The characters and character of the Liberties

From being shot with Bang Bang’s keys to people dancing with no music, this old neighbourhood has seen it all – but where is it going today? A local historian reflects

The Liberties is one of the oldest ‘villages’ in Dublin, providing the city with an extensive repertoire of history, culture and colour. 

However, with new apartments, hotels and overall development of the Liberties, what effect will this have on the existing community? 

There is no doubt that the Liberties is more than just an area of Dublin – it’s a place of community, character and charm.  

“One character that stands out to me most would be Bang Bang, even people that couldn’t have possibly known him held such a high regard for him,” says Catherine Scuffil, born and raised in the Liberties, and a historian resident for Dublin City Council for the south city areas. 

Catherine Scuffil (middle) Photo credit: Marlay Guild ICA

Bang Bang used to shoot people with his keys like he was in a Western, and people weren’t afraid to shoot back – but take Bang Bang with a pinch of salt, he never paid for the bus, and he used to shoot the driver too. 

Scufil talked fondly about the many ways he is still celebrated. For example, a new distillery has a Bang Bang bar, and there’s a café named after him in Phibsboro. His infamous key is even on on display in the Dublin City Library, occasionally being brought out of its case. 

This picture of Bang Bang is displayed in Teelings Distillery in the bar named after him

“He was cared for in our community.”  

The characters of the Liberties and around Dublin, such as the Hairy Lemon, Bang Bang, Mary Wallpaper and Zozimus even have their own Facebook page visit: Dublin street characters for more information on these characters.   

“There are plenty of lesser-known characters in the Liberties, some even being from my own family, but we won’t get too much into that,” laughs Scuffil.  

The Liberties is a place that seems to care about people, so these characters were always looked after. Everyone knows what was going on with each other in an endearing way rather than just being nosey, she explained.  

“You’d always make a fortune on your Communion and if not with money, you make up for it in cakes,” she joked.  

The growing worry is that the gentrification of the Liberties will cause it to lose its authenticity as a community-based village and its once colourful vibe will become diluted. 

However, Scuffil reckons that this isn’t likely to happen, as the sense of community is so strong in the Liberties that its spirit will be able to withstand new apartments and hotels being built. 

Bang bangs key on display. Photo credit: Old Dublin Town

“For example, the new students have moved into student accommodation on Thomas Street and the day they arrived the local Liberties cultural association and their college arranged for them to do a ‘meet the shopkeeper’, bringing them around the neighborhood to welcome them to the Liberties.” 

Even looking at the broader areas of the Liberties who still have strong communities, the Tenters has had a hundred years of housing and changes, even Mary-land has 90 years of housing; they still have their own communities after all this time. 

“They’re still there and they’re not going anywhere, not yet and hopefully not for a long time. It’s settled and respected,” Scuffil says.  

Overall, it seems that you move in, and you fit into the Liberties rather than the other way around.  

Storytelling is such a huge factor in Irish culture, and is especially instilled in the Liberties psyche – tales of these characters have been passed down from generation to generation. 

“The area has an older population, grandparents would often mind their grandchildren, so stories have been handed down for years. Even to this day children know about all the characters.”  

Scufil reflected on her own upbringing saying she knew about all the characters and never felt “deprived”, or “underprivileged” – in fact she felt the complete opposite. “I always felt safe, very cared for, well known and everyone had a nickname.”  

The Liberties is all about celebrating what you have to offer, whether that’s academic, handywork, artistic, or just being yourself like Bang Bang.  

“If you have a talent or a skill and you grew up in The Liberties one thing is, that one day you will do a job for free, you will give back in some way, and that’s what will happen. That’s the character there,” Scuffil says. 

Some other characters were Dancing Mary, who was always seen dressed up and dancing all around regardless of music, Johnny Forty Coats who regardless of the weather wore as many coats as possible that fit on him. Here is some more information about the characters of the Liberties if you’re interested. 

All these characters have been allowed to be their unique selves because of the accepting culture that is rooted deep in the Liberties heritage. 

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