Alive Alive-O

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"Want a bit of fish, love?" From the recess of her sturdy, green canvas market-stall at the foot of Convent Road in Dun Laoghaire, Vera Breslin surveys the crowd of housewives, business people, retirees, students and other folk traversing Upper Georges Street, the town's main thoroughfare. Distinctive with her white-blond hair, creased, suntanned face, and soft figure enveloped in a white cotton apron, she presides over a large stainless-steel table displaying fish, while behind the stall, an old Silver Cross pram stands ready to accept miscellaneous cargo.

Everybody knows Vera - she rarely uses her surname, Breslin - it seems. Aged 69, she has been a fixture on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for more than 50 years, and is an old-style Dublin street hawker - in a town that is actively redefining itself with flashy, new construction projects, and whose main street is currently undergoing major work.

"Fish is very scarce," says Vera, as she deftly decapitates a cod, removes its entrails and debones it. "It's been very dear all week; you can buy a piece of steak for what you pay for fish."

Be that as it may, Vera's prices are astounding. John Murphy, a bouncer at a local club, recently bought a couple of large haddock fillets for all of £1.50. Mackerel are sometimes 50 pence apiece . . .

A throwback to the days of "personal service", Vera still inquires after her customers' health, while giving change and greeting an acquaintance across the road. If you want to know who died or separated recently, ask Vera.

Methods haven't changed much since she started hawking in the 1930s. Although the pram was then the sole means of displaying and transporting fish, today's rolling stainless-steel table is a more sanitary alternative. Similarly, when Vera moved her "pitch" off Upper Georges Street in the 1940s, when the trams were discontinued, she still remained close enough to the main street to enjoy ready access to shoppers.

A day in the life of a fish trader begins around 6 a.m., when Vera's husband, Paddy, a retired dock worker, cooks breakfast for the pair. Vera's nephew then drives her to the fish auction at the Dublin Corporation wholesale market, while Paddy and their son assemble her market-stall.

An ingenious affair built by Downer's, a local sail-making firm, 10 years ago, it comprises a collapsible metal frame, removable marine plywood floor and a rubberised canvas roof that affords some protection from the wind and rain.

Vera assumes her post by 9.45 a.m. Selections vary according to market availability, but there are often less-glamorous but delicious-tasting fish such as red gurnet, mullet and ling sharing space with delicate plaice, sole, fresh and smoked cod, ray wings and hake.

When she's not overseeing sales, Vera tidies her work area. Surfaces are constantly being wiped, the floor mopped, and the sidewalk and pavement scrubbed with disinfectant. Vera's hands are permanently swollen from contact with water.

During lulls, Vera sips tea from her thermos, or sits on an overturned milk crate on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. Paddy brings her a hot dinner at noon.

The stall closes around 6 p.m., at which time Paddy carts away the disassembled stall to a nearby storage area, using the old pram. All unsold fish is thrown away.

"You meet people doing this, have a chat with them," says Vera. "I like to be at home in the evenings, but I'd miss it terribly if I weren't doing this."

One of about 15 licensed "casual traders" in the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown district, Vera represents a vanishing breed of Dublin women who traditionally handed down their street-trading vocations through multiple generations. At seven, Vera accompanied her mother selling fish door-to-door in Dun Laoghaire. By 10, she was pushing the pram herself. Many family members have been involved with fishing - her father and brothers were fishermen, her uncle owned a fish market, and two nieces sell fish off Dun Laoghaire's West Pier. But Vera's four grown children have chosen different career paths.

"It's the age of technology," remarks Veronica, another third-generation Dublin street trader, whose six children have opted out of the business. The Celtic Tiger has simultaneously provided more opportunities for young people, while closing off other avenues.

Rest assured, Vera is not planning to retire anytime soon. "I'll be here," she says with a wink, "as long as God leaves me."

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