Portobello on Parade – Frank McNally on the phenomenon of Dublin suburb creep

At current rates of expansion, it will be in Stephen’s Green by Christmas

Reading an email from concerned Dubliner Clive Carroll, I thought for a moment it might be a case for our gardening correspondent.

Clive was complaining about the relentless spread of a thing called Portobello, an exotic plant introduced to Dublin from the continent, probably via London, a couple of centuries ago.

It used to be confined to a well-delineated area between the South Circular Road and Grand Canal. But in recent years, apparently, Portobello has leapt its traditional boundaries and is now invading adjacent suburbs, threatening native species like the lesser-spotted Clanbrassil Street.

Only with the mention of streets did it dawn on me that the email was about estate agents and newspaper property pages, and more generally, the “cachet” that certain suburbs have over others. To underline the point, it included a cutting from last week’s Irish Times, headlined “Dublin City Council refuses permission for hotel in Portobello”.


On closer inspection, the disputed development turned out to be on the corner of Liberty Lane and Kevin Street: a location from which, if Ryanair were using it as a landing place for Portobello, they would need to supply shuttle buses to complete the journey.

Clive also blames Google Maps for encouraging this sort of thing. And sure enough, according to Google, Portobello has doubled in size since the last time I checked. At current rates of expansion, it will be in Stephen’s Green by Christmas.

“For the avoidance of doubt,” writes Clive, ”Portobello has always been an area stretching westwards from South Richmond Street as far as Upper Clanbrassil Street and bordered on the north by the South Circular Road and on the south by the Grand Canal.”

He speaks with some authority: “I was born and bred in Heytesbury Street [just north of the SCR] 77 years ago, and Portobello was a place we ‘went to’ when we were kids. But apparently, we lived in it all the time and did not realise.”

Relentless as its north-bound progress seems to be, however, there is no sign yet that Portobello has spread across its historical southern boundary, the canal. On the contrary, Clive also points to an “extraordinary” ad from Sherry Fitzgerald a while ago describing a house in Curzon Street, not far from the planned hotel, as being in “Rathmines”.

If this is true, Rathmines has crossed not only the canal but the SCR, into New Portobello. But whether that is just an isolated seedling of or the start of a counter-invasion, is too early to say.

Suburb creep is not confined to south of the Liffey. To switch natural history metaphors for a moment, I have mentioned here before the grey squirrel of the northside, Glasnevin: a voracious species that, fed by estate agents, has for decades been encroaching onto the habitat of the native red (also known as “Finglas” or “Ballymun”).

Thanks to a new, more aggressive variant that has evolved in recent years, Glasnevin North, there are fears Finglas could cease to exist eventually. But perhaps that’s alarmist.

Conservationists will be encouraged by the continued survival of the southernmost portion of Finglas Road, where it almost reaches the Royal Canal. This despite an attempt some decades ago to rename that part of it, when an upmarket development called “Dalcassian Downs” was being built there.

It seems to be one of those curiosities of urban development in Ireland, by the way, that if a place is called “Downs”, it is invariably aimed at the upper end of the market.


Speaking of ups and downs, when mentioning this year’s Mylesday at the Palace Bar here last weekend, I suggested it would take place as usual in the pub’s famed back room: the Sistine Chapel of Irish literature circa 1940.

In fact, by Saturday afternoon, the room had fallen to rugby supporters, en route to the Leinster-Ulster game. The Flannoraks and Mylesians had to be relocated to the upstairs whiskey bar. It was a Feast of the Ascension that only encouraged them.

But still on the theme of elevated ground, a reader named Bob Hyland also emailed this week, with a Keats-and-Chapman-style tribute to the master on his anniversary. I don’t know if Bob was in the whiskey bar on Saturday. Either way, his Mylesian homage could certainly be located there. It goes as follows:

“I had an interesting experience the other day: on entering a licensed premises in search of refreshment, I sat at a bar next to a gentleman who was ordering a Gold Label. He was duly served his choice and I mine.

“As I savoured my libation, I noticed that the aforementioned individual had not touched his. Instead he was addressing it in low but firm tones. At first, I was nonplussed but then the light of understanding shone upon me. Of course, he was speaking truth to Powers.”