There was a time when the Liberties would summon shoppers in from miles around.
“I mean there was a time when the buses would stop there coming from Clondalkin and Ballyfermot and they would empty out to shop there,” said independent councillor Vincent Jackson, at a recent South Central Area Committee meeting at Dublin City Council.
“Thomas Street in particular was always buzzing,” said Sinn Féin councillor Ray McHugh, as he described memories of the road where he met his wife and worked in his youth. “They actually used to bring up buses from the country and they would all be in there for the day. It was great.”
For United Left councillor Pat Dunne, the Liberties meant street trading, the markets, and second-hand clothes stalls.
“There’s long traditions there,” he says. “When I visit European cities, one of the things that would attract me is the street trading and all that kind of colourful aspect that goes along with that.”
For some time now, there’s been talk of trying to bring that spirit and clatter back to the neighbourhood.
At last month’s Local Policing Forum for the area, some local residents suggested that the council issue more street-trading licences, which would see market stalls extend all the way down Thomas Street toward Vicar Street.
The council is currently looking at the issue, before it decides what position to settle on.
Lord Mayor Criona Ní Dhálaigh supports this move back to the street’s old traditions and called on the local business forum to examine the idea as well. “It adds great footfall to the area and kind of adds to the environment as well,” she said.
Outside Mannings Bakery and stretching left toward the corner of Meath Street are the few remaining trading pitches on the street. Selling bits and pieces, sweets and toilet roll, they blend well with the bargain, bric-a-brac shops that they face.
The number of licenced trading pitches on Thomas Street has fallen over the years, because of the street improvement schemes that were proposed. The view is very different to the one local councillors tenderly remembered.
Instead of a clatter of stalls selling produce on both sides of the street, there are just a handful today.
“You could buy everything from fruit and veg, to fish or ribbon. And at Christmas there’d always be a bounty of toys and Christmas decorations,” says Kathleen Farrell, a well-known street trader who mans a stall with her son.
She too recalls the glory days of the Thomas Street traders. She grew up on this pitch, helping her mother by filleting fish. Generations of her family have worked here as street traders for 192 years, she says.
What are her views of extending the stalls well down the street? Would she welcome the competition?
“Absolutely,” she says.
Though she doesn’t believe the council would ever do that – she gets the feeling they don’t even want her stall there.
She thinks some kind of market would bring more passersby and could only benefit her business. “They should have Sunday markets, night-time markets, 24-hour markets,” she says.
That, she says, would bring some life to the street in the evenings.
Down at the next stall Derek Rice isn’t so enthusiastic about the idea. Another pitch passed through the generations, Rice has been here 45 years.
He looks doubtful at the suggestion that Dublin City Council might welcome more street traders to Thomas Street. “They’ve been trying to get rid of us,” he says.
Having already been hit by price increases in his licence fee, Rice doesn’t think additional stalls would be a good idea. “It’s hard enough to make a shilling as it is,” he says.
This is one reason that Stephen Coyne of Liberties Business Area Improvement Initiative finds it hard to envisage more market stalls lining the street.
Street trading has declined for a number of reasons, he says, but a lot has to do with it being a hard way of life as much as anything. “It’s tough being out there in the cold and wet,” he says.
Coyne also says the views of local rate-paying businesses would have to be taken into account. They may be concerned about their shops’ visibility, he says, and the council haven’t exactly been at the cutting edge of street trading. “The better markets have tended to be privately run” he says.
Street stalls undoubtedly add character, he says. But we also have to move along with the times. Even if the council did allow for more pitches, Thomas Street is unlikely to revert back to its former glory.