An Honest Take on Dublin's Not So Traditional Christmas Markets
I guess my standards for markets are pretty high.
Every Saturday for years, my mother and I would wake at 6am and drive to Cumberland Street for their early morning market, where we'd rummage through trenches of clothes and shoes and stacked boxes of fabric detergent which apparently had fallen off a truck. Broken electricals sat in clusters of wire along the railings, tangled and waiting to be haggled over. I once noticed a live parrot (though there were occasionally taxidermied birds for sale there too) at the end of the street, with an asking price of €100. And every week, somewhere on the footpath an elderly lady in a long coat stood whispering "cigarettes" as you passed her.
I guess my standards for markets are very low, in a way, too.
But those visits left me with a very strong impression what a 'traditional' or 'authentic' market should look like, and Dublin's 'first ever traditional Christmas market' fails to impress. For my second trip there (I took a quick look back at the end of November) I stop by in daylight, and find it more than a little bit underwhelming.
The idea of a market is you might find something rare and curious and special, that no one else has, but what most of the stalls at Stephen's Green are selling is mass produced and boring. The chalets which house the sellers, literal little boxes arranged in a corridor along Stephen's Green, make browsing doubly awkward as you have to deliberately step inside to get a better look. You take a look, lose interest, and have to mumble some kind of excuse before stepping out again.
There are some genuine craftspeople here, but they're lost amid stalls selling the kind of pointedly useless goods you buy for your enemy at the office kris kringle: machine woven novelty sweaters, dangly art-teacher earrings, those wool hats shaped like animal heads that are adorable on children but deranged on anyone else… There's something so cynical about this place: the regulated gluttony, the gifts conceived of just to occupy space under trees bought by desperate people at the last minute before they go home on the Luas. Who eats that many pies? Who buys hats and gloves for children from a stall called 'Cover Your Bits'? Who actually believes in magnetic bracelets?
A day later I am at the Christmas market in Dun Laoghaire and I find it to be exactly the same. The same chalets, the same glühwein and synthetic knitwear, the same synthetic version of a 'traditional' Christmas market. It has been cloned almost exactly, and it appears that nobody is buying it. I leave feeling as though breaking with tradition would be better than half-heartedly resurrecting an old one.
Which brings me to the Christmas markets and pop-ups I think you should visit this year. Out in Block T a seasonal pop-up shop, weekend markets and a midnight market on December 22nd has brought together some of the best Irish crafts and art. On the morning I visit the place is peaceful and there's room to get a coffee and sit and work for a while on their old mismatched furniture. They're selling art prints, amazing handmade linen shirts for €50, handmade children's toys, screen-printed clothing and little magical pots of scented stuff by Dublin Herbalists. It's not creepy old ladies selling cigarettes out of their coats, but it's every bit as weird and wonderful and authentic.
Nearer to Grafton Street, the Bernard Shaw has an art sale featuring the work of some amazing Irish creatives, with 50% of all profits going to Inner City Helping Homeless (I really like the idea of finding a one-off gift which is flat-packed and easy to send abroad in the post). And on South William Street down a creaky metal stairs, the Dublin Independent Bookshop is open until December 23rd, gathering Irish-produced books and journals in one place from Liberties Press, the Lilliput Press, Little Island, the Stinging Fly and others.
Last on my tour I stop by the seasonal Makers and Brothers pop-up shop on Dame Lane.
Dublin's tiniest 'department store' is a minimalist dreamworld of homespun textures and bleached-out wooden furniture. It's like stepping inside Monocle magazine, exciting and calming all at once. This is very far from the idea of a Christmas market, and I'll be the first to admit I can't afford 90% of what they sell, but it's very much worth the visit to see what traditional craft and design is capable of. I'm especially in love with these thick-knit Kerry wool socks (give them to someone who has no Irish granny to knit for them), this bicycle travel journal, and these vaguely terrifying knitted 'vegetable creatures' which will make a pariah of your child should they ever bring them to the playground, but which are charming nonetheless.
Executed properly, 'tradition' can seen exciting and new, but I'd suggest giving the city's 'traditional markets' a miss. As they get more and more crowded with last-minute shoppers, it's just not worth the stress, even with the €5 mulled wine.