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Making the magic happen at Ireland’s Christmas markets

A successful season for traders can be at the mercy of the Irish winter, but is always about curating a magical experience for shoppers

As December arrives, most of us are only now thinking about where we put away the Christmas lights last year, if we’ve made it on to the naughty or nice list and what plans lie ahead for the festive season.

As markets filled with Christmas cheer crop up across the country, organisers will tell you that they’ve been knee-deep in thoughts of snow and mulled wine since as early as July.

“It is madness. We’ve had the hottest summer days talking about Christmas. It’s very surreal when you’re in your shorts and talking about the next run,” says Maria Moynihan Lee managing director of Milestone Inventive which runs Galway’s Christmas Market.

As industrious elves bring Christmas markets to life across the country this month, a successful season for traders can be at the mercy of the Irish winter, but it is always about creating a magical experience for shoppers.

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The Galway Christmas Market is one of the largest and longest-running in the country as Eyre Square is transformed into a winter wonderland with around 60 wooden chalets, as well as everything from a big wheel to a beer tent to entertain crowds.

Started in 2010, around 350 people are employed in organising and operating the market, which runs from November 10th right through until January 7th and costs north of €300,000 to bring to life each Christmas.

Ms Moynihan Lee says that while local businesses in Galway were initially apprehensive about the market detracting from spending elsewhere in the city, they now see it as the “lifeblood” of business as Christmas.

“For every €1 somebody spends in our market, they spend €3 downtown in the shops, in the pubs and the restaurants, and the hotels. There’s a clear link there and when the equilibrium is right, everyone is a winner,” she said.

Domhnall Walsh is the owner of Iconic Catering, which currently operates four mobile catering units at the Galway market serving crepes, gourmet sausages and pulled pork to shoppers.

“You have people coming from all over Ireland. Where I’m positioned in the market is near enough where the train station is, and you see the droves of shopping bags going towards the station every evening. It really is a huge benefit to Galway,” he said.

He says that the Christmas market is a “big income” for his business every year, although trying to keep prices family-friendly amid high inflation has been “extremely difficult”.

Having started his entrepreneurial career as a child selling rain ponchos on Inis Mór and buying his first catering unit while in his fifth year of secondary school in 2009, Mr Walsh is also no stranger to how weather can impact business.

“You are at the grace of the weather and if you get a wet Christmas you will feel it financially. You have to understand that and you have to be able to move with that,” he said.

Ms Moynihan Lee adds that it can be “quite the white knuckle ride” for traders if bad weather persists for more than a few days at a time.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have to have huge stamina and you have to hold your nerve because weather can really affect things – you just have to take the risk and take the plunge,” she said.

Much like other big Christmas markets around the world that have become tourist attractions in their own right, Ms Moynihan Lee says that when trying to attract footfall, entertainment and “Instagram-ability” have to be “through the roof”.

“Amusements like the vintage carousel and the big wheel are absolutely enormous attractions, they’re so colourful and so pretty and the wheel dominates the skyline. We have a Santa sleigh that’s part of the decor of the market, but it’s positioned exactly so that you can sit in the sleigh with the big wheel behind you. There’s another spot on the walkway where everybody stands to get their picture – social media is key to the success of the whole thing,” she said.

In Cork, the Marina Market has become a huge success in its own right since it was opened during the pandemic in a former warehouse in the city’s docklands.

This is the third year that operators Urban Green Private are running a Christmas market within the Marina Market warehouse, with up to 60 small traders setting out their stalls every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the run-up to Christmas.

Eoin Derham marketing director of Urban Green Private, said that they also do their best to attract footfall to the market through events and activities like a Santa experience, ice rink, as well as a new virtual reality (VR) experience this year.

However, he said the biggest challenge in running a Christmas market can often be the expectations from traders themselves.

“The guys that trade a lot would understand the slog and the hustle of the whole thing, but it can be difficult for some newer vendors to see the guy next to them selling a huge amount of stuff and they’re not selling as much,” he said.

“Sometimes people’s stuff doesn’t sell and it’s not really down to the footfall, it’s not really down to the marketing, it was just unfortunately it wasn’t as popular – and we try our best to give advice where we can, to let people know if we think this will do well or that will do well,” he added.

Mr Derham said that it is also crucial to curate a balance of high-quality and varied traders.

“We don’t just let anyone in,” he said, adding that he could get applications from as many as 450 vendors each week” that the market is open.

“It’s not about filling the room and packing vendors in, there has to be a good offering there. The quality of the stuff that comes in is really important, and similarly to how we operate our food vendors we don’t want too many people doing the same thing,” he said.

Kate Fine, co-founder of the Irish Pop Up Collective which runs a one-day Christmas pop up each year, agrees that curating the right mix of traders is like “putting the pieces all together” in a jigsaw that will attract a particular target market.

Running this year on December 10th, the Christmas pop-up is held in the Royal Marine Hotel in Dún Laoghaire, with everything from Irish craft and design, to artisan food and beauty products as well as workshops from 60 contemporary Irish businesses.

A trader herself through her own business Kate’s Sample Sale, Ms Fine founded the pop-up collective with fellow trader Debbie Millington after the pair were frustrated with the cost of participating in larger trade shows and markets, as well as the lack of options for traders that want to elevate their offering beyond being “in a gazebo outside all the time”.

While rates vendors are charged to participate in Christmas markets can vary, a modest stall in a market like the Irish Pop-Up collective or Cork’s Marina Market costs about €200 for a day or weekend of trading.

Ms Fine said that for her the market is a break-even exercise cost-wise, as she makes her profit through trading herself on the day. Still, she said in terms of running a Christmas market to be profitable for an organiser who isn’t trading, it can be difficult to strike the balance of making an event viable while still maintaining the Christmas magic.

“It’s like when a restaurant gets popular or bigger and expands, the quality of the food can go down. I think the same thing is true for a market. You have to be careful, it can be viable, but not if you try to do too much or make it too big,” she said.

Johnny Donnelly is creative and managing director of events company Arcana, which for the past four years has run the annual Christmas at the Castle market at Dublin Castle on behalf of Dublin City Council and the Office of Public Works (OPW).

The Christmas market in the courtyard of Dublin Castle, which runs continuously for two weeks from the December 6th to December 19th features an open-air market of 35 chalets as well as a weekend designer market, Neapolitan crib, vintage carousel and choirs of carol singers.

Mr Donnelly said that as well as Ireland being “one of the most difficult places in Europe” to run events due to strict health and safety requirements, it can also be difficult to curate a varied mix of traders for a Christmas market somewhere like Dublin.

“We go out to hundreds of different vendors and only a certain amount of them will get back to say they can actually do it. You would love to hand pick vendors from around Ireland, but the problem with a lot of vendors is they actually just can’t afford to accommodate themselves in Dublin for two weeks on top of trying to put on their stall and everything else,” he said.

However despite the challenges, Mr Donnelly said that at the heart of the event each year is “to create a little bit of Christmas magic”.

“Walking around the Christmas market, whether or not I buy anything or eat anything, I just love the atmosphere that it creates. Everybody just wants a smile on their face, especially the way the world is at the moment with so much hatred and war going on. Sometimes you just have to take it for what it is. It’s a Christmas market,” he said. “So if you want to have a bit of fun and a smile on your face, go to us.”