Street as a historical spot.

An aparthotel replaced the Tivoli Theatre. Only the venue’s sign could be salvaged and re-erected after Tommy Dempsey and antique dealer Ian Dowling intervened, having discovered that it was about to be auctioned off.

In a pair of old Dutch Billy houses, dated to the 1700s, situated at the southern end of the street, a pair of chimney breasts were demolished, erasing some of the few indicators as to the age of these buildings. The Iveagh Market stands in ruins. Its interior is populated by weeds. “You can’t say many nice things about it,” says James Madigan as he stands outside the locked gates of the market, peering into the derelict space. “It’s just really sad.”

As he walks the length of Francis Street, past the burnt out Drop Dead Twice pub and the decaying market, Madigan says there isn’t a lot on this particular stretch that he can show to people who come on his walking tours of the Liberties. “Meath Street has far more personality. There’s not much left here. Could I show you Sam’s Junk Shop? No.”

There is a future however, for Francis Street, as a historical street, as an antiques quarter, and as a meaningful commercial area, says Martin Fennelly. But it is dependent on the salvation of the market. “That would be the game changer for everyone.”

He lists off a couple of famous faces who have come to the street, including Bon Jovi, Rod Steward, “and Mr. Schwarzenegger…The Terminator walked through these doors because he, like the others, had a few hours to kill, and didn’t want to see Main Street. They are fed up with walking around corporate streets that could be in any city. It’s all the same shop. There is no identity there. That is why we all end up here.”

Words: Michael Lanigan
Photos: Killian Broderick


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