Liberty Belle – Liberty Market Celebrates 50 Years

Posted 8 months ago in Arts and Culture, Shopping

One of the city’s longest running markets celebrates 50 years.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and even if we’ve lost battles, we haven’t lost the war. So you have yer good days and bad days, but overall, we’re holding on.”

Boots. Lamps. Laughing Budda figurines. Hair clippers. Prime Energy drinks. Tubes of Crest toothpaste. T-shirts with ethereal wolves. Cardigan buttons and balls of wool. Eighty-year-old Turkish salt bags. Hash pipes. Communion dresses. Argentinian football jerseys with Messi printed on the back. Opal rings, jade necklaces and a grotto made entirely of purses and handbags.

The labyrinthine Liberty Market at the top of Meath Street promises “everything under one roof,” according to the mural painted around its corner on Engine Alley.

Its sheer scale is not apparent to someone casually passing down the street in the heart of the Liberties. The view from the opposite footpath seems to promise just a single line of stalls through the blue metal arch above the entrance, declaring its local renown. But the t-shaped interior spreads out behind the businesses to either side of it, like it is wrapping both arms around these neighbours.

Inside is an overwhelming expanse of shelves, tables and metal grids, onto which all host of goods hang. There are few immediately visible signs that bear the names of their respective businesses. So instead, generally the best marker for orienting a browser are the familiar faces behind the different stalls. But even they tend to wander about, checking in to chat with their fellow traders.

“The owner, he said this was purposely made to be like a maze,” says a woman named Jacinta whose stall offers a range of BB guns and glass bongs deep within the hodgepodge.

“It’s so maybe you would have to go around the whole market,” she says, while demonstrating how to cock a black airgun, modelled on an automatic Beretta pistol. “Because you can’t find right away what you’re looking for, where you’re going.”

Michael FitzGerald was a music student in Trinity College when he co-founded the Liberty Market in October 1973.

“The only real shops in Dublin at the time were the big department stores,” he says in a nearby coffee shop on a bright Friday morning, almost exactly fifty years later. “There was Clery’s. Frawley’s on Thomas Street. You had the big shops and corner stores. But few vogue-type shops.”

FitzGerald was from Kinsale. He moved to London for work after finishing in school, and then, he enrolled at Trinity when he was twenty-one. Meath Street was relatively run down in the early ’70s, he says. “It was on a par with Francis Street.”

The building which later became the market was an old coal store, which FitzGerald repurposed in partnership with a woman from Cork who he refers to as Mrs. Roche. “It was a joint effort and then she died after a few years, and I kept it up,” he says.

Most of the area didn’t have a roof when they started up, FitzGerald says. “And I had an old van, and was going around the scrap yards, getting second hand corrugated iron and timber.” From what he was able to glean, he roofed the building, and created supporting columns.

While he was up over the entrance, hammering nails into timber, a man in his forties named Harry Armstrong approached him. Armstrong asked FitzGerald what he was doing, “and I said ‘well, this is going to be a market.’”

As FitzGerald remembers it, Armstrong pulled a fiver out of his pocket. “And on the spot, he said, ‘I want the one on the front,’ and I said down to him, ‘That’s grand.’ The money went straight into buying more timber, he says.

The first person to acquire a stall, Armstrong started to sell shoes on the third Saturday that they were open. “He’d say, ‘I sell the shoes, the best shoes’,” says FitzGerald. His shoe shop remains the first business that greets people as they step inside, and Armstrong continued to run his stand up until he died at the age of 96.

Armstrong was in every single day that the market would be open right up until he passed away, says Billy Armstrong, Harry’s son, who now operates his father’s stall. “Thursday, Friday, Saturday, he was in, and the only reason we knew something was wrong was because he hadn’t shown up by twelve on the day it happened.”

The longest serving trader is Larry Mooney. Seventy-seven years of age, for five decades now, he has run Larry’s Wool, with his daughter now a part of the business.

It started after his brother took a stall on Thomas Street, Mooney says, while sat in his rollator next to his shelves and cubby holes filled with wool, and racks carrying knitwear. “I had gone into give him a hand, and then I came out to see what this was. It was in bleedin’ bits. The roof was hanging off, and I just decided to take a stall right here.”

It was an extremely rough-shodden place for the first twenty years, FitzGerald says. “The roof used to leak a lot. It was a 19th Century building and would be extremely cold in January and February.”

But it was packed, says Billy Armstrong as he stands by a rack of shoes inside the front entrance. After taking a query about a pair of boots from an elderly woman, Armstrong walks over to a crevice between two shelves, producing a laminated photograph of a scene from Meath Street in 1983.

It shows a throng of people out on the road, streaming into the market, which was being advertised by a long white banner that was hung across the street. Steel barriers had to be erected along the footpath. “You couldn’t get into it,” he says.

“The crowds in here were fuckin’ unbelievable,” Mooney says. “You nearly had it like Ikea, going the one way around. Fantastic, it was.”

Business started to slow around the early 2000s, he says. “But look, look around at the shops that are closing. My daughter was in Argos. They’re all gone. No matter where you’re going, the shopping centres are half empty. People don’t have the fuckin’ money, they don’t have it.”

“The only reason we’re still going is because I have the wool for cheap,” Mooney says. “Most my customers are elderly people. I call them recycled teenagers. They don’t have the money. You have to go with the flow here, and jesus, look after the customer.”

“Every year, I say to me daughter Renee, we have to get tins of sweets for them all,” he says. “And sure, some of the customers come in and say ‘no one ever does this for them in the shops.’ It’s only a tin of a fuckin’ sweets. Give to get all the fuckin’ time in this life, ya know what I mean?”

Behind a plexi-glass and steel shield, Pat Clare prepares a few cups of tea for some of the traders. He passed them through a small opening over his desk. “I do all the teas and coffees,” he says. “I don’t like not being busy, and I’ve pretty much assigned everyone a mug.”

Dangling behind him are an assortment of wires. USB chargers for phones. HDMI cables. Beside him are about a dozen boxes filled with sachets of instant soup.

On display outside his shopfront are old portraits from around the city, like O’Connell Street when it was known as Sackville Street, and retro advertising signs.

A trio of vintage-style hair clippers are spread out on a shelf, next to an orange cube-shaped homemade Bluetooth speaker. “I like to make stuff, like LED signs. I’ll take an old frame and turn it into a Heineken sign.”

Clare started trading roughly twenty years ago, he says. “I was bringing in all this crazy stuff, the kinda gear people were overselling on these spy-websites. A lot of me started calling me James Bond, or the Gadget Man. The kids were all fascinated by this gear. It was the time when all the kids were saying ‘whopper’, and they’d be saying ‘oh, that’s whopper.’ So, I decided then to call the place Whopper Gadgets.”

One of the consistent attractions is an old Nokia phone – “the Blockia” – from the early 2000s and beloved for its near-indestructability, that he puts on show, and which is still sealed in a now yellowing plastic box.

“When everyone goes by, folks, even the young kids, they look at that as ‘wow, that’s amazing,’ because while they still exist, they don’t,” he says with a proud smile. “I think there are two of them online that you can buy. Both of them are mine. If you can try to get them anywhere else, you can’t, because that’s how rare they are.”

“That type of thing, you could have stuck in an auction and made loads,” he says. “But that’s there, because it adds to the character here.”

Inside the front entrance, somebody had hung a single row of shiny plastic bunting announcing the market’s fiftieth anniversary.

Beneath the archway too, declaring that this was “Dublin’s Famous Liberty Market,” another metal sign had been erected, informing locals in green and orange letters that the place had been active for five decades now.

There had been a reporter in from the Irish Independent in recently, Larry Mooney says on Thursday afternoon. “I’d said to him, we must be doing something that was better to last fifty years. There’s not many places who could say they did that. You know what I mean”

The traders were organising a party for 21 October, and whether deliberate or not, the event serves as a milestone, marking the end of one era, and the start of another.

Only a fortnight earlier, Dublin City Council had concluded a series of public consultations as part of its plans to regenerate Meath Street. Their plan is to carry out a series of public works, changing the footpaths and carriageway, and introducing street furniture and trees.

It isn’t an idea that is fully welcomed, said one woman sat just inside the front entrance with one of her friends on Saturday evening.

“They want to make it more touristy, like Temple Bar, but the tourists don’t spend,” she said.

“They don’t spend,” says the other.

Meanwhile, Michael FitzGerald has plans to construct a mixed-use development, including three residential blocks with twenty apartments. His application went before An Bord Pleanála in May 2022. But while a decision was due that September, thirteen months later, there has been no sign of either permission or a refusal.

It’s all on hold at the moment, he says. “Obviously, that would involve a certain amount of disruption. But you know, having chatted with the traders, I think most people are prepared to put up with a bit of disruption in order to get this better in the end.”

If it goes through, he foresees an updated market, one with more specialist food stalls, comparable to the English market in Cork, he says. “I think there is possibly the need for more of that.”

Post-pandemic marked a turning point, he says. “Some people thought they would see the end of the market. We lost some of our oldest traders.”

There aren’t many new traders coming in. One exception is Jean Valentine, whose stall sells gems, rugs and bags, handmade by people she has connected with in Afghanistan and Turkey.

Less than a month in the market, Valentine says she is about to visit Turkey for the first time in her life in the next couple of days. She speaks with awe as she raises necklaces and bracelets, decorated in stones made from jade, coarse blue lapis, and lemon quartz emeralds.

She’s a music teacher by profession. “But I’ve always been interested in this, and if I go back fifty years, this is what I would have liked to be doing. It’s come full circle.”

“Socks, three pairs for a fiver,” sings a woman stood by a stall selling football jerseys and socks between the market and Lucky’s bar on Saturday evening.

Four o’clock approaches. A dog struts down Engine Alley with a chewed orange cone in its mouth. Passing by are a pair of tourists in the back of a carriage, painted golf and pulled by a horse who follows a course marked by a trail of manure.

Billie Jean blares inside the market as many of its traders slowly start to close-up shop. They switch out lights and grab stools by their neighbouring stalls. The crowd of customers thins over the final hour. Locals, friendly faces drop by. But it’s more for a chat than a proper browse at this point.

From his rollator, Larry signals to come over with a lively wave. He stands up to reach behind a shelf of wool, retrieving a pair of laminated sheets of A4 paper, sellotaped together. He had been searching for the signs since Thursday, he said.

The first is black text on a lavender background, reading “For Fox sake will you buy something.” The other shows a trio of sheep and two woollen balls, between which there is a message: “We will never pull the wool over your eyes.”

He raises them up. “Never pull the wool over your eyes, we won’t,” he says, beaming as he gazes down at the three animals with their black beady eyes. “Would you look at them. Fuckin’ sheep.”

Words: Michael Lanigan
Photos: Pablo Marin Garcia

Liberty Market, 71 Meath Street, Dublin 8


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