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Why doesn’t Dublin have a proper food market?

Limerick has the Milk Market, Belfast has the St George’s and Cork’s English market is known around the world, so Katy McGuinness asks… why doesn’t Dublin have a proper food market


Street food bought from KERB London street food market
Street food bought from KERB London street food market
The English Market in Cork city. Photo: El Keegan
Sharon Greene outside the now empty Iveagh Market on Francis Street. Photo: Tony Gavin

In Lisbon, LX Factory in the Alcantara district – formerly an industrial manufacturing complex – has been transformed into a vibrant arts centre that hosts a wide spectrum of cultural events. It’s home to art studios, bars and restaurants, and a Sunday market that sells food, vintage clothes, crafts, plants and bric-a-brac.

In Paris, the abandoned 16th century Saint-Vincent de Paul hospital campus has been reimagined as Les Grands Voisins, a “utopian village”, with bars and restaurants, a flea market, greenhouses, football pitches, camping and more. It’s one of the coolest places in the city.

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In Belfast, St George’s Market (voted the UK’s Best Large Indoor Market 2019) holds weekly food and craft markets, and a variety of cultural events such as Chinese New Year. The Friday variety market dates back to 1604, and is home to 300 market stalls selling everything from fish (there are 23 fish stalls), to fruit and vegetables, to antiques, books and clothes. The Saturday market offers a huge range of local and specialty foods as well as crafts, flowers, plants and local photography, pottery, glass and metal work, while the Sunday market is a mixture of the Friday and Saturday markets with a special emphasis on local arts and crafts, with live music from local bands.

Cork has the English Market and Limerick has the Milk Market, covered food markets that are an essential part of the fabric of their respective cities. But although Dublin has several farmers’ markets (sometimes criticised as elitist, although the idea of giving farmers direct access to their customers, and shoppers access to fresh, seasonal produce is hard to knock), it has neither a covered food market nor a flea market, since the Dublin Flea and several other markets lost their site at Newmarket Square in Dublin 8 to redevelopment last year.



Sharon Greene outside the now empty Iveagh Market on Francis Street. Photo: Tony GavinSharon Greene outside the now empty Iveagh Market on Francis Street. Photo: Tony Gavin

Sharon Greene outside the now empty Iveagh Market on Francis Street. Photo: Tony Gavin

On Moore Street, the once-lively street market is in the doldrums. Of the 69 official pitches, only 19 are currently licensed, and some of them are only open part-time. Flowers, fish and bananas make up the bulk of what is on offer today.

A vision for the re-development of the street as an historic/cultural quarter is proving tricky to resolve, given the competing considerations of the National Monument, the traders and the private developer, Hammerson; pending agreement on this no new licences are being issued.

The Iveagh Markets in the Liberties, sold by the city to developer Martin Keane more than a decade ago, languishes in a state of alarming dilapidation, with no sign either of work to restore it or to realise Keane’s Covent Garden-style vision having commenced, nor of the city taking it back.

“The fact that the Iveagh Markets, a state-of-the-art market paid for by the Iveagh Trust, was sold to a private developer by the council, when it was built for the people of Dublin, is an example of how we don’t value municipal covered markets,” says Sharon Greene. “Yes, when it closed down it was full of stalls selling old clothes and was not trendy at all, but markets can evolve and change.”

Along with Luca d’Alfonso, Aisling Rogerson and Dave Dunn, Sharon founded the Dublin Flea and Christmas Flea markets, which are run as a not-for-profit social enterprise, and are in search of a new home.

Sharon believes that one of the reasons for the capital’s failure to value its markets is that historically they have been associated with crime, disease, disorder and poverty.

“We have a hang-up about markets in Ireland because they are not redolent of good times,” she says. “It’s as if they are an embarrassment that we need to distance ourselves from, rather than something entrepreneurial and sustainable to be celebrated. Different markets serve different purposes at different levels of entrepreneurial enterprise: craft is lovely, but on Cumberland Street, one of Dublin’s oldest markets, the traders are mainly immigrants, selling second-hand clothes that are old rather than ‘vintage’. There was an attempt to de-designate it as a market recently, which shows that as a city we don’t want to see this activity. But I think it’s great because these people, mainly women, can help support their families and become socially mobile through trading, when they may not have access to key money for retail spaces. It’s important that we not be snobs about that, saying that we like this level of market but not that level.

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“Other countries, particularly France, place a far greater emphasis on community and cultural values than we do. In Ireland, when community and culture are in competition with things that have a high economic value, they always lose out. But these values, as encapsulated by markets, should be protected as living heritage. We protect buildings for their architectural and cultural values, but what about protecting the social and cultural values of a market that is actually in existence? Markets seem to fall between the cracks when it comes to heritage plans.”

Anyone who has ever enjoyed shopping at a market – be it a food market or brocante – in France (or indeed anywhere in Europe) knows that they remain the cornerstone of society that they have always been, beneficial to people from all walks of life, from elderly people on their own getting out to meet friends and neighbours to families buying produce directly from the source because they value the quality of their food.

“I find it ironic now that all the supermarkets here are trying to make themselves look like markets,” says Sharon. “In France they set more store by tradition, whereas in Ireland we value success over happiness and are so busy trying to develop and progress and modernise, that maybe we don’t pay as much attention as we should to community values, and what makes a good neighbourhood. Community is when you walk out of your house and people recognise you and smile and there’s a connection and a collective concern. Markets give that to a neighbourhood or a city but are not protected because they are not seen as economically important, and in a period when rents are out of control and the economy booming, markets are particularly vulnerable.”

The estimated spend at last year’s Christmas Flea, held in the Point Village and supported by Dublin City Council’s Local Enterprise Office, which attracted 73,000 visitors, was €3.5m – a figure that gives the lie to the notion that markets are not important to the local economy. All of this went to small local businesses: artisan food producers, artists, craft people, and retro and vintage collectors.

Although Dublin City Council announced plans for a €3m restoration of the Fruit and Vegetable Market in Smithfield into a retail and wholesale food market almost a year ago, it is understood that tender documents have yet to be issued.

Dublin City Council assistant chief executive, Richard Shakespeare, was quoted at the time as saying he wanted the market to have a “quintessential Dublin feel… Something with a little bit of the magic dust of Dublin.”

A spokesperson for the council said this week that procurement for the design of the market is continuing “but is dependent on vacant possession for construction works”.

While the proposed refurbishment of the Fruit and Vegetable market is to be welcomed, there is a concern that what the city is proposing is tourism-driven, rather than focused on the needs of people who live in the city.

“I think that if the Fruit and Vegetable Market could, rather than have 40 permanent stalls like the English Market, have a mixture of permanent stalls, quasi-permanent stalls and rotating temporary stalls, and a different market each weekend, it would keep things dynamic and more interesting for the inhabitants of the city,” says Sharon.

“We live in a world that’s quite ordered and I think that we need more spontaneity, the excitement of chance encounters and not knowing exactly what we are going to find when we go somewhere. Not every trader wants a stall every day or every week, and concession stands make this difficult.”

Sharon says that she has been looking for an alternative venue for the Dublin Flea ever since she and her partners realised that they were going to lose Newmarket Square.

“All the large warehouses in the city are now earmarked for speculative development, and unavailable for short/medium-term rent. Back in the recession we were seen as desirable, but now we are not, because the developers will have to get rid of us in three years’ time when they get permission to build that hotel, and there will be a backlash.

“Another reason we haven’t been successful is that we are only open 12 days a year, 20 with the Christmas Flea, so our business plan is quite small. But since we shut down, the testimonials about what the markets meant to people have been flooding in. It’s almost as if people didn’t understand what the Flea meant until it was gone. We need a market in the city centre to cater for the population that’s there, rather than the city just being about businesses, hotels and shops.”

The longer the Flea has been without a home, the clearer Sharon’s vision for its future has become.

“Recently we have started to realise that it’s a bigger problem with a bigger solution. It’s not just the markets that are being squeezed out of the city, it’s also the artists’ studios, design spaces, exhibition spaces, social enterprises, event spaces… we all need to get together and try and see if there is an area of the city that can be turned into a contemporary cultural quarter, in the way that Temple Bar was originally envisioned. Dublin is getting more hotels and visitor centres and distilleries and student accommodation, but nothing for the people who actually live here.”

Sharon sees the potential for such a quarter in a number of locations around the city, such as Poolbeg, Dublin Port, Player Wills on the SCR, James’s Gate, Collins’ Barracks – or indeed focused around the Fruit and Vegetable market in Dublin 7.

“The tricky part is creating something authentic, which won’t happen if it is over-planned, but if you have values and vision and trust in creatives and the citizenry then you can create something dynamic and innovative,” she says.

“There is an opportunity now to do something more than a food market, to establish a creative hub for the city that should not be missed. So much of what we do in Dublin is for tourists, and when we need another tourist attraction we just copy the Guinness Storehouse and build another visitor centre.

“What if we turned that on its head though, and designed for the inhabitants of the city, first and foremost, so that the people could do their shopping, and the tourists could come along and see the locals doing their shopping? That’s what they really want. Once they’ve been to the visitor centre they are not going to return to see it again, but they will return to a thriving cultural quarter where there are markets and exhibitions and pop-up stores selling Irish craft and design, something that’s authentic, but planned for the citizens first. If it’s planned for the tourists, the citizens won’t use it.”

Weekend Magazine


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