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One image from the project sticks in Donal Fallon’s mind. “Cows dashing through the Liberties being hit by cars,” he says. “They did more damage to the cars than the cars did to them.”
The historian and Come Here to Me! writer was one of three “artists” to work on the project ‘Around the Table’, exploring the history of food in one corner of the city.
“That area spans from East Wall to Stoneybatter and it’s a part of the city that’s just synonymous with food,” says Fallon.
“Around the Table” grew out of Dublin’s unsuccessful bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2020. Dublin City Council set aside €600,000 of leftover funding for projects across five areas of the city.
Now you can read the results of the “Around the Table” project in a book of social history that is free online, with interviews, photographs and recipes.
“The story of food is a story of labour,” says Fallon. “But it’s also the story of community.”
There were three project artists involved in the project, who teamed up with different community groups: Fallon, the photographer Jeanette Lowe, and artist Jennie Moran.
The brief was to follow the journey of food from the Docklands, to the market, to the table – to gather stories, recipes, and oral histories.
Over nine months, the trio met with community groups, and fine-tuned the project with interviews and events.
The Docklands is synonymous with Dublin’s food heritage, said Declan Byrne, who worked as a docker from 1972 to 2000.
“If you think of the shops and the markets in Dublin every single item of food in those days was imported, particularly after the Second World War,” said Byrne, who was involved as part of the Dublin Docklands Preservation Society.
“Everything in the markets came from the port,” he says. “There’s the odd story of how 100 percent of it never made it [in other words, was stolen] because of the poverty in the Docklands itself.”
The history of Dublin’s grub is not without its controversies.
One event documented in Around the Table illustrated Dublin’s ongoing debate over how to make coddle, says Byrne.
“All the groups met one night for a coddle night,” he says. “But the people in Ringsend are very strict in what a coddle must contain”, as Byrne found out.
There is a Ringsend coddle, and a Northside coddle. The Ringsend coddle has less colour to it, while the Northside takes on a brown or red hue depending on what is added to the recipe. “Oxo cubes?” the book suggests.
Along with Dublin coddle, Cowtown café’s fish and chips feature. Other parts of the book explore the history of gur cake and cabbage water.
Lowe said that she learnt about her extended family, too, as she tracked the history of food in the Docklands.
Many of the dockworkers came from Pearse House, she said, including her great-uncle Joe “Gandhi” Savage, who was a button man.
When Lowe joined the former dockworkers on a trip down the Liffey, they told her that Gandhi had lost a leg in an accident on the docks.
But he had returned to work a couple of years later with a wooden leg. “Because he had to,” said Lowe. “I hadn’t known any of this.”
Learning from those “who were reared in the city centre reaffirmed for me that the city is steeped in social history and stories that need to be told”, said Lowe.
As the “Around the Table” project progressed, those involved decided they wanted the stories to reach a wider audience. Hence the book.
One of Lowe’s photographs in the book was inspired by a member of the Snug Women’s Group, a counselling service on Green Street that took part in the project.
The woman recalled living over a stew house and the great smells that wafted up. “She said she thought it was still there. It turns out it is!” said Lowe. “I immediately wanted to see it.”
On the ground floor of Avondale House, off Parnell Street, the stew house predates the flats, which were built in the 1930s.
“It feeds the needy each day with dignity and respect, as I hope my photograph portrays,” said Lowe.
Capturing oral histories is worth the time, says Fallon. “These stories are not in listed archives. So it was going and getting stories from so-called ordinary people.”
The book includes Dublin recipes, and interviews with Dubliners who grew up among the market stalls of Moore Street, the cattle market on North Circular Road, and the Smithfield fruit and veg market.
“These are sites that people remember,” he says.
The “stew house” is actually St Josephs Penny Dinners which does a fantastic job in feeding the needy 5 days a week and is run by some of the most dedicated and unsung people in the country.
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