Growing up in Dublin, I remember Smithfield Square in the North City area of Dublin as a market. It was a place of traders, fruit and vegetable merchants, and horse fairs. It had a particular character and feel, cobbled and weather-beaten, but it was beloved by many hard working people who were there earning their living . It was regarded as a major trading marketplace for Dubliners.
It was a run-down sort of place in the 70’s and 80’s, dilapidated and neglected. Small lock up premises bordered the square on three sides where trade was plied, and vans and horse drawn carts were in and out delivering and collecting. Business was conducted daily and the square was a hive of activity filled with many colourful characters selling merchandise.But at night time the place was deserted and empty. Irish Distillers were located on one side of this square, but the traders were the life force of this inner city square during the day.
There was also a horse fair on the first Sunday of every month. This fair was as old as my grandfather could remember and I regularly took trips in with my Dad to watch the trading of horses, donkeys, and other animals during the 60’s and 70’s. It was a bustling fair where horses, ponies, goats and chickens were kept in makeshift pens with other domestic animals. Walking around the square on those Sundays was an experience filled with sights and smells that I will remember forever. I had to hold on tightly to my father’s hand in case we became separated because it was crowded by hundreds of people.
Dublin changed, and during the late 1980’s a new city plan was created to redevelop the area. There was a sustained outcry from the people who traded there, but the lockups started to disappear and become boarded up as leases were not renewed. Trade shifted to the more expensive ‘Official Fruit and Vegetable covered market’ off Capel Street and the square became more forlorn and neglected.
The horse fair continued on the first Sunday of each month though, despite repeated efforts to close it down.
Developers began to buy up properties on the square in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and I clearly remember reading a proposed plan for the area, where it was imagined that it would become a grand piazza or square, modelled on an Italian vision where new urban dwellers could ‘cast their gaze over the space as they sipped their cappuccinos from their apartment balconies during their leisure time’. Coffee culture was unknown in Dublin at that time, and most of us didn’t even know what a cappuccino was or what it tasted like.
The developers created wonderful artistic impressions in their sales brochures of this new fabulous lifestyle that they were attempting to sell to Dubliners. It all looked amazing. People talked it up, and there was such a buzz about this new European style apartment living.
All looked and sounded great except for the fly in the ointment.
The one thing that ruined the sales palaver about ‘coffee on balconies’ and ‘gazing across the rooftops of Dublin’ was the obvious smell of horse manure that would pervade this idyllic space every four weeks without fail. (In my opinion there was a greater whiff from the sales patter than there ever was from the horses.)
In the intervening years when the apartments were eventually built with their balconies and their new urban dwellers, and the whole square was redeveloped, the monthly horse fair continued. There were calls from the health and safety police about animal welfare, rogue trading, and counterfeit selling. You name it; it was all happening in Smithfield on the first Sunday of every month. There were proposals to move the fair to another venue outside the city limits, but the horse traders cited old city by-laws which allowed the trading on site to continue.
The market attracted all kinds. And inevitably there were people who ignored standards, and animals were traded and sold to people who didn’t have the animal’s welfare at heart. Reports of cruelty began to surface, and coupled with an influx of young lads who just wanted to buy horses as pets and urban racers, grazing them on common ground in Dublin estates, the authorities were becoming increasingly bureaucratic and wanted the whole fair disbanded. There was a gun attack in the market in 2011 and this signalled the end of the fair.
It was simply over and I have no idea where horses are traded in Dublin any more.
Smithfield has continued to be redeveloped and now bears all the hallmarks of that once envisioned grand Italian Piazza. It is a place that is on the map of all visitors who come to Dublin, and the Distillery on the corner reaps the rewards from people who pay for the tour to see how Irish whiskey is produced.
I went in there tonight to see the Christmas tree that lights the square and reflects on the wonderful ancient cobblestones that hold a million memories, but for me, despite the beauty of the revamped area and the wonderful buzz of contemporary living, it has become a heartless anonymous place.
I gazed about, and remembered the sounds that used to reverberate around it, the calls of the merchants, and the banter of the Dubliners who traded there. It is a beautiful space for sure, but it possesses no history or footprint, as that has been obliterated by the urban redevelopment practice that has forgotten that cities need people living and working in them to survive and not just be places for tourists to visit. Walking around Smithfield tonight, admiring the Christmas tree, listening to the other visiting people who were doing the same as I was, I could have been in Berlin, Prague, or any other European city. There is sadly nothing left to distinguish it as a place that is recognisably Dublin.
Destiny can be about realising that we all need a history to know who we truly are.