If we’ve learned anything from the deluge of commentary on the state of Dublin’s O’Connell Street area in recent weeks (and we really haven’t learned much), it’s that hardly any member of the commentariat had spent any time there before passing judgement.

A quick reminder of the facts: An assault on Talbot Street on August 16 is under investigation after it left a man in hospital. It followed vicious assaults that targeted Ukrainian actor Oleksandr Hrekov on Eden Quay on June 24 and US tourist Stephen Termini on Store Street on July 19, leaving them with serious injuries. Gardaí investigating the second case have arrested and charged three boys. These attacks were shocking and caused national embarrassment after they targeted foreign visitors who had come to contribute to Ireland’s cultural and economic life.

The response, however, has been a torrent of ill-informed, judgemental and opportunistic nonsense centred on O’Connell Street, where none of these crimes was committed. I won’t single out any particular comment by journalists, so-called experts, or politicians pretending to represent the area, for fear of forgetting anyone deserving of a good excoriation.

You could almost hear the zips on the multi-pocket vests of the reporters dispatched to O’Connell Street with a mission to record vox-pops among a citizenry living in fear of crime. The disappointment was palpable in articles written by those gawking at the typical Dublin assortment of business premises, hotels and vacant sites lining the thoroughfare, where they apparently expected to find a streetscape barely improved since the Royal Navy’s carpet bombing of Easter 1916.

Vacant site on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Photo: Thomas Hubert

This ignorance was compounded by the more perverse approach of various national and local elected representatives, who either had barely ever set foot in the area or knew it like the back of their hand after canvassing it for years, but still decided that going with the flow of a good silly season story of “unsafe streets” and “no-go areas” was a sure vote-getter.

The latest horrific assaults took place closer to the IFSC and the river Liffey than to O’Connell Street, but nobody thought of blaming international finance or water quality. Dublin’s most-hated street was an easier target.

Little did it matter that crime trends in the corresponding Dublin north central garda division have been wholly inconclusive for years. Over the past two decades, the number of recorded assaults has gone up, that of thefts has gone down, and they have seen big swings from one year to the next – even as the population of Dublin’ north central electoral constituency steadily increased, by 12 per cent between the 2016 and 2022 censuses alone. The narrative of O’Connell Street’s relentless descent into drugs and violence just sounds like a more compelling story.

No-go areas are just that: areas where people don’t go.

There’s nothing new in this. When I first lived in Dublin as a student in 1999, I used to park in the little lanes connecting O’Connell Street, Liffey Street and Marlborough Street. There were always free spaces there despite their central location. The reason was their apparent reputation that nobody who entered those streets was ever seen alive again. 

Nothing ever happened to me or my car, though. No-go areas are just that: areas where people don’t go.

More recently, I’ve been a part-time resident of the neighbourhood for years – on Dominick Street, another place with an undeserved bad name five minutes’ walk away. My commute takes me the whole length of O’Connell Street several times a week. The only risk to my safety there has been the faint dotted line painted through one of the country’s busiest bus stops to masquerade as a cycle lane. If anything needs to be “fixed” on the street, that would be a good place to start.

The main danger on O’Connell Street: its pretend cycle lane. Photo: Thomas Hubert

Amid the latest barrage against O’Connell Street, repeated comparisons with Grafton Street across the Liffey and the Champs-Élysées in Paris have been particularly infuriating. It seems that the same commentators who don’t have a clue about O’Connell Street haven’t either set foot on Grafton Street after the shops close, nor on the Champs-Élysées at all.

Grafton Street after closing time is dead, and late at night it’s outright scary. A lot of the people I’ve met there on my way back from a night out were drunk, high, riding a rickshaw at full speed, or any combination of the above. A stabbing incident there before the shops opened on the morning August 20 illustrates that Grafton Street is not immune to violence. Again, gardaí responding to the attack arrested and charged a suspect.

Aside from Dublin (always northside), the other cities I lived in for any length of time were Paris and Kinshasa. I’m happy to report Dublin is the only one where I was never the target of any crime or aggression.

I’m not blind to its problems, the most visible one in my area being drugs. But the Champs-Élysées? Give me a break. I’m a great admirer of its tree-lined Parisian grandeur but, aside from all the terrible restaurants, it’s a magnet for crime. Armed soldiers routinely patrol it for fear of a repeat of past terrorist attacks, including the killing of a policeman by a radical Islamist militant there in 2017.

When I lived in Paris, the police station on the Champs-Élysées had permanent members of foreign forces stationed to assist with the constant stream of international perpetrators and victims of pickpocketing and other forms of crime. It is statistically one of the worst neighbourhoods in Paris for thefts and assaults.

Gangland murders are a regular feature, too, with rival factions gunning each others’ members outside the area’s bars and nightclubs. The latest bullet-riddled corpse was found on a side street off the Champs-Élysées just three months ago. And the thoroughfare itself is a meeting point for rioters of all sorts. During the gilets jaunes protests of recent years, a mob ransacked the very Arc de Triomphe.

A lot of what occasional visitors from the leafy suburbs describe as “an edge” is simply called life.

There have been incessant mentions of “an edge” or “tension” in the atmosphere of O’Connell Street in recent weeks. If you want to feel tension, take the metro in Paris at rush hour.

Yes, you can come across isolated groups of people who are intimidating on and off O’Connell Street, especially if they’ve been taking too much alcohol or drugs. But make no mistake, a lot of what occasional visitors from the leafy suburbs describe as an edge is simply called life outside the tiny section of society that has regular access to the airwaves – just a different life to their own.

Some people speak louder or in different accents, including non-Irish ones. Some people dress differently, whether that’s by choice or whether they can’t afford the latest fashion. People everywhere get into arguments that occasionally turn violent, and people misuse drugs or alcohol. While some do so inside plush homes or cars, others don’t have that luxury and the mess in their life spills onto the street.

Both Grafton Street and O’Connell Street miss one key ingredient: residents who would live there round the clock and make the place part of a real community. But unlike its southside cousin, O’Connell Street already has life that extends beyond high-street shopping. It is a major public transport hub. People go there to eat, work, travel, enjoy a film or a show, access public services or a late-night pharmacy. Many line up to collect food from charities outside the GPO every evening. Some hover between the area’s drug addiction and homeless services, and inevitably attract dealers. 

It was a fitting location for the Irish women’s football team homecoming a few days ago, with cheers echoing along its perspective all the way across the city centre. More such festive occasions would be welcome.

A lot of this is enjoyable, some of it is problematic or uncomfortable. If you can’t face the reality that such is life, maybe that’s your problem, not O’Connell Street’s. Yes, like everywhere else, it has a lot of room for improvement but at least it’s not boring like a shopping centre.

A beginner’s guide to the O’Connell Street area

If, like most people taking it down, you’re a newbie to O’Connell Street, here is a reward for reading to the end of a column by someone who has actually been there: my top tips to have a good time without leaving the street or its immediately adjacent blocks. 

Browse the bookshelves at Easons or Chapters. Shop for a ceiling centerpiece for your Georgian mansion or a bust of Elvis at Dublin Mouldings. If you’ve never been to the GPO Witness History museum, do, it’s really good. Watch a summer blockbuster at the Savoy or a play at the Gate Theatre – the Fun Home musical they’re running at the moment is a dark, funny delight.

Dine on Sichuan cuisine at the unassuming M&L Chinese Restaurant, or Korean food and craft beer at the much hipper Kimchi Hophouse and its adjoining Shakespeare bar. Not into Asian cooking? Head for the carvery at Wynn’s Hotel or to Beshoff’s for fish and chips, or get the generous Too Good To Go takeaway from the Guud Day cafe before closing time.

Enjoy a trad session over pints at the Piper’s Corner. End the evening with excellent cocktails at the bar of the Gresham, where the tables on the platform near the windows offer unrivalled people-watching variety inside and outside. 

And stop complaining.