Back in the 1960s, I remember witnessing an interesting scene on O’Connell Bridge. A boy around my own age was selling pears from a pram with a breadboard laid across it. He had around twenty-five pears set out in rows and was stationed on the bridge with his back to the river just at the corner of Aston Quay. A tough-looking young fellow, around the same age, came along and engaged him in conversation. There was something a little odd about the friendliness of this new arrival. They seemed to know each other slightly; possibly they were schoolfellows or lived near each other. For all that the pear-seller was uneasy; he seemed puzzled that this fellow was engaging with him in a friendly and interested way and I suspected they moved in quite different circles, whether in school or elsewhere.
The young trader, I felt, was anxious for his interlocutor to move on. But there was no sign of that happening and the reason soon became apparent. He had a hidden accomplice who had climbed over the balustrade on the quay and, obscured by the corner obelisk, was making his way along a narrow ledge towards the back of the pear-seller. As the earnest chat continued, the accomplice stretched his arm between two balusters and removed four pears. Once the pear thief was safely back on Aston Quay the conversation with the fruit vendor came to an abrupt end leaving the young trader mystified and sadly unaware that later he would have to explain the discrepancy in his accounts to his Ma, who may or may not have taken an understanding attitude. (To settle a moral point, I could, of course, have warned the trader and might well have done so had I been on my bike. But as I was on foot I thought the better of it.)
Most of the problems experienced over the years by casual traders in Dublin have originated with the city authorities rather than opportunistic thieves. In 1921, when you might think they’d have had better things to worry about, the city magistrates wished to have casual traders removed from the streets and set up in the Iveagh Market on Francis Street. Those who made this suggestion failed to comprehend the basic economics of casual trading and in particular the importance of mobility. Casual traders need to go where people are, to theatre and cinema queues, to parades or wherever people gather. That is basic. If you have a permanent pitch you are not a casual trader and occupy an altogether different economic niche.
In the 1960s and 1970s, on Sundays when Rovers were playing, it was common to see trading women bent over Silver Cross prams or their predecessors ‑ the more cumbersome but very capacious classic three-wheelers supporting a giant wickerwork frame ‑ laden with fruit and sweets on Sandford Road in Ranelagh as they hurried towards the Rovers ground in Milltown, with assisting children trotting beside them. Interestingly, the Milltown officials allowed the women to work the terraces within the grounds; they were not allowed past the gate at Lansdowne Road.
As one might suspect it is not part of the traditions or culture of Dublin’s casual traders to concern themselves with such things as licences. This is for two economically sound reasons, first licences cost money, initially perhaps not much, but once registered other means of extracting fees can follow. This settled expense would not be compatible with the occasional and seasonal nature of casual trading. The second and more significant reason the traders have opposed registration is because the authorities can then insist on a fixed location, preventing a trader wheeling her pram onto say Henry Street during the Christmas period. If you are not registered you remain anonymous and can wheel out your pram wherever you want. Or at least that used to be the case.
As part of what seems to be an established hostility towards Dublin’s inner city community, its autonomous business activity has long been under attack. And when you attack any community’s economy you weaken that community. Many employment sources in the inner city have been allowed to melt away. It is surely no accident that the old inner city population has fallen greatly and that its dysfunctional elements have become much more dominant, yielding a range of intractable social problems that look set to mark the city for some time. (The temporary removal of the city’s methadone addicts and alcoholics during the recent Notre Dame vs Navy American football match, though “successful”, does not offer a model for dealing with such deep-seated social problems ‑ or at least one hopes it doesn’t.)
The 1980s saw the last, and ultimately successful, action against the city’s casual traders on the part of the authorities. During a period of high unemployment, with approximately 50,000 people leaving the country every year, the authorities saw fit to release “snatch squads” around Henry Street and Moore Street to apprehend unlicensed traders and impound their goods. It has to be said that the pram women rose to the potential drama of the situation and high-speed pram chases became a feature of the area, with other traders and members of the public frequently managing to get accidentally in the way of the pursuers.
Barry Kennerk’s new book on Moore Street is very good on this period telling us that “in 1984 600 prosecutions were brought against trading women”. The redoubtable Tony Gregory became involved on the side of the women, advancing the apparently outrageous argument that they had a constitutional right to earn a living and to rear their families. Gregory was arrested and jailed following a protest outside the GPO which was baton-charged. Undaunted, the women took their prams and placards and gathered outside Mountjoy, where they conducted a noisy and colourful protest, their anthem being “Stand by your Pram”. Gregory did not remain in prison for long but many of Dublin’s long established casual traders disappeared forever. As a sop, some new permanent pitches, including a few on O’Connell Bridge, were authorised. The economics of the permanent pitch, however, do not allow for such simple and useful services as offering passing citizens the opportunity of enjoying a pear, preferably purchased.
For more about the history of street trading in Dublin read Moore Street, The Story of Dublin’s Market District, by Barry Kennerk