The building I stand in is beautiful by any standards. Victorian and red brick, it's vast and modest all at once. Tall, symmetrical arches ring their way around the whole building, littered with contrasting yellow brick work and occasional scrawls of graffiti. Dark ironwork with flashes of gold fills the tops of the arches not bricked up, and forms the gates at the main entrances. These entrances are elaborate affairs flanked by looming grey pillars and imposing stonework, designed to impart a sense of occasion.
But it sits strangely at odds with its surroundings, sharing space as it does with a huge, empty car park, several industrial buildings, and inconspicuous small streets on the edge of the city centre. Fork lift trucks and vans beep and whiz around amongst wooden pallets and the rubbish they leave behind, and when I look up I see terracotta sculptures where the arches meet – of fish, of fruit, of vegetables. These are apt given that the building is the home of the fruit and vegetable market on Mary's Lane in Dublin 7.
Built in the 1890s, it's known by many names – The Flower Market, The Victorian Fruit and Flower Market, The Fruit and Vegetable Market, and The Smithfield Market, among others.
We went by the Smithfield name, estimating it was much closer to the Square (it's actually nearer to Capel Street), and are now late to meet Joe Duffy – who kindly tells us it's a common enough mistake. He also tells us that it carries the official moniker of the Dublin Corporation Fruit and Vegetable Market, and he should know - he's the third Joseph of Joseph M. Duffy & Sons Ltd., the family business that has been operating in the building for over 100 years.
Duffy's grandfather was originally from Aungier Street and despite having trained as a tailor with Louis Copeland, he found work as an auctioneer in the busy markets in the early 1900s. He met his wife there – she was one of the Brady potato merchants – and eventually set up Duffy & Sons.
The Joe Duffy of today is genial, with an open friendly face, and expertly wrapped up for the cold weather in the building – his fortieth working here. Peeking out from underneath his overcoat, I can see at least three layers neatly zippered and with his glasses and flatcap, he brings to mind a Roald Dahl character – a prepared stranger, appearing at just the right time. He talks with ease and pride about the history of the family business, about how it was an incredibly busy place as a primary supplier for fruit, vegetables and flowers in the city in the last century and the different iterations its gone through since.
“The supermarkets would've changed things a lot, where at one time all [their] fruit and vegetables would've come through the market, now they would have their own central warehouses and they don't have to come near the market. “
While fruit and vegetables used to be a staple of the family business, flowers and plants are now what Duffy trades in. They source flowers from South America, Ecuador, Columbia, (the weather there is perfect during our winter) among other countries, but 60% of their flowers come from Holland. “They'd be one of the biggest growers all year round as they have huge glass houses, and natural gas is subsidised.”
Duffy buys through Dutch auctions, which sound surprisingly high octane for the purchase of something we associate with such delicateness as flowers.
He tells us, “They start at the highest price and work their way down, so we've agents over there buying and they ring me and say certain things are going at certain prices, because if you don't press the button, someone will press it before you and you might lose the only box of white roses in the auction, so you have to be very good at it.”
Where we stand in the market is a sparse concrete space with flowers and greenery surrounding a narrow counter and portacabin that serves as an office for Duffy and his five other employees. It's a contrast to think of frantic auctions taking place in Holland, roses with the potential to wilt silently awaiting their fate, and Duffy in Dublin studiously and quickly weighing up the options in order to instruct his agents.
Through the years, Duffy has had to respond to changing demands placed on the business by a number of societal changes. Things like hospitals no longer allowing flowers, funerals mostly asking for charitable donations instead of flowers, and Churches and Cathedrals with stricter budgets, have all lessened the demand for what is considered a luxury item. The recession too, has inevitably had an impact.
But Duffy doesn't appear worried. “You have to adapt every couple of years, and change. It keeps it interesting.”
One area of business that is thriving is wedding flowers. Always an important part of their trade, Duffy says there's been a particular rise in the last 10 years or so as more people are deciding to look after the flowers themselves and go direct to a wholesaler rather than a florist.
“We've done three generations of the same family. We try to look after people very well.”
It's 11 o'clock on a Saturday morning when we're there and the end of the day for the traders, who start at six. Everyone is winding down for the day with pallets and boxes of fruit and vegetables being stacked and stashed away. Duffy tells us that it's mostly fruit and vegetable traders in the market now.
“There used to be up to eight wholesale flower sellers, but that's down to two now due to the downturn in businesses and shops closing down. A few companies moved out. We're lucky.”
Duffy shows us a picture of the markets during his grandfather's time – a black and white relic with a bustling scene – and it's hard to imagine it as the same place, with the interior of the building today feeling more like a draughty warehouse. What was once a place of trade – in the most fundamental sense of people passing goods back and forth, from hand to hand, a physical exchange borne of necessity that brought the crowds – is now something else entirely, a fragment of modern industry.
Above the concrete floors are steel girders bearing intricate designs that stretch to the roof, mostly obscured by storage containers and shelving – the accoutrements of that modern industry, and an example of the new sheathing the old.
But that's all set to change soon, with plans under way to revamp the building and turn it into a retail and wholesale market, similar to the English Market in Cork. According to Duffy, the idea is to have wholesalers on one side but also retailers in the form of artisan food producers and cafes to turn it into a destination for consumers. He's excited about the change, and it seems like something other traders and indeed Dubliners at large would look forward to.
Duffy tells us that they're one of the oldest families in the building, with a few others (such as the Leonards) also going back two or three generations. Every year a mass is held for the deceased members who had worked in the market. It used to be held in Halston Street but has taken place in the market itself for the last three years, with the local Priest attending to conduct the mass.
“Even the traders from Moore Street, a lot of them would be attached to the market, come up to the mass, there's loads of music and and they surround it with all the flowers, vegetables, everything.”
Watching over that mass and the market all year round, above the main entrance, is a small statue of Mary in a glass box, holding court in this once majestic building, flanked by all the streets that carry her name. She would have some interesting tales of the market in the last 100 years, and time will tell if she survives the refurbishment of this inconspicuous landmark, as it sits in wait for its next reincarnation.
Written by Sinead Fox / Photos by Adam O'Keeffe / ©2015 Project Bowes