The Liberties is one of Dublin’s most characterful and historic districts. It owes its name to the fact that it was originally outside the jurisdiction of the city. So it was free to follow its own rules. In many ways it’s still doing that today.
In medieval times the Liberties was an area of the city in which brewing, distilling, tanning and other traditional industries were located. The world famous St James Gate brewery, home of Guinness, continues the tradition. Meanwhile distilling is enjoying a big revival in the area, with the arrival of the Pearse Lyons, Teeling, Roe & Co and Dublin Liberties distilleries. The whiskey makers have been joined in recent years by many young digital businesses, agencies and startups – all of them eager to locate to an area of the city that offers plenty of space and opportunities to businesses in up-and-coming industries.
Stephen Coyne is programme co-ordinator of the Liberties Business Area Improvement Initiative. One of the Liberties’ most attractive features for start-ups is the sense of energy about the place, he reckons. “It’s a very dynamic area”, he says. “If your business is based here, the streets are alive around you, you’re in the midst of a living community, a living neighbourhood. It’s the opposite of an anonymous business district. It’s a much more diverse and characterful area. You have the whole richness of the city-centre location. It’s probably one of the most distinctive areas of the city in that regard.”
The sense of creativity, of industry, business in the area, it’s infectious, and you certainly feel it when you’re walking through it.
It’s a culturally rich neighbourhood too, he points out. “It’s got a long history and heritage behind it. It brings together a lot of the qualities that people look for in the perfect neighbourhood.”
Some of these qualities are the result of carefully planned development in the area: “We’ve spent a huge amount on improving infrastructure and the quality of the streets. There are beautiful new parks in the area. People have the amenities they’re looking for now. They can go out on to the commercial shopping streets and they’re full of shops and services and cafés and restaurants. We’ve got a Michelin-star restaurant now. We’ve got that whole range of attractions and businesses that you would get in any city-centre area.”
If one company has expertise in one area that another might need, then we’ll set those two up.
With a background in architecture and town planning, Stephen is a connoisseur of the area’s buildings. Many of them date from the Victorian era and are now being rejuvenated and re-purposed. They are the source of much of the Liberties’ characteristically gritty charm. The old power station which used to produce electricity for the Guinness brewery is now the home of a distillery. Another distillery is housed in an old church, yet another in a former tannery. And at The Masonry, a former warehouse now provides some very attractive serviced office space on Thomas Street, one of the area’s major arteries.
There are new coworking spaces – The Masonry is one of them – coming on-stream all the time. Two major collaborative spaces for companies to scale and grow are here too: The Digital Hub and the Guinness Enterprise Centre (GEC). Ronan Donnelly is business development manager at the GEC. The centre is set to double in size in order to accommodate an ever-growing number of start-ups, micro enterprises, social enterprises and small businesses. “The area breeds creativity”, says Donnelly. “NCAD, one of the top colleges for creative design, is here. Vicar Street, (a popular live music venue), the distilleries, the country’s top tourist attraction (the Guinness Storehouse). The sense of creativity, of industry, business in the area, it’s infectious, and you certainly feel it when you’re walking through it.”
The GEC is a serial winner of the highly prestigious World’s Top University Associated Business Incubator award. Donnelly stresses the importance of its ties with a number of international universities: “we give them the chance to work on real-life cases as part of their course, and those cases come directly from the startups here at the GEC.”
The eco-system that startups can plug-into at the GEC is another key attraction – and one with an international dimension: “it’s about being able to provide the network. We have links with Enterprise Ireland, who have a global reach through the IDA. Our consultants have global contacts.”
Some of GEC’s consultants have 25 to 30 years’ experience, he says, and are experts in getting products into the market, creating marketing strategies and working on financials. “It’s also being able to provide the best mentorship and guidance for the startups here. We really cover all the areas to make sure that our startups are in the best position to be successful, whether that be going for a seeding or further funding, and building either toward an exit or towards growth. We make sure that when someone comes in, they don’t just get the office space, they get all that experience, they get all that exposure, and they get networking opportunities.”
They also get yoga, hillwalking and classes in video making, should they require such things. “Once you’re a member here”, says Donnelly, “you’re a member of a vibrant, active community. Collaboration is key to the centre here. We try and make sure that our startups are working together and assisting one another. If one company has expertise in one area that another might need, then we’ll set those two up. It has that kind of atmosphere about it.”
Must be that Liberties effect again: welcome to the community that’s always made up its own rules.