Trinity College Schools’ Competition Junior Gold Medal Winner; Dublin’s Wholesale Fruit & Vegetable Market

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 1996), Volume 4

In 1892 Dublin Corporation opened a wholesale fruit and vegetable market on a site immediately to the north-east of the Four Courts on the city’s north side. The main reason for its establishment was hygiene. Food was being sold off the back of carts in dirty streets. In 1883 Dublin Corporation’s Market Committee took the matter in hand under the chairmanship of Councillor James McDonnell.

‘Vested interests and established usages’

In the committee’s report on ‘the question of the sanitary condition of Ormonde Market and the letter of Archdeacon McMahon’, it says that there were a number of privately-run markets scattered around the city centre, that the state of hygiene was a matter for concern (particularly to Archdeacon McMahon) and that the owners of the markets were able to control the prices. It was also noted that goods were being sold in the streets ‘without contributing a fraction to the city’s taxation’. The police refused to prevent this abuse of the streets, as they said that the dealers had no other place suitable for selling their produce.
This was a difficult problem. In 1852, a Royal Commission had been appointed to inquire into the fairs and markets of Ireland. They were told ‘to provide proper markets for the sale of all kinds of food by wholesale’. The Commission’s report pointed out that ‘the Dublin Improvement Act empowers the Lord Mayor and Corporation to establish new markets’, but that ‘vested interests and established usages…scare away all change’. Parke Neville, the City Engineer, made similar points in a report to the Corporation in 1869. He proposed two markets, one on either side of the River Liffey, but he pointed out the great difficulty of clearing sites because many small interests would have to be bought out. In the end it was his successor, previously his deputy, Spencer Harty, who supervised the building of the new wholesale fish and vegetable markets.
The site chosen was beside the old Ormonde Market. This had been set up by two viceroys, Lord Essex and the Duke of Ormonde, and the local landlord Sir Humphrey Jervis in the 1670’s. They laid out the first quays on the river, Ormonde Quay and opposite, Essex Quay. The market was called after Ormonde and the bridge after Essex, as was Capel Street (his family name). There is also a nearby street called after the landlord, Jervis. The market was just an open square but there was a circular building (called a rotunda) in the centre. The old site of the market is now called Ormonde Square and is surrounded by houses. On a 1912 map it appears that these houses were not yet built and that the old market place was still there but not in use.

Inside the market- note the lectern to the left used for auctioning the produce.

Inside the market- note the lectern to the left used for auctioning the produce.

Construction and opening

It took many years to buy out the existing buildings on the site. The cost of the compulsory purchases (£45,000) greatly exceeded that of construction (about £20,000). The market building (and the accompanying fish market) was designed by Spencer Harty, the Borough Engineer, and was built by Connelly and Son of Dominick Street. John Lysaght of Bristol supplied the roof, while the wrought ironwork on the gates and in the openings of the arches was supplied by McLaughlin Bros. of Great Brunswick Street (Pearse Street), Dublin, and the carved stonework by Harrison, also of Great Brunswick Street.
The building has stone and ironwork decorations in the form of fruit and vegetables (and fish in the fish market on the west side of St Michan’s Street). Above the main gate, on top of the building, there are statues of the goddesses of Justice and Law and the motto of Dublin City—Obedientium civiorum urbis felicitas (Happy the city whose citizens obey). The entrance itself bears the city’s coat of arms and a plaque commemorating the opening by the Lord Mayor on 6 December 1892.

‘Second to none in the empire’

At the opening ceremony the market was described by the Lord Mayor, the Right Hon. Joseph M. Meade LLD JP, as being ‘second to none in the empire’. In the report presented to him it is described as follows:

The buildings front Mary’s Lane and St Michan Street (the latter formerly Fishers Lane). The general style of the treatment is Romanesque. The elevation on Mary’s Lane shows a central gateway, flanked with the detached Corinthian columns of limestone, from Ballinasloe quarry, and on the other side are five arches of brick partly faced with terracotta. Over the entrance facing Mary’s Lane is placed the City Arms, on a shield. The walls here are twenty-one feet six inches in height. The elevation of St Michan Street is in a similar manner to that of Mary’s Lane, except that it is seventeen arches in length. The internal elevation has been designed with a view to avoid projections as much as possible. A dado of glazed brick, five feet high runs round the building, and the plain surface is relieved by bands of coloured bricks.

Considerable variety of fruit and vegetables

The market reports in the newspapers of the period show that there was a considerable variety of fruit and vegetables available. The main ones were the same as today: potatoes, cabbage, carrots, turnips, onions, etc.. A lecture on behalf of the Irish Industrial League on ‘fruit, flower and vegetable culture and packing’ given by Miss Fanny Curry at the Hotel Metropole was recorded in the Freeman’s Journal on 8 December 1892 (two days after the opening of the new market):

Asparagus and sea kale might well be grown in the open fields, as might well be onions, which were a very paying crop. Strawberries and raspberries would pay for field culture in the South of Ireland, and would sell immediately on their arrival in Dublin. Celery which was best grown near where peat could be obtained, could also be grown, and would yield a great profit. The gooseberry crop was a very easily grown one. Currants was an excellent crop to grow. She would not encourage the growing of peaches, pears, or nectarines, as they were not so certain as in Scotland or England.

When the market opened, all goods sold were fresh and could only be obtained ‘in season’. Refrigeration did not become available until the 1930s and not on a mass scale until later, perhaps the 1970s. Nowadays, most produce is available all year round, due to a combination of cold storage, better transport (so that produce can be imported from the southern hemisphere during our off-season) and the use of preservative (such as the waxes applied to various types of fruit).

Transport

In the 1890s (and for many years afterwards), local farmers would bring their produce by horse and cart, delivering fresh produce every day. Goods would also be carted to the market from Dublin Port (and from the railway stations in the case of the South of Ireland produce mentioned by Fanny Curry). Nowadays, produce arrives by lorry, van and container from all parts of the world: potatoes come from Cyprus or Chile as well as from Clare or Connemara, but farmers from north County Dublin still bring their goods in themselves. Within the market, the main vehicle is the forklift, which has replaced the hand-barrow of the early years. The effect of this change on the market is very important, as one of the worst problems in the early days was how to dispose of the horse manure.

One of the building's many details in the form of fruit or vegetables - in this case a bunch of onions

One of the building’s many details in the form of fruit or vegetables – in this case a bunch of onions

Buyers and sellers

In 1976, An Foras Taluntais noted that ‘ninety-five per cent of the greengrocers of Dublin visited the market daily to buy fruit and vegetables’ and they supplied about half of the retail market. The remainder was supplied by supermarkets (i.e. multiple or ‘chain’ stores, who buy in bulk and do not use the wholesale market).
Nowadays the supermarkets have an even higher proportion of the business. They import their fruit and vegetables directly through large import agencies. The main customers in the wholesale market these days are hotels and caterers, followed by small vegetable shops and street sellers (who have a much smaller share of the market than the supermarkets). Household buyers also use the market, though the market traders would prefer not to undercut the greengrocers. The market has always been the source of supply for street traders, notably those of nearby Moore Street.
Some of the larger market traders import their own produce but most  buy from importers or local growers. They buy in bulk from the importers and sell smaller quantities on to their customers. Growers can instruct traders to charge a certain price and offer them a percentage commission (usually around ten per cent). However, usually the traders buy the produce from the growers and get what they can for it. Traders obviously have to know what the others are charging, but the most important thing is to watch what the supermarkets are charging. Supermarkets often sell fruit and vegetables below cost as ‘loss leaders’, sometimes at prices which the market wholesaler cannot match. In this case, the wholesaler does not buy from the grower (or importer), and the greengrocer can (and does) buy produce in the supermarket for resale to his customers.
In years gone by a lot of goods went ‘under the hammer’ in the market. Nowadays there are no auctions except on special occasions, such as the first strawberries of the season or the first new potatoes. Hotels and restaurants use these auctions for publicity purposes. The old type of auction still takes place in the nearby fish market at 7am on weekday mornings.

1930s and 1940s

The market opened at 6am. Stall-holders would sell by auction and they would choose which fruit to sell depending on who they saw in the crowd. They would sell to the highest bidder who would take their pick, and would then ask ‘anyone else?’ and the rest of the crowd took what they wanted at the same price. If the price was too high, buyers waited to see if the goods went up for auction again. This didn’t always happen so the buyer would have to guess whether it would or not. Apples would usually come from France (but sometimes from as far away as South Africa) and oranges from Spain. Bananas would come in a box that looked like a coffin (six feet long, three feet wide) and each box would be auctioned.
A few stall-holders stocked flowers. A woman called May Dempsey usually got the best blooms and the stall-holders knew her well. She came in at 6.30am and would outbid anybody. She owned a shop in Dawson Street. Potatoes were dealt with differently: the potato factor would buy the field of potatoes from the farmer, supply the pickers, packaging and the transport. Then they would auction the sacks of potatoes in the same way as apples or oranges.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, farmers would line the streets in what were commonly called dung carts, Four feet wide and six feet high. The farmers would put boards in to add another two feet to the height. They would be packed full of cabbages (usually with the nicer ones towards the top!). Each cart was separately auctioned for a price of around £2. The farmer would give the auctioneer a commission for selling them, and deliver the cartload to the shopkeeper who had bought the load. The shopkeeper had to be careful that he got the same cabbages he had paid for. Sometimes a farmer would send a cart of good cabbages back to the end of the queue, and send a different cart to the shop!
All around the market there were carters with horses or donkeys with carts or just simply hand-barrows. When the greengrocers had bought their goods, they would call on a carter and tell them the address of their shop and what they had bought. In the late 1930s the usual price of the carter’s service was half a crown.
The market was a very dirty place on busy days in the 1930s. There would be a strong smell of horse manure and rotting vegetation all the way out to Capel Street. The ground would be foul, especially on wet days, and people had to be very careful where they walked! Official documents from the 1940s and 1950s referred to the overcrowding of the market and indicated that more space was needed.

What next?

The market is mentioned in Dublin Corporation’s 1967 and 1987 development plans. In 1967, when the market was still very busy, there was a proposal to move it out to a new site further from the congested city centre. By 1987, the need to preserve the city centre had become more important, and the Corporation made a commitment to keep the market in place. The building is protected due to it’s architectural importance.
The market is not as important as it was even twenty years ago. The supermarkets have taken over. There is still a problem with the traffic caused by the market. The big trucks tend to block up the roads and the ‘near-homicidal’ forklifts are a danger to everybody.
In 1990 the Dublin City Business Association proposed that the market be moved out to ‘more suitable land’ in order to create an ‘oasis of residential living’ between the Phoenix Park and O’Connell Street. Other suggestions have included the building of a terminus for the light rail system. There was a similar market in Covent Garden, London. It has since closed down and moved to New Covent Garden, further out from the centre of the city. The old building was transformed into a shopping and leisure centre and is now a famous tourist attraction with street performers, museums and market stalls. So if the Dublin market moved could the building be used (like Covent Garden) as a tourist attraction? During a visit to the market early in the morning, it was evident that a lot of people work there, and many of these are locals. If the market moved, their lives would be greatly disrupted. Many of the larger companies have premises close by, and they would incur moving costs (or perhaps they would not move, leading to a conflict between the old and new locations). There is also the question of what really could be done with the space. Dublin already has several redevelopments in progress, notably Temple Bar and Bachelor’s Walk. It is hard to see a good way to reuse the site. It is most likely that the market will remain in the existing location for many years to come.

Meadhbh Lysaght is a Junior Certificate student at Notre Dame des Missions, Churchtown, Dublin.


Further reading:

M. Craig, Dublin 1600 to 1860 (Dublin 1952).

E. Mac Thomáis, Me Jewel and Darlin’ Dublin (Dublin 1975).

Dublin Corporation, Report of the Markets Committee, 24 August 1886.

Dublin Corporation, Report of the Markets Construction Committee, 6 December 1892.

The author wishes to thank the staff of the following: the Gilbert Library, Pearse Street; Dublin City Archives, South William Street; the Architectural Archive, Merrion Square; and the Dublin Central Library, ILAC Centre. In particular she wishes to thank the Market Superintendent and her grandfather for oral testimony on the market in the 1930s and ‘40s.

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