The Italians who lived in Chancery Lane, Golden Lane, Ship Street, and in other streets nearby, were known to Dubliners primarily as street musicians – organ-grinders and hurdygurdy men. Each New Year the newspapers would report the high jinks in Chancery Lane, when Dubliners assembled to listen to the carnival music and the colourful displays which went on long into the night:
The Italian Colony in Dublin on New Year’s Eve. There is within the boundaries of Dublin no more extraordinary spectacle to be witnessed on New Year’s Eve than the annual serenade of the Italian organ-grinders and musicians in Chancery lane. This comparatively unknown portion of the city has been for many years the headquarters of all the Italian and other itinerant foreign street musicians who migrate to Dublin.
Freeman’s Journal (1886), 1 January
The annual carnival was beginning to run out of steam as the 1890s progressed, and by 1897 the Freeman’s Journal (1 January) reported that, despite favourable weather, "there was an almost complete absence of either music or musicians on the part of the Italian colony" - "not to the dissatisfaction of the constables of the local [police] station", the Irish Times added on the same date four years later. Half-hearted attempts to revive the custom around 1907 ultimately proved unsuccessful.
We hear from the Freeman’s Journal that the street musicians consist not only of the Italian-born immigrants themselves, but also of their Irish-born descendants:
The Italian organ-grinder or quasi-Italian, for his birthplace is not usually in that land of song, but in the sunny southern district of the Coombe, who haunts our streets and squares, may be a most excellent person in his private capacity, but there is no doubt that in the public practice of his profession he is not infrequently an unmitigated nuisance.
Freeman’s Journal (1897) 30 September
This is borne out by consulting the Ireland Census for 1901, where – for example – amongst the one hundred or so Italian families in Dublin the musician Peter Valeris lived with his family at No 11 Chancery Lane. Although he was born in Italy, his wife (a musician) was from Dublin City, as were his three sons (the eldest a musician, the others at school) and three daughters.
Joyce refers to the familiar Italian organ-grinders (U 8.721-2: "[...] it stinks after Italian organgrinders crisp of onions mushrooms truffles [...]"), and in "Eveline" (Dubliners, 4.120-9):
Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing [...] She remembered the last night of her mother’s illness; she was again in the close dark room at the other side of the hall and outside she heard a melancholy air of Italy. The organ-player had been ordered to go away and given sixpence. She remembered her father strutting into the sickroom saying:
- Damned Italians! coming over here!
But Joyce has more truck with the marginally more economically successful tier of Italian immigrant – the ice-cream seller, the fried-fish merchant, and the chip vendor. Antonio/Anthony Rabiaotti (U 10.229, 15.5 and 150) was, according to the 1901 and then the 1911 censuses, first an ice-cream seller and later a fish merchant. By 1910 he was running a "fish and chips business" in Wexford Street (Irish Times 17 November). These are the types of people Joyce associates slightly later with the Italian colony: “those icecreamers and friers in the fish way not to mention the chip potato variety and so forth” who push their hand carts into the city each day, or gradually set up businesses in shops in town.
In an article of 1897 about ‘city hawkers’ – always popular with the readership – the Freeman’s Journal of 6 October notes "we have scarcely any fried fish shops, so popular in London". In the same year we find chip vendors setting up their carts in southern Dublin – in the Coombe/Chancery Lane area:
An Italian Potato Vendor’s Experience of Dublin. In the Southern Police Court yesterday, Thos O’Hara, 18 Coombe, labourer, and Thomas Farrell, 24 Chancery lane, dealer, were charged in custody of Constable 134 B with assaulting an Italian named Celeste Barella, of 10 Chancery lane. The evidence was that Barella, who had a machine in Stephen street on the previous night, in which potatoes were cooked, refused to supply the prisoners with potatoes unless they consented to pay for what they wanted, and that they thereupon beat the unoffending Italian about the head and knocked him down, and then upset the potatoe [sic] machine, damaging it to the extent of £3.
Freeman’s Journal (1897) 9 July
‘The Great Northern Dandy’ purveyed fried fish and chips that Christmas in the centre of Dublin, probably manned by Italians:
Christmas Eve [...] Some Southern Streets [...] In Dame street [...] the most attractive object being [...] a locomotive restaurant, described on its blazing boiler as "The Great Northern Dandy", which smoked and spluttered and cussed in Forster place, while from its interior were dispensed fried fish and chip potatoes.
Freeman’s Journal (1897) 27 December
The 1901 Ireland census records the Dubliners’ indebtedness to their compatriot Italians for ice-cream. Of 23 people listed as involved with the ice-cream trade as vendors or makers, all but seven were born in Italy. See also the related article Hokypoky hocus pocus by Harald Beck.
The Irish Times of 2 January 1940 commented on the death of "Little Italy", as Italians became more fully integrated within the life of the city:
A Scattered Colony [...] 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 decreased. To-day they are scattered all over the city, and in most cases live over the shops where they make their living by purveying fish and chips and ice cream to the natives.
Joyce remarks with or without conviction that the Italians are "sober thrifty hardworking fellows". In this he was echoing a contemporary phrase found, as it happens, in the Westminster Government’s Royal Commission Report on "Alien Immigration" of 1903. In this case it is applied to the Jewish population of London:
(Lord Rothschild.) You wish to give some evidence about the general character of aliens on some particular points. You say the aliens with few exceptions are sober, thrifty, hardworking, and law abiding? – [Respondent] I think most decidedly so. (p. 834)