With a €3m refurbishment of Dublin’s Victorian Fruit & Vegetable Market being planned by Dublin City Council, we speak to people working inside and around the market to get their thoughts on the past, present and history of this landmark in Dublin’s food history and the city culture.
“Even as early as the 1960s, questions were being posed about the future of this market.”
If you’ve ever lived, worked or walked in the area between Capel Street and Smithfield, the notion of “forklift anxiety” might resonate with you. The forklifts, packed with palette-loads of wholesale sacks of spuds and giant bags of carrots, feel as much a part of this area of town as the building which they buzz in and around: Dublin’s Victorian fruit and vegetable market.
The Dublin Corporation, as it was known in the last century, opened the wholesale fruit and vegetable market in 1892. According to HistoryIreland.com, at that time markets such as The Ormonde Market were dotted around the growing city. Produce was sold in the streets off the back of horse and carts, and hygiene was seen to be an issue. A centralised fruit and vegetable market owned by Dublin Corporation was largely about bringing traders under one large orderly and sanitary roof.
“The building has had a number of different lives,” says writer and historian John Conroy, a longtime fan of the Market. “A lot of the changes with it had to do with the development of technology and transport. Originally goods were brought in by horse and cart from farms in areas such as Rush, Cabra, Ballymount and Crumlin, before they became part of the city. A farmer from Rush might fill up his cart in the evening, sleep for a few hours, and then set off at two o’clock in the morning to reach the market first thing to get the best prices.”
The greengrocers and private buyers would get the pick of the best from around 5am when the bells would start to ring for the auctions, and the dealers from Moore Street and Camden Street would be around later in the morning to buy produce at a cheaper price. “There was no refrigeration in those early days so you had to get down early as a buyer to get the best produce before it started to lose its freshness.”
Even as early as the 1960s, questions were being posed about the future of this market. In an episode of RTÉ’s On The Land called ‘Has Dublin’s fruit and vegetable market outgrown its Victorian premises?’ originally broadcast in May 1968, the reporter PP O’Reilly notes that “the narrow streets around the market which were originally built for horses and carts are now crammed with tractors and trailers… Since the market was built, Dublin’s population has doubled and the demands on the market with it.”
Fast forward another fifty years, and the question remains — what is the future of the Victorian fruit and vegetable market? Last month, an Irish Times article by Olivia Kelly quoted the Dublin City Council assistant chief executive, Richard Shakespeare, as being confident that the Council would have vacant possession of the market by the end of the summer, so that the process of the €3 million refurbishment plan could commence. This particular plan is outlined in Part VIII of the proposal which is available online, and it’s a modest version of a much more elaborate plan which was floated before the crash in 2007.
The more recent Part VIII was submitted in 2014, and permission was granted by local councillors in March 2015, according to Dublin City Council. The plan is two-phased; Phase 1 is to redevelop the Fish Market site, which was demolished in 2005, for a multi-use games area for the local community, off-street parking and loading for wholesale traders, and a small car park. The second phase is all about the redevelopment of the Wholesale Fruit Market to incorporate a retail food market in half of the building.
In order to get this listed Victorian building ready for repurposing as a retail market, extensive refurbishment is required, including full replacement of drainage, water, and power systems, conservation work, and eco-friendly upgrades. “Vacant possession is needed as the works are of such a scale that the full building would be affected during construction,” a Dublin City Council spokesperson told me. “It would not be possible to accommodate businesses on a building site.”
Why hasn’t there been a visible progression in the plans in the three years since they were given the go ahead? “DCC is relocating the remaining traders to temporary accommodation for the course of the project,” the DCC spokesperson tells me. “It was anticipated that alternative accommodation would be available in April which has not transpired and we are actively procuring space to accommodate the remaining wholesale traders. We are procuring alternative accommodation for the remaining traders so that we can go to tender for the redevelopment of the wholesale market building.”
Though not directly impacted, other local businesses such as Oxmantown Café on the corner of Mary’s Abbey, will have a front row seat to the proposed developments. “The idea of holding on to a wholesale aspect on one end and having retail on the other half of the building would be really nice,” says Conor Higgins, owner of Oxmantown Café, “but it would be a shame to lose the wholesale fabric of the area. It’s the essence of this part of town. It’s kind of why I moved into this area – not because there was going to be a new fancy retail market but because I love this rough-and-ready part of the city. I wouldn’t like to see that character go.”
It’s the six or seven market traders who remain inside the building who are directly impacted by Dublin City Council’s plans to refurbish and redevelop the Market. Some traders, such as K&M Fruit & Veg have already moved on from the Market, having finalised their negotiation process with DCC. After more than 40 years working in the market and 21 years of those spent as K&M Fruit and Vegetables, Stephen Keogh and his business partner Pat Martin purchased and relocated to a private premises in Finglas between Paddy’s Day and Easter this year. “We were caught between a rock and a hard place,” Keogh tells me. “We had to think of our staff and their jobs. We weren’t ready to retire and we didn’t want to hang about because property was getting dearer and dearer.”
Keogh isn’t particularly optimistic about having the site as both wholesale and retail space, either. “How are you going to serve cheese and cream cakes or whatever, with forklifts roaring past? We’d still like to be in the Market, yes. But not the way that DCC are planning to bring it forward.”
The market traders I spoke to voiced similar concerns, and they had questions that they felt remained unanswered by DCC. If they move out, even temporarily, how long will the redevelopments take and what impact would that have on their business and their employees? How long will they be away from the market stalls that, in many cases, their fathers or grandfathers founded? If they come back, will their rents be the same and therefore sustainable to their current business model?
We spoke to people working inside and around the Dublin fruit and vegetable market to get their thoughts on the past, present and history of this landmark in Dublin’s food history and the city culture.
INSIDE THE MARKET: THE MARKET TRADERS
Ciaran Butler of Butlers Market Traders
“It’s what we do. It’s our trade. It’s in our bones as market traders.”
“This market is in my bones,” Ciaran Butler tells me when we sit down to chat in his port-a-cabin office on the west side of the market. He’s been working here since he was 15 years old, straight out of school. At that time, in the early 80s, there wasn’t much work in Dublin so he was lucky to get a job working with his father in the family’s fruit and vegetable business. “It was a fantastic place back then, and a great place to work,” says Butler. “It was highly competitive because it was thriving but there was also a very strong camaraderie between the traders. It was a great upbringing in business.” He’s been working as a market trader for 32 years.
Butler has a keen sense of the history of the market, going back a lot further than his father’s time. “Where we sit right now is the birthplace of the north side of Dublin,” he says, as he tells me about the Benedictine monks of Mary’s Abbey and Dublin’s history of markets, including the Royal Commission in 1856 which heralded the build of the current fruit and vegetable market. He talks me through black and white photographs on the wall of his office; in one, an auctioneer stands above the crowd, facing an enormous pile of cabbage, his chest out and mouth open in a shout designed to fill the halls with the latest price. Auctioneers would ring the bell and the prices would vary depending on supply, demand and quality, of course.
Butler’s father had been involved in the famous strawberry auctions, one of the last goods to be auctioned within these walls. By the time Butler started, the auctions had pretty much finished up but prices were still determined by supply and demand. His business has evolved since then as the times have changed and the supermarkets have impacted smaller, independent shops through central distribution, pulling the draw out of the market in many ways.
There is an emotional connection to the market building itself, says Butler. “It’s what we do. It’s our trade. It’s in our bones as market traders. This building is over 125 years old, and Dubliners have been trading in it for those 125 years. I have no doubt the market will continue – this structure will be here for another 125 years at least. You’d like it to stay within the family for generations to come – I look at the grounding I’ve had and the lessons I’ve learned.
Butler tells me about his experience of communicating with DCC. “It’s shocking to read [in the media] that we’re going to be out by a certain date but we haven’t been told. They [DCC] haven’t necessarily negotiated with us in any sort of meaningful way whatsoever and that’s not just throwing stones at them. They said they would like vacant possession of the building to renovate, and it was no more than that. They just do not communicate with us in any way bar to say that they want vacant possession and they are prepared to compensate the cost of moving a business. Nobody has been clear with us to say that they will honour our leases and tenancy, or given us any details of how long the works might take and what the works will include. All they say is your business will flourish if you move out of here. They haven’t aided us to find another market. As a market trader, all I essentially do out there as a market trader is to provide a platform for buyer and seller. It’s a meeting place, like any market. I’m a middleman, as such. We need a market. A market is far greater than the sum of its parts. We rely on each other here.”
It’s not that he’s against development; he welcomes it. “I can’t swim against this incoming tide. Development is going to happen in this city. And to be absolutely truthful, I’m all on for development, and I’d love to be a part of this future market. Of course I want to be part of Dublin in the future. At the moment, it’s a bit like a ghost town around here but despite all that, we’re still successful and we’re still trading.”
And the future of the market? “It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the market.” He makes the point that he thinks even tourists would like to see real Dublin people with all the “floral filthy language,” as he puts it, that comes with that, rather than tourist souvenir shops in the place of the traders.
“I’d like to be engaged a little further, and listened to, and consulted with about the developments. We’re part of the brickwork of the place, and I’ve no doubt we could be part of it in the future. If it’s managed properly this could be a fantastic place. I’d like to be in a position to diversify in the future of the market. I’d like to keep our tenancy here for future generations and let it diversify as the city changes. What works last year in business will change this year, so we’re constantly diversifying, constantly changing. We’re just not sure of the future. Unfortunately, I really don’t believe we are part of the bigger picture.”
Joe Duffy of Joseph M. Duffy Ltd
“I think over in the Council offices, they look on us as maybe being in the way of progress because we’ve been here for so long.”
Joe Duffy’s grandfather and grandmother met in the market. His grandfather was an auctioneer and his grandmother was a buyer of flowers. They met at an auction in the early 1900s and the rest is history. The Duffy’s have been connected to this Market since then, and Joseph Duffy Ltd has operated within these walls throughout three generations of the family. They started out selling fruit, vegetables and flowers, but gradually they focused on flowers only. Duffy has been in the business for 43 years, working alongside his brother and Dad from the 1970s, and he’s been running the show for the last twelve years since his brother “retired” and joined the civil service.
“The first time I came into help, I would have been about 12 or 13,” says Duffy. “I would have come in and helped out at Christmas and Easter. Christmas was very cold but it was exciting because of all the wreaths and Christmas trees. My father would go through thousands of trees. The forestry brought everything into the market to be processed. He would be hoarse at Christmas from auctioning Christmas trees alone.”
Duffy has been around to see different ideas and proposals of moving traders to different premises over the years, such as following the model of the Old and New Covent Garden Markets in London. He tells me that they seemed to get close a few times, such as the time when the M50 was being built and when EU grants were boosting transport connections throughout the city, but the right premises with the right transport links outside of the city centre apparently never presented itself to DCC.
“We’ve always had a good relationship with the people from DCC who work in the market, and the Council workers that work with us in the market – it’s good. But I think over in the Council offices, they look on us as maybe being in the way of progress because we’ve been here for so long.” Duffy tells me how the traders brought in a negotiator to meet with DCC and speak on their behalf, rather than dealing with them on an individual basis. According to Duffy, the last meeting they had with DCC as a group was in December 2017. “We were supposed to be closing the market by 1st of April if everyone had made a deal with them, and was happy with it. That didn’t happen and now it’s May.”
This delay not only delays plans for the redevelopment, but it has a direct impact on Duffy’s business and employees. “It’s very hard for us to pick a place to move to, or to know what kind of rent we’re going to get. We obviously won’t get the same kind of rents we get here. We know we’ll have to pay extra, but how much extra? We’re left a bit not knowing. It’s kind of a limbo. When it comes to weddings, people like to plan up to a year ahead. It’s awkward – we give them our card and they keep in touch with us every month. Even for our staff, we don’t know where we’ll be in three months time or 6 months time.”
Duffy admits to feeling skeptical about the practicalities of being moved out on a temporary basis and then allowed to move back in. He’s not even sure his fresh flower stall would be viable in a market aimed at students and tourists, which is the demographic he thinks the new plans will attract. “Students and tourists don’t tend to buy flowers,” he says. “They buy coffee, beers, cheeses and gifts.”
How does he feel about being moved out of a space that is so central to his own personal family history? “I feel connected to the building,” he says. “It’s a super building. It’s survived risings and wars, and it’s still standing. It’s also been a way of life for me for over fifty years, since I was a kid. I have an attachment to it. But it is hard in the winter – it’s Victorian so it’s cold and drafty. As you get older, it gets harder to work in it. If there was an opportunity to move into a more modern, purpose-built building I would take it.”
OUTSIDE THE MARKET: THE GROWER
Philip Jones of Garden of Garden of Eden Herbs
“The market’s way of doing things can’t compete with the supermarkets because their price point is so cheap.”
The streets surrounding the Victorian market continue to light up daily with palette-stacked forklifts, boxes of strawberries and order dockets being processed. Traders such as Sam Dennigan & Company, Donnelly’s and Lawlor’s, operate outside of this building on the streets that surround it. It’s my understanding that they have more autonomy over their premises, either through private ownership or rental, outside of Dublin City Council. In recent years, some of the large traders, such as Keelings, have moved all their operations outside of this area.
There are growers here, too, such as Philip Jones at Garden of Eden Herbs on Arran Street East. Jones’ grandfather, Joseph Jones, founded the company as a vegetable trader in 1880. Jones would have brought his produce in from Rush to sell at the Victorian market from when it first opened in the late 1890s. It was Philip’s father, Jimmy, who decided to grow herbs alongside the existing trading business on their farm in Rush, County Dublin in 1972.
“In the early 80s, we started growing herbs only and dropped all the other vegetables,” says Jones. “We do herbs, baby leaf (spinach and red chards), and micro-cresses.” They have land and glasshouses in Rush, and a farm in Co Meath. Jones tells me that theirs is the biggest glasshouse at the moment in Ireland, spanning over 11 acres. Their produce is a mix of their home-grown produce and imported goods to keep their supply blooming all year round.
Jones mentions supermarket policy of devaluing fruit and vegetables as loss leaders as having a grave impact on market culture. “The market’s way of doing things can’t compete with the supermarkets,” says Jones, “because their price point is so cheap.”
Jones tells me he hasn’t been consulted by DCC on the plans for redevelopment, so he’s in the dark about its future and what possible impact that could have on his own business. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen here,” he tells me, referring to himself and other traders in the area. “Nobody knows.”
OUTSIDE THE MARKET: THE BREAD AND BUTTER
Brendan O’Brien of Brendan’s Cafe
“I would like to see people in the area and using the market again, to bring the place alive.”
Brendan O’Brien worked as a seaman on the car ferries before opening his eponymously titled café on the corner of Mary’s Lane and George’s Hill in 1978. “In them days,” says O’Brien, “the market was very active. There were horse and carts that drew up to the traders at the market and brought the fruit and vegetables down to Moore Street.”
The view outside the café’s window has changed since it arrived on the corner; a Victorian fish market of a similar vintage to the Fruit and Vegetable Market once owned the corner across from the café, until its demolition in 2005 to make way for what was reported in the Irish Times in 2005 to be a €400 million redevelopment plan – the Celtic Tiger ancestor of today’s current plan. “When the fish market closed, there was a big difference,” says O’Brien. “All the traders from the fish market went to all different areas in Dublin – to Finglas and Howth. The auctions that happened in the fish market moved out elsewhere.”
When the market thrives, so can a market café. The footfall isn’t there anymore. They shop in the market for veg for the cafe but what’s left is mainly wholesale. The people aren’t coming into the market like they did 20 year ago. Even 20 years ago, six days a week you’d get people in buying their fruit and veg.
He points to the supermarkets for the decline. “I’m sure they’re fed up with people writing about them,” he says, when pointing to the supermarkets as a reason why market culture has begun to fade away or lose some of its vibrancy in this area. His main customers are still associated with the market, particularly freight drivers from the continent and customers from the nearby Four Courts.
O’Brien has been around long enough to see some of his customers grow from being students in the primary school next door calling in for a bacon buttie, to being parents themselves dropping their own kids down to school. Their main seller is still their fry, which they do in small, medium or large. The café still gets their vegetables from market traders, though their main supplier for their meat and other ingredients are Cremona Foods.
It’s a real-deal no-frills greasy spoon, as much a slice of Dublin’s history as the market itself. Their sausage sandwich, on batch bread and wrapped in some leftover Brennan’s loaf paper, is really very good. The cooked sausages are sliced and finished off on the hot plate grill to give them a tasty crispness. Squirt on some brown sauce – Chef, of course – and you’ve got yourself a little slice of early morning market heaven.
What does O’Brien hope to see as he looks out the café’s window in the years to come? “I would like to see people in the area and using the market again,” he says, “to bring the place alive.”
THE NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: Laura Magahy of Arran Street East
“It would be great if it can keep the same characteristic – a mix of retail, restaurants, offices, residential, and owner-run businesses.”
On the corner of Arran Street East and Mary’s Lane, a group of potters throw and shape clay to the architecture-inspired lines of Arran Street East’s pots, bowls, vases and plates. Arran Street East began as the passion project of Laura Magahy, Director of M.CO, who started throwing pots in her spare time before opening the studio three years ago. She has worked in the area around the Market for a long time. “The markets area has a unique feel to it, which I love,” says Magahy. “It’s an authentic mix of old Dublin businesses and newer owner-run businesses. We had been looking for a space there to make our pottery, because we pass through it on our way to our M.CO business on Capel Street every day, and the corner building happened to be vacant at exactly the right time.”
The studio can be a bustling place, particularly during one of their mid-week or weekend pottery courses. During the week, the potters turn clay to order, to be dispatched to shops around Ireland and the world. Magahy still senses the buzz of the Market that drew her to these premises in the first place. “The energy of the overall markets area hasn’t changed – there is still loads of bustle from the middle of the night ’til the middle of the day, but a lot of the wholesale flower and fruit sellers within the market building itself have moved out.”
The Arran Street East studio might represent a glimpse of what this area could be in the future; independent businesses that showcase a truly authentic and contemporary Irish experience. If the development for the Market goes ahead as planned, Arran Street East would no longer be the new kids on the block. “I understand from the plans that have been made public that the idea is to have a retail market area with restaurants, as well as some wholesale selling going on too,” says Magahy. “It would be great if it can keep the same characteristic – a mix of retail, restaurants, offices, residential, and owner-run businesses. It really is a great alternative to the sameness of high street shopping.”
Words: Aoife McElwain
Photos: Killian Broderick