Under the skin of Dublin's ancient markets


The capital’s market traders, celebrated in artist Joe Lee’s new film, have proved themselves a resilient breed over the course of a 900-year history, writes JOHN FLEMING

IN THE OPENING image of a 50-minute film about the 900-year tradition of Dublin’s markets and street traders, ripped plastic struggles to free itself from a broken pallet. The camera then roams around the bustling fruit-and-vegetable world of Mary’s Lane, the horse trading at Smithfield, the raw, haggling sprawl of Moore Street, the gutted space that used to be the fish market.

Imports? Exports? Forget these words. This is the front line of fresh products, the historical place where the city sets out its stall.

Bananas on the Breadboard is directed by Joe Lee, a visual artist increasingly focused on capturing the stories and spirits of communities. Against archive images of the capital’s streets and poignant shots of people from its past, fruit and vegetable sellers and inner-city locals share their memories of market life.

The frenzy of forklifts and the fast delivery of fruit frames the gentle accounts of ordinary people. Shot against pitch-black backgrounds, Dubliners tell tales of rampant poverty, of TB and the demolition of air-raid shelters.

Bernie Shea’s family of 13 lived in a one-bedroom tenement, but, as she jokes, they were never really sick because there was “nowhere for the ‘Germans’ to breed”.

A picture emerges of a strong community resilient enough to cope with difficult times.

Jenny Cronan explains how, years ago, her mother declined the offer of a house in Cabra because she felt “that was out in the country”. Instead, she opted for Greek Street flats, built in 1936. And Mary Owens’s delight in also getting a flat in that same street illuminates the screen, a timeless lesson in home being where the heart is.

“The intended audience is a local audience,” explains Joe Lee, whose co-producers on the film were Greek Street resident Danny Pender and HSE development worker Fidelma Bonass. “The film was made about the area and to be seen in the area. But the story seems to be having a resonance wider than that.”

The documentary uses old photos and modern verbal testimony to map Dublin’s market culture. Barney Coleman, for example, tells us about “breasters”, the gangs of men who would wait along the quays at Smithfield to unload trucks arriving from the farms. The accounts of locals are presented alongside those of archaeologists, who explain the ancient origins of the markets on the north side of the river. In medieval times, the landing and gutting of fish on the south side was banned.

In another scene, Johnny Giles stands in Ormond Square, where he grew up kicking a ball. Work was always scarce, he tells us, and the markets were the local economy. Look closely at a later shot and you’ll see a fruit importer’s sign bearing his family name.

Forklift trucks scuttle in and out of the Mary’s Lane market building, but the main chariot in this world, for the women who are the core traders, seems to be the pram.

Both humbly and heroically, in his last on-camera interview, the late Tony Gregory describes how, for years, the mothers of large families were moved on from their street pitches under the Street Trading Act. Many were fined and jailed. Gregory passionately defends the legitimacy of the traditions and life the women traders brought to the city. Against archive footage of gardaí tackling protesting women outside the GPO, he notes that similar energies were not focused on the drug scourges ravaging the inner city at the time.

Lee is happy the film is striking a chord. “Anyone interested in stories from or about Dublin will find something to interest them. It celebrates the tradition of women and street trading,” he says.

Danny Pender was instrumental in introducing Lee to the people who now feature in his film. Enthusiastic about the world of the markets and its characters, Pender sadly passed away in recent weeks. Concerned to the end that rents for stalls on Henry Street were still being ratcheted up, Pender was “over the moon” about the film.

“I hope it gives a bit more respect to the traders,” he said. “From what they make off a pram, just selling a few boxes of apples or pears, it’s not going to hurt big business.”

There will be free screenings of Bananas on the Breadboard on May 4, 13 and 20 in Pearse Street and Donaghmede public libraries, as part of the Bealtaine Festival; bealtaine.com