A contemporary cartoon showing an arrested Suffragette (Dublin City Library and Archive) Donal Fallon

Donal Fallon The Castle, the intrigue and the Italians - welcome to old Dublin's Ship Street

One of Dublin’s most intriguing locations is examined by the historian.

BACK IN 1986, the printer and poet Vincent Caprani penned A View From The DART, at a time when the service was still something of a novelty in our lives.

Vincent, a proud Italo-Dubliner (or Eye-talian, as he pronounced it) believed that you could get a good sense of the history of the city and county if you took the DART and got off briefly at each station.

The DART, Vincent insisted, “is like a rapidly-moving corridor leading into a sprawling museum – the treasure-house of Dublin city and its maritime environs.”

To understand any place, you have to walk around it. When Dublin remained in lockdown last winter, the idea of writing a book about a number of Dublin streets came into my own head.

This was more than two years into an ongoing podcast exploring the city, a continuous labour of love. These streets were no longer as empty as they had been in 2020 but remained relatively quiet by comparison to the pre-pandemic world.

A rich history

Could the story of Dublin be told by looking at streets which were in some ways wildly different, but which were all in their own ways important to the life of the city? Which to put in?

There had to be Fishamble Street, where it all began, the oldest street in the city. I thought of Watling Street, a lesser-known name but vitally important in the brewing and distilling history of the city.

Then there is the curious story of James Joyce Street, one which has numerous historic names, ever-changing due to its connection to the so-called ‘Monto’ district. That the history of a district was whitewashed by constant renaming, but that it ultimately came to carry the name of a former ‘Monto’ client, struck me as brilliantly ironic.

Ship Street is a lesser-known Dublin street perhaps, but it is so important to the story of the city. It straddles Dublin Castle, the symbolic centre of political power through centuries.

It includes the most impressive remaining section of Dublin’s historic defensive walls. Perhaps most surprisingly, it’s important to the story of migration in Dublin, once known as ‘Little Italy.’ Deciding on its inclusion, I thought of Vincent once more, who did so much to champion the role of the Italian in the development of the city.

Sheep or Ships?

English and Irish language street names are not always in kilter across the island of Ireland. Can regional dialect, and accent, impact on the names we see on our city streets?

Sráid na gCaorach is a name that has nothing whatsoever to do with ships, instead translating to Sheep Street. That a medieval name linking the district to an animal would become something else entirely is likely to owe something to spoken language.

The name Sheep Street transforms the place of this street in the history of the capital, placing it alongside streets like Fishamble Street, Bull Alley and Cornmarket. It is not shipbuilders or sailors that this street should evoke, but Dublin’s rich culinary history and the role of animals in the life of the capital.

handels-messiah-performance 2016 - A man makes himself comfortable as he waits for the start of Our Lady's Choral Society's outdoor performance on Fishamble Street, Dublin, of Handel's Messiah. PA PA

The story of Ship Street is synonymous with that of neighbouring Dublin Castle, established by Royal Charter in 1204. The seat of English and later British rule on the island of Ireland, it fulfilled a variety of roles as a political, social and symbolic centre of power.

Hosting royal visits, a lavish social calendar, and housing significant parts of British bureaucracy and intelligence work, double-agent Ned Broy recounted it as being “believed by the people to be the centre and focus of all that was evil and secret and sinister.”

Ship Street stood in some contrast to the opulence of the Castle, indeed the Castle was once called “that bleak fortress situated in the heart of the slums”, while the street itself was described by one more accustomed to Castle balls than tenement realities as “plague spotted, pestilential as a corpse, quick with the life of the worm.”

ShipStreet3 A Ship Street marker showing the outline of the walls that once surrounded Dublin. Luke Fallon Luke Fallon

Not alone is the name of Ship Street muddled by history, there is little agreement on the name of the steps which bring one to it from nearby Castle Street. To the American artist Flora Mitchell, who captured Dublin in a moment of transformation for her study Vanishing Dublin in 1966, the steps were “the dark awe-inspiring flight of steps” she knew as Castle Steps.

To others, they are assumed to be the Forty Steps, a name also bestowed on other locations in the city. None of the passageways has 40 steps, but all have a strong mythology and folklore.

ShipStreet1 The steps leading onto Ship Street photographed in 1988. Dublin City Library and Archive Dublin City Library and Archive

The only ghost which haunts this passageway, despite what the ghost tours which utilise its unique atmosphere in the telling of story may suggest, is the ghost of Robert Emmet’s abortive 1803 rebellion.

The fear of that insurrection repeating itself was significant enough that leading architect Francis Johnston was commissioned to design a new protective castle gate, that of Ship Street, and the curtain wall and steps which encloses the castle from Castle Street down to Ship Street itself.

Breaking Ship Street windows:

Beyond Irish nationalists, Dublin Castle had a variety of other political opponents. In June 1912, windows belonging to the Castle at Ship Street were smashed by members of the Irish Womens’ Franchise League (IWFL), borrowing a tactic from the radical Suffragette movement in England. Windows at the General Post Office, Custom House and Ship Street were targeted to bring attention to the cause of suffrage.

There was no apology for the action in the pages of The Irish Citizen, the newspaper of the IWFL. Instead, the women struck a note of defiance, with one insisting, “I for one refuse to sit down under injustice, and that is why I went out early on Thursday morning and used the time-honoured political weapons – stones.” Some of the women involved were veterans of the campaign, previously arrested at demonstrations in London.

Situated between two cathedrals, and beside the castle, it seems peculiar the area was allowed slip into such urban decay, leading The Irish Builder to comment in 1886 that:

….the locality and its offshoots and alleys are filthily dirty and dilapidated…St Patrick’s is like the jewel in the toad’s head. Could it be transported elsewhere, or could elsewhere be made to surround it, would indeed be a boom.

The Heart of Italian Dublin:

Within two decades of that observation, elsewhere did begin to surround it. It is difficult to picture this area in the opening years of the last century when Dubliners knew it as part of ‘Little Italy’, a district inhabited by Italian migrants to the city. Centred on Werburgh Street, Chancery Lane and Ship Street, this small but influential community would come to play a role in Dublin’s culinary identity, literature and political life.

Ireland’s Italian community at the time of the 1911 census numbered fewer than four hundred immigrants, with significant clusters in both Belfast and Dublin. Though numerically small in the broader picture of the fabric of the respective cities, the manner in which many of the Italian families came to live in just a few small streets in both made them a clear presence.

There were class divisions within the community – one group came from the Lucca region and was “made up of artisans, plaster workers and woodworkers, with surnames like Bassi, Corrieri, Dehini, Giuliani and Nanetti.” The other contingent, from the Val di Comino, includes familiar names like Forte and Fusco and were described as “street-sellers of ice cream or café owners.”

In the latter camp belonged Giuseppe Cervi, a resident of Ship Street who hailed from a small place named Picinisco in the Province of Frosinone, and who arrived in Dublin in the late nineteenth century. Cervi is widely credited with opening Dublin’s first fish and chip shop. His son, Tony Cervi, recounted:

The area around us – off St. Werburgh Street – was known as ‘Little Italy’. If someone came to Dublin and wanted to locate a particular Italian, he would more often than not be directed to Little Italy. The place was filled with barrel-organ men, ice cream men who travelled the city with their barrows, and with marble men.

Tony remembered the family house on Ship Street as a lodging house which was popular with visiting Italian and Greek terrazzo workers, but also as a place from which Cervi and his wife sold fish and chips, a custom they had begun from a stall on Great Brunswick Street in 1882. Little Ship Street was strictly takeaway. It was the Cervi family who coined the name ‘One and One’ for a fish and chips meal, something that persisted in local lingo.

Dublin’s Italian community would produce a Lord Mayor, with Joseph Nannetti reaching the office of First Citizen in 1906. A printer and trade unionist, Joyce includes Nannetti in the pages of Ulysses (where Caprani’s grandfather also gets a mention).

The son of an Italian sculptor and modeller, Nannetti’s roots were in the Tuscan region and his life was considerably more comfortable than that of many of the organ grinders, ice cream vendors and general labourers of Ship Street and its surroundings.

ShipStreet4 A plaque in honour of the Suffragette action (Dublin City Library and Archive) Donal Fallon Donal Fallon

The 1901 and 1911 census returns give us a sense of Dublin’s Italian community and their livelihoods, with organ grinders, ice cream vendors and more present. At first, I struggled to find Giuseppe Cervi amidst the community he was at the heart of. The father of the Irish chipper, under Joseph Cervi, is listed as a ‘hawker’.

Ship Street Soldiers and Prisoners:

The Italians of Ship Street were outnumbered by its soldiery, to whom Ship Street Barracks was home. The barracks, housed in buildings purchased by the War Office in 1858, stood in considerable contrast to the tenement landscape opposite it.

Ship Street Barracks is now best recalled for its role in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, housing primarily female prisoners. Helena Molony, Abbey actor and a member of the Irish Citizen Army garrison which had seized City Hall, remembered that:

We were kept for eight days in the dirty room in Ship Street Barracks. It was a disused room at the back of the building, on the west side. There were old bits of mattresses in it,. used by the soldiers. They were covered with vermin, and before a day had passed we were all covered with vermin too.

The soldiers, of course, are gone. The handing over of Dublin Castle in January 1922 took place with minimal fanfare, historian John Gibney describing it as “an event devoid of ceremony, far removed from the familiar but completely fictional version in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins.”

There was no raising and lowering of flags, no quips on waiting seven hundred years, and not yet a Free State army to parade into the Castle grounds. Ship Street Barracks simply fell quiet a few months later, as the old order left.

The Italians lasted a little longer, before the new suburbanisation of the Free State spread them, like many inner-city communities, into the new hinterlands. On Chancery Lane, near Ship Street, a plaque in the ground depicting a hurdy-gurdy instrument with the words ‘Little Italy’ is the only clue of their presence here before.

In another way, Giuseppe Cervi is commemorated every time someone orders a ‘One and One’.

Donal Fallon is a historian and the presenter of the Three Castles Burning podcast. Three Castles Burning: A History of Dublin in Twelve Streets (New Island Books) is available now.

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