The Magic and Madness of Capel Street

The weird, wonderful Northside Dublin artery that is Capel Street...

By: John Mahon

We Are Dublin is a quarterly magazine published in and about Dublin city.  Available online and in select stores, it's limited print run means it disappears pretty quickly.  

We thought it a shame that more people don't get to see it so we asked publisher Conor Purcell if he would like to publish extracts of the magazine and hopefully get it in front of a whole new audience.  

He liked the idea so here's our first feature on the weird, wonderful Northside artery that is Capel Street.

Find out more about We Are Dublin at

Conor on Capel Street

I really like Capel Street and wanted to write something on it for ages. I was going to write it myself but then thought that Caitriona Lally might be better suited. I love her writing style, and her book Eggshells, just got picked up by an American publisher. Her writing is really engaging and quirky and you could say the same about Capel Street. I had walked up and down the street and wrote the name of each address on both sides of the street before I started, and then walked up and down taking photos. Compared to Henry Street, which is about as boring as anywhere in Ireland, Capel Street does have a magic to it.


The Magic and Madness of Capel Street
By Caitriona Lally

Capel Street is a spate of furniture shops and a pile of traffic and a hint of grot. There is a sense of the unsanitised higgledy-piggledy that is very appealing. It’s the kind of street you could get fitted for a hearing aid and go to karaoke now that you can hear your own voice. You could get some new glasses and test them out in the 7D cinema.


You could go for a Japanese starter, Vietnamese main course, and a Chinese dessert, followed by Italian ice cream if you’re like me,  and have a preference for double-desserting. You could drink coffee in any of the cafes and amuse yourself counting the grandad glasses and beards. 



"extra-long work trousers for my extra-tall uncle"


When I was a child, Capel Street was workwear and camping gear. My parents came here to buy gear for our camping holidays – gear that could withstand Irish gales and rain, not to mention the maggot-acting inside the tent. My father used to go to Capel Street to buy extra-long work trousers for my extra-tall uncle. And when I went backpacking in the late 90s, Capel Street was camping shops with everything you could imagine for a holiday you were trying to pack light for (forks that double as spoons, soap that triples as shampoo and clothes detergent).


These shops stocked ankle gaiters, sleeping bag liners, camping stove toasters – things you didn’t know existed but now that you knew of them, you needed them. When I was going to live in Japan, my mother came with me to Capel Street buy a new rucksack. She gave it her haggling all (Is that the best you can do? Come on, make me a right offer) and when the price had dropped sufficiently, she asked the man to throw a compass into the bargain, “so she’ll find her way home.” I found my way home in the mid-2000s, and since then, Capel Street has changed.


Not in a depressing replica-of-any-high-street in the world kind of way, like Henry Street or Grafton Street; somehow, Capel Street has managed to retain its character while being quietly added to.



"she did speed a couple of times a week"


These days, Capel Street is cafes and pubs and charity shops to me. I’m a charity shop fiend, and on Capel Street, there’s a good stretch of them to choose from. I huddle among the handbags, sniffing them furtively to find the real leather. I paw at the dresses and shirts looking for silk.

I pick up books, hoping for a postcard or photo left behind as a forgotten bookmark among the pages, putting back those with worryingly sticky covers. You have to root through a lot of dross to get to the good stuff, and the smell is sometimes between sickness and decay, but the value is good. In one of these charity shops recently, I overheard a girl tell her friend at the till that she did speed a couple of times a week. I hovered nearby, waiting to hear what other substances she involved herself with, but she went on to say “And I do weights or cardio on the other days.” Damn.  



"pure joyous chaos – confetti, cheering, crunching cans"


Capel Street is where I often go out at night – to Nealons, Panti Bar, Slatterys, the Black Sheep. As a northsider, it used to be difficult to convince my southside friends to cross the Liffey and come out this side of town; now there’s no argument. Pride is usually spent drinking outside Nealons or Panti, and Referendum Night last year was like Pride tripled: pure joyous chaos – confetti, cheering, crunching cans and plastic glasses underfoot, trying to text friends and not getting through because so many people were texting, just like midnight on New Year’s Eve. Gardai took photos for people and directed traffic through the madness, cars beeped, we cheered.



"wondering if we were getting a mild high from the residual fumes"


I was at the cinema on Parnell Street with a friend five years ago, the night after the headshop on Capel Street was burnt down. We walked past the burnt carcass of the building, wondering if we were getting a mild high from the residual fumes of the substances burnt.

The space which contained an adult shop and a couple of head shops is still vacant, and it was behind those hoardings that portaloos were placed for last year’s Pride – a welcome salvation for the female bladder. I like that head shops and adult shops don’t really tell you what they sell, but the names suggest a rogue trade in skulls and grown-ups.



I mostly walk home after a night out, and Capel Street is a nice street to walk on. There’s a bit of a buzz, but you avoid the hen party shrieks and stag party roars and stumbling pedestrian madness that is Dame Street or Temple Bar. And a bag of chips from John’s takeaway on the Bolton Street end provides the perfect potatoey soakage after a feed of pints.



"A pizza bigger than your head was a rare treat"


My parents used to treat my brothers and sister and I to lunch in Romano’s Restaurant in the couple of days before Christmas. When we finished school for the holidays, we would go into town to see Santy in Clerys as children, or do last-minute shopping as teenagers, and get taken to Capel Street for lunch afterward.

A pizza bigger than your head was a rare treat. We would fill our corner of the restaurant with Santy loot and giddiness or in later years, our shopping bags and teenage sulks. Now I eat sushi with my fingers in the Japanese restaurant - my chopsticks technique is so awkward it puts my dinner-mates off their food - or curry chips from a real plate in the kebab house. 



"the kind of prams that would carry a royal baby"


Look down Capel Street from Bolton Street, and you take in the clutter of signage, the three brass balls of the pawnbroker, City Hall across the river. There is lots of beauty in progress on Capel Street – faces, hair, nails, bodies all having bits added or taken away. One beauty studio also sells tchotchkes, cutesie kitsch in the form of furry backpacks, Russian dolls, Japanese dolls, colourful jewelry, animals made of shells.

There are old-fashioned prams of strawberries and bananas and cherries parked at the corner of Capel Street and Mary Street, the kind of prams that would carry a royal baby or be pushed by Mary Poppins. Some shops are shuttered, but not enough to make the street seem sad and unused. I was disappointed recently to see that the shop selling the kinds of gifts your very cool, very flat-proud friend would like, had closed. I’m hoping a shop selling only sherbet will take its place.



"Berlin Opticians makes me think of a specifically German kind of blindness"


There is an enchanting specificity about many of the shops on Capel Street. The kinds of shops you’d only go into if you had interests in those specific areas. The kind of shops that cater for particular obsessions. The kind of shops that focus on one thing to the detriment of everything else. The upholstery shop has a window full of beanbags. Workwear shops sell gloves with grips, chefs uniforms, nurses’ uniforms, construction wear, and steel-capped boots. Berlin Opticians makes me think of a specifically German kind of blindness. Sadly, the rubber stamp shop has moved. One of my favourite toys as a child was a printing set with a rubber alphabet, plastic tongs to pick out the letters, and spongy ink-pad. 

The sign over W.M. Trimmings says they distribute Haberdashery, Fabrics, Crafts, Yarns, Furnishings, Millinery, Sewing Trims, Ribbons – they could be first words in the lines of a poem. If it was up to me, I would give haberdashery a dash: haberdashery. There.



" a gold egg in a frying pan"


Brenfer Bullseye sells snooker and darts paraphernalia, chessboards, dominoes, and board games, along with medals, cups, trophies, and plaques: a sports shop for those who don’t like to budge too much. There are also gold pendants in the window with the names Pauline, Barbara, Cecelia, Grainne, as well as a gold egg in a frying pan.

I get the urge to buy one of those named pendants and wear it as if it was my name. And I wonder who could like fried eggs so much they’d wear one in gold on a pendant round their neck.



The camping shops are crammed to capacity with goods bulging out onto the street. I love the idea of shop owners hanging a selection of goods outside their shop in the morning and then taking them in at night, and I’m curious how they choose what to put out. I don’t want to ask because I don’t want to hear a practical response; I’d rather believe some kind of intuition or superstition is afoot.

There is such a reassuring sense of plenty when you see ice boxes and raincoats and fleeces and tents and hiking boots and poles and rucksacks all packed in tightly together in a window. Hanging outside, the erected tent, inflated airbed dressed with a sleeping bag, packed rucksack, and a mannequin wearing a rainproof poncho, are like a fast-forwarded camping holiday, with every eventuality catered for. 

There are hardware and tool shops and car accessories shops, selling things I have never heard of and have no idea in what context they would be used: a Propoint gun kit, a hand bender, a direct drive compressor. I once worked for a price comparison web site and I had to write descriptions of products, some of which were technical devices or mechanical gadgets that I had no clue about. 

Even if I didn’t know what they were, the nouns were fine; I could fling them around with ease, but if I didn’t know how the gadget would be used, the verbs were a challenge.



“The Celtic Tiger never came in to visit us.” 


There’s something about shops that sell goods for obsessives that intrigue me: shops that welcome nerds and geeks and people who live for the one thing that’s sold there. In The Model Shop, I talk to Brendan, who has the makings of a white beard and describes himself as a junior Santa Claus. He says the shop hasn’t changed that much during recent economic turbulence, seeing as “The Celtic Tiger never came in to visit us.” It’s mostly men who visit the shop. 



"I love the idea of adults playing make-believe and refusing to behave like grown-ups."


Brendan says when couples come in, the shop brings out the boy inside the man: “The husband is maybe six foot tall when he comes through the door and by the time he gets inside, he’s two foot tall.” The Model Shop is a small corner of paradise for me. I used to love going into the dolls house furniture shop in Powerscourt Shopping Centre to peek at ordinary items in miniature, and this is similar – except some of these models are designed to move rather than stay still.

There are glass cupboards filled with figurines of soldiers and miniature trains and railway sets and cars and buses and tanks and planes. In the section of accessories for railway tracks, there is a replica of Carlow Station. I like the randomness of it. There are shelves of modelers’ glue and plank bending tools and something called Eze Dope which sounds like it should have been in the headshop across the way, but is apparently used to coat and seal tissue over models. I love the idea of adults playing make-believe and refusing to behave like grown-ups.



"I always glance at the adult shops to see if I know anyone going in."


As a busy route connecting the north and south of the city, Capel Street heaves with cars most of the time. If I’m sat in a car stuck in traffic, I always glance at the adult shops to see if I know anyone going in.

One adult shop has a sign over it advertising 50 Shades of Grey. It seems disappointing, as if they’ve sold out and cashed in on the accepted mass-market shades of S&M, but I like that the Good Vibrations sex shop is next door to The Goodwill charity shop, and I imagine a distracted shopper entering the wrong one.



"Capel indulges your vices and whims"


There are two early house pubs on Capel Street and I put in a solid morning’s drinking in one of them recently. A friend got a hankering for an early pint, the kind of hankering I could get behind. I work early mornings and finish at 9:30 am. By 9:45 am, I was ensconced in Slatterys, supping from a pint of cider and feeling like this was the most natural thing in the world. It didn’t feel quite so natural five pints and a whiskey chaser later, creeping out into the lunchtime brightness, fit only for bed.

And that’s what I love about Capel Street. It indulges your vices and whims as well as providing for your mundane needs. It’s the kind of street I seek out in other cities, the kind of street that feels like an anything-goes kind of home. 


comments powered by Disqus