It’s rare that a city suffers total death. Its various limbs and organs will wither over time. The dead spaces they leave can linger for generations, but sooner or later fresh shoots grow back to fill them. The renewal of these spaces are the stories of our cities.
Here’s one from this strange town we call home.
If you were looking to pick up some threads in Dublin in 1906 and you weren’t part of the landed gentry you would probably head down to the Rag Fair over on Patrick’s St. There you could pick up everything from second-hand work wear, to used blankets to a pair of old boots. Along with your new kicks you might also pick up some dysentery, diphtheria, cholera or measles.
Things weren’t so great in the Dublin of 1906. Depression had decimated what little industry there had been and today’s unemployment levels would likely be celebrated. Dublin was one of the most desperate cities in Europe, a place where most residents lived in dangerously overcrowded, unsanitary and grim tenements.
Not all Dubs had it so bad, though. For Lord Iveagh things were looking pretty good. Having just sold the Guinness empire he inherited from his great-grandfather, Arthur, he was, all of a sudden but not unexpectedly, one of the richest men in the British Isles.
He was not oblivious to the suffering in Dublin however. In an attempt to improve the lives of the worst affected, particularly in the area of the Liberties, he created the Iveagh trust to provide affordable housing in and around Dublin. One of the trust’s early tasks was to build Ireland’s first indoor market in place of the slums that had been festering in the Liberties since the act of union.
With tremendous optimism the market was built as a dry place for local traders to sell fish, vegetables and clothes. The Rag Fair, however, posed a more pressing dilemma.
Scarlet fever, consumption, cholera and typhoid sound like whimsical Victorian maladies today but in the dawn of the 21st they were killing countless Dubliners, mostly children, in the crowded tenements and slums of the Liberties. The Rag Fair may have given a livelihood to some and affordable clothing to others but it also became a means of spreading the many diseases afflicting the city.
Identified as a major vector for the spread of these diseases—the clothes on sale often having been worn by the recently deceased—the Rag Fair had to be sanitised. The new market included a disinfecting chamber and so became an ideal location for the Rag Fair. All clothing to be sold in the market would be disinfected to reduce the spread of disease through the city.
Trading recycled clothes and textiles became the primary function of the market for the rest of its functional life. Between 1906 and 1990 only a few stalls sold anything other than clothes. As Dublin continued to lag far behind other European capitals the second-hand clothing trade remained a necessity for many Dubs.
As the lease given to the Council came to its end, rates for the local traders were raised and raised until they had no choice but to leave. In 1990 the doors of the market were closed. It’s not clear what influenced the decision to shut the market down but prolonged archaeological investigation of the site meant it was almost another decade before the market could be sold on to developers.
The developers’ intentions have been to turn it into a space that will host farmer’s markets, arts and crafts stalls and Irish tweed retailers. For various reasons these plans have not been realised and after numerous extensions to the planning permission work has still to start almost 15 years on.
Currently the building is in disrepair. An Taisce have strongly voiced their concern about the status of what is a protected building. Openings in the roof have allowed rainwater in and vegetation is now growing throughout. A palisade of rusted fences topped with razor wire surrounds the abandoned complex making the area ominous even in daytime.
Sadly the proposed plans do not seem to take into account the original intent of the building. It was not just to create a market space in the city where goods could be traded, it was to provide a dry, safe, clean space for the less affluent traders of the liberties.
For more than 80 years the Iveagh Markets was a hub for the people who lived around it. Many of the families who first occupied the market still live nearby. The city of course is not the same. There are more people living in the city, from more diverse backgrounds than there have ever before. It would be nice to think that a reopened market could be a living space where Dubliners old and new could get to know one another.
For now, the markets remain a wasted and wasting space in the heart of our city.