Dublin’s Victorian fruit, vegetable and flower market has remained closed since 2019
“It’s brilliant to see it full of food again,” said chef Kwanghi Chan, serving up a little cardboard bowl of steamed dumplings filled with bacon and cabbage.
“It’s lovely to be back in it again,” said Catherine McEvoy, handing over a plate of Irish cheese and onion croquettes at food trailer, The Salt Project.
She recalled buying flowers here for a niece’s wedding 14 years ago. “It’s a shame to let it go empty. It's the heart of Dublin.”
It, of course, is Dublin’s storied Victorian fruit, vegetable and flower marketplace on Mary’s Lane.
The 131-year old building was a buzzing crossroads in the city until it closed in 2019. But its doors have opened for a food and drink festival tied to St Patrick’s Festival, and it’s alive-alive-oh again.
Me Auld Flower is a four-day event described as “bringing the best of Ireland together in the old marketplace with a mix of restaurants, chefs, producers, distillers, brewers and makers, plus a host of demos, tastings and workshops and live acts and DJs, all under one roof.”
On the eve of St Patrick's Day, the doors opened, a DJ started spinning the tunes in a converted Mr Whippy ice cream truck, and it was game on.
At ‘Bastecamp’, chef Shauna Froydenlund was cooking up a storm whilst being quizzed on her role helping teach Bradley Cooper to cook for the movie Burnt.
Chefs like JP McMahon, Jordan Bailey, Lily Ramierez-Foran, Paul Flynn and Aishling Moore will follow over the next few days.
Outside, barbecues were firing up and small servings of lamb stew, smoked corn and chicken shish dished out to a growing stream of punters.
Guinness and Jameson had a presence, but so too did craft brands like Kinnegar, Mescan and Trouble Brewing.
“Ooh that smells good,” was a reaction overheard more than once.
With the vaulted ceilings overhead, clubby lighting bouncing off the red brick walls and tables crammed with people deciding what to eat and drink next, it felt like a mash-up of London’s Borough Market and Belfast’s St George’s Market had landed north of the Liffey.
“It’s a venue that I feel should be open for this kind of activity day in and day out,” said Andy Noonan, festival director. “It has a bit of soul.
“It's bananas, it’s heartbreaking to see it closed. It really is. When we got in here, it blew our minds… there should be people here every week. Every day.”
"This to me is the markets area of the city,” said author, tour guide and host of the Three Castles Burning podcast, Donal Fallon, who is running walking tours as part of the festival.
He pointed out the detail in the market building, evoking the hustle and bustle of its heyday, the early houses, and the social history of surrounding areas like Chancery Park and Ormond Square.
After it closed in 2019, vendors were moved out of the market building, with a refurbishment planned for 2021.
But that was significantly delayed by the pandemic, sounding exercises and tendering processes.
Today, the plan remains “to introduce a Retail Food Market in keeping with planning permission," Dublin City Council confirms.
A design team “is currently working to bring forward a construction tender for conservation and refurbishment of the building which we hope to issue this summer”, it says.
But it could be years before a refurbishment is complete.
In the meantime, “pop-up uses” such as Me Auld Flower, the Halloween horror experience Nightmare Realm and Night Moves, which ran as part of Culture Night 2022, have been facilitated.
And this being Dublin, there was some grumbling about the prices at Me Auld Flower.
"€8 for that?” one woman remarked as she walked away from a stall with a tiny plate.
Thankfully, there were no Taste of Dublin-style florins in sight. But dishes ranged from €7 upwards, pints from €6.30, and a €22-€26 entry charge includes no food or drink.
"We spent €50,000 on security, just to open the doors,” Noonan said. And there are insurance costs, generators, loos and medical areas, he added.
“It’s a venue that’s not fit for purpose, and we have to make it fit for purpose… it would make our lives easier not selling tickets, but it’s not possible.”
In fairness, huge thought and creativity has gone into the programming. The portaloos were clean, large numbers of staff patrolled the aisles in hi-vis vests, there was a visible Garda presence and lots of bins. It felt well-run.
And yes, it was lovely to be back in it again.