Farm Ireland

Friday 15 December 2017

Cowtown revisted - recalling Dublin Livestock Market

In its heyday the Dublin Livestock Market was the nerve centre of Irish agriculture, handling up to a million cattle, sheep and pigs annually. Declan O'Brien traces the story of a remarkable enterprise.

This colourised photograph from the 1930s shows a drover leading cattle along the North Circular Road. Photo from Special Collections at University of California, Santa Cruz
This colourised photograph from the 1930s shows a drover leading cattle along the North Circular Road. Photo from Special Collections at University of California, Santa Cruz
City Arms Hotel, Prussia Street, Dublin 7
The Dublin Livestock Market
Cattle being driven down the North Circular Road from the Dublin Livestock Market

The sight of thousands of cattle being driven on foot through the city centre would be unthinkable to most 21st century Dubliners. But it was a weekly occurrence in a not-so-distant past when the capital was the nerve centre of the nation's livestock trade.

At its peak in the 1950s the Dublin Cattle Market, located on Prussia Street in Stoneybatter (nicknamed 'Cowtown'), was the largest weekly livestock sale in Europe. Of the one million cattle, sheep and pigs exported 'on the hoof' annually from Dublin, almost all were bought at the market before being driven to boats moored along the North Wall.

At a time when the country's economy depended on agriculture, and the cattle trade in particular, Dublin's market was akin to the national 'stock exchange' - effectively setting prices at fairs and markets throughout the country and processing the final sales of animals destined for export.

Located between Phibsboro and the quays, in an area bordered by Prussia Street, Aughrim Street and St Joseph's Road, the Dublin Cattle Market was held each Wednesday and attracted buyers not only from Dublin's abattoirs but also British livestock traders acting for slaughter houses and farmers in the north of England and Scotland.

The market was established by Dublin Corporation in 1863 to replace the previous sales held in nearby Smithfield. The facility quickly came to control the burgeoning live trade to Britain, and this outlet became its mainstay.

In the decades that followed the market survived two world wars, the Great Depression and Ireland's Economic War with Britain and was still very much in its pomp in 1957 when the number of store and fat cattle sold there peaked at 249,776 head. A record number of sheep were sold in 1960 when the figure topped 425,000.

Farming Independent columnist Joe Barry remembers the market first hand. His family were cattle traders or sales masters in the market and Joe worked in the family business from an early age.

"I remember my father and uncle saying that you could sell anything in the Dublin market, you could sell a goat if you wanted to," he recalls.

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But cattle were the primary business and the market in Prussia Street was the final sales point for close to 90pc of stock exported each year.

Dealers and buyers acting for sales masters such as the Barrys and others bought cattle at fairs or off the land right across the south, midlands and west. These cattle were then moved by train or road east to the counties of Kildare, Meath and Dublin to be finished or sold immediately in the market.

Joe Barry explains that livestock going directly for sale were kept initially in cattle parks for a day or two at least. These parks were located in what are now established north Dublin suburbs such as Cabra, Finglas and Castleknock.

"I remember our park was about 30ac and it wasn't far from Cabra convent...I remember my father saying it was the best land he ever owned," Joe says.

From the cattle parks, the livestock were shifted by local drovers into lairages or yards around Prussia Street, before being finally moved into the market on the morning of the sale.

After being sold, the livestock were driven along the streets to the nearby abattoirs or down the quays to the docks at North Wall to be exported to England or the continent.

The Dublin facility had pens for around 5,000 head. Groups of cattle were tethered in lines on either side of walkways through the market where buyers could browse and view the stock.

Although butchers and processors took a significant proportion of the sheep and heifers, exporters were the premium buyers and they set the tone of the trade, as well as adding a certain international panache to proceedings.

'Jet set'

Many of the exporters were English buyers who would arrive the evening before the market by boat and stay overnight in local bed and breakfasts or the nearby City Arms Hotel. Some even joined the 'jet set' as the 1960s progressed, flying in and out on the day of the sale.

Either way, the goal was to assemble their lots of 300 or more cattle before breakfast. They would then settle their account, arrange for the stocks' shipping and head for the airport or boat.

Like meat markets such as Rungis in Paris and Smithfield in London, the Dublin Cattle Market kicked off early. The gates opened for livestock at 3am, the sale started at 5am and everything was done and dusted by noon at the latest.

However, although proceedings at Prussia Street were over in a matter of hours, coverage on RTE radio and national newspapers meant the impact of each sale lasted at least a week as the market set cattle and sheep prices at fairs right around the country.

But while the Dublin market was still an institution in the livestock trade in the early 1960s, its position as the country's premier outlet for cattle and sheep was under serious threat.

The most immediate challenge came from the growth of the mart movement. There were just three co-op marts operating in the country in 1956, these were in Waterford, Kilkenny and Bunclody, Co Wexford, but by the end of the 1960s there were 30 mart societies. Many of these like Cork Marts and Clare Marts had multiple outlets. In addition, the network of private operations had expanded steadily and included 61 centres by 1970.

The sustained growth of the mart movement - driven by farmers' desire for the more transparent sales they offered - signalled the end of the road for the country's fairs.

This had a profound impact on the Dublin market, as the fairs were its primary source of cattle. Numbers sold each week decreased steadily, dropping from around 5,000 head in the early 1960s to under 700 by 1970.

Lower throughput meant growing losses, and by the time the deficit reached £39,000 in 1972 Dublin Corporation had come to the conclusion that the market had no future in the cattle business.

Legal wrangles meant the market lingered on for another year. However, its glory days were long past and just 325 cattle were traded at the last sale on May 9, 1973.

Dublin's renowned cattle market was no more.

Declan O'Brien is researching the history of the Dublin Livestock Market and the Irish beef industry as part of his PhD studies with Mary Immaculate College, Limerick

Dublin drovers were expert stockmen

Moving the cattle into and out of the market was the job of the drovers. Although these men were invariably inner city Dubliners, their expertise at handling stock was never questioned.

In his memoir Strong Farmer Meath native Joe Ward recalls the skill and speed the drovers displayed when tethering the cattle for the Prussia Street sale.

"The pen man would look them [the cattle] over quickly and would put them in order, the tallest beast at the top, and then the next tallest, down to the smallest one at the end.

"While two men held the cattle up to the pen, a third man put a rope around its neck and tied it around the bar. It took him 30 seconds or less."

Another Meath farmer, Jimmy Cosgrove, remembers drovers on bicycles driving lines of cattle 'half a mile' long down through the heart of Dublin to the boats at the North Wall.

"The drover would let them out and they'd just run along, I mean, the cattle would be two or three abreast, with their heads down and they going on along and there'd be lads at all the crosses but once they got going straight they'd go straight."


A lot of drovers used dogs which were usually collies crossed with terriers, or 'short hairs' as they were known. These often had rings in their noses, like a pig ring, to stop them biting the sheep. Working the sheep and cattle in and out between the traffic and trams was all part of the job, as former drover Bobby Walsh outlines in Kevin Kearns study of Stoneybatter:

"At the time there were trams and we'd be going down with the cattle and sheep and the tram would come behind you and there was a bell that'd go 'ding, ding, ding' and you had to try and get the cattle and sheep apart to let him pass.

 "And in a few minutes more a tram would be coming the other way. So the old dogs, when the tram would be coming, we'd send them over and they'd bark. Ah, there was some good dogs in Dublin."

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