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Little Italy and Chancery Lane, Dublin 8

Posted: 17 December, 2018

From the 1840s until the 1930s, Chancery Lane was the centre of an area known in Dublin as ‘Little Italy’.

A photo of the Little Italy plaque in situ - please also see below to read the text in full.

This area was made up of  Ship Street, Werburgh Street, Golden Lane, Whitefriar Street and Chancery Lane. The area had a mixed population that included Jewish people from Germany and Lithuania, also English and Irish people, however, most of the people in the area had Italian ancestry. When the Jewish population left to build their own area a kilometre to the south between Clanbraisal Street and Lennox Street the area around Chancery Lane became almost entirely associated with the immigrant Italian population. The first wave that came to Dublin in the early to mid-19th century were often skilled craftspeople who found employment as stucco workers and woodworkers for the Catholic Church which was engaged in building many churches across the city. The second wave was often self-employed as street vendors and street musicians. The 1901 and 1907 census shows their professions to include Ice cream vendors, Musicians, Figure makers, box makers, Harpists, models, Organ grinders, Organ grinder owner, Frame maker, Dealer and Messanger.

The area became famous for the flamboyant way the locals celebrated the advent of the New Year. A party atmosphere was created by musicians playing organ grinders, hurdy gurdy’s, violins and other instruments. The street would be lit up and decorated, and local people would wear traditional Italian clothes to welcome all comers to a massive street party. The carnival atmosphere was such that it attracted people from all over the city. Toward the end of the 19th century, it was considered a tradition and custom specific to this community. Each year, on the following day an article in the Freeman’s Journal would document the celebrations on Chancery Lane that took place night before.

Though this yearly event was referred to as a custom and tradition, it was not to be a permanent one. Many of the local people moved from being street vendors to be retailers. As the Dublin suburbs of the 1920s and 1930s were built many Italian Irish families moved their homes and businesses out to places like Cabra, Crumlin, Marino and Killester. By 1940 an article in the Irish Times bemoaned the disappearance of Little Italy for over a generation. 'Alackaday! the picturesque customs diminish yearly. For nearly a generation there has been no ''Little Italy'' in the Irish capital, though the number of Italian residents has by no means diminished.'' (A Scattered Colony, The Irish Times 2.1.1940)

To commemorate this community of migrants as it was in the 19thcentury, Chris Reid a DIT Lecturer and Artist designed these plaques and specified their casting and installation. The plaques celebrate the integration and acceptance of a migrant community into the wider community. It also commemorates impermanence as today there is no sign of the existence of ‘Little Italy’ or even the Chancery Lane of this time beyond the street under one’s feet, and the cobblestones are hidden under the tarmac, these predate Little Italy, but that is another story. This project is supported by Tom Phillips of Teepee Developments Ltd.

Story and photos courtesy of Chris Reid, DIT lecturer and Artist