A smirking stone face winks at those passing the Iveagh Markets in Dublin 8.

From under his smoking cap, with tassel dangling to the left, long curls flow down to meet his thick moustache and long beard. Around the corner, on Francis Street, another seven carved faces gaze out upon the street.

It’s unclear exactly who or what these faces were meant to represent. But there are theories.

An Enigmatic Sequence

Following the demolition of buildings in what is now St Patrick’s Park, next to St Patrick’s Cathedral, “street traders lost their traditional market rights”, notes an entry in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage website.

As a result, Lord Iveagh, Edward Cecil Guinness, set about developing the now-iconic red-brick structures on Francis Street and Lamb Alley to house their trading stalls. They were to be “two covered markets for the sale respectively of old clothes and fish, fresh fruit and vegetables”, according to Christine Casey, a lecturer in architectural history at Trinity College Dublin.

Appointed to build these structures was architect Frederick George Hicks, a keen singer in his spare time, who was “often called upon to perform … [and] was a member of the Strollers, a long-established men’s amateur singing club,” according to the Dictionary of Irish Architects.

Construction on the Iveagh Markets kicked off in 1902. The project was supposed to cost about £45,000, but came in at about £60,000 by the time it was finished in 1906, according to the Irish Georgian Society. The markets opened in 1907.

The markets were built from red brick and rusticated granite, write Gregory and Audrey Bracken, in the book Dublin Strolls: Exploring Dublin’s Architectural Treasures. Portland stone was employed for the faces on the keystones.

Just what, or who, these faces represent remains unclear to this day.

Various Nationalities

This series of stone heads “remains enigmatic”, according to Samantha L. Martin-McAuliffe, a lecturer in the School of Architecture at University College Dublin.

They are, however, “variously described as being representations of the continents, or the nations that were trading with Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century”, she notes in The Ethics of Giving and Receiving: a Study of the Iveagh Markets, Dublin.

One wears a turban, another a brimless, flat hat, similar to a kufi. Others wear floral crowns.

UCD’s Martin-McAuliffe, referencing an Irish Builder article from 1906, writes that at the centre “is Erin, and on the other side [are] Turkey, Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Spain and an Israelite”.

Today, some of these stone faces are worn and stained, as so is much of the old market building itself.

Market Conservation

“They’re a lovely touch,” says James Howley-Hayes, a Dublin-based conservation architect.

Howley-Hayes has recently been researching the Iveagh Markets, following a move by Dublin City Council to reclaim ownership of the historic structure.

Lord Iveagh’s Victorian-style market closed to the public in the early 1990s. In 1997, developer Martin Keane acquired a 500-year lease on the building, but it has since sat idle, with Keane’s plans to redevelop the structures having stalled.

Recently, having consulted with Keane, the council decided to send in a team of conservation architects and conservation engineers to survey the site and assess the state of the Iveagh Markets.

There aren’t any records explaining for sure who these limestone heads are meant to represent, so passers-by are left to wonder, UCD’s Martin-McAuliffe notes.

Photographer Derek Stanley’s Images of Ireland: South Dublin suggests that the winking, smoking cap-wearing head on Lamb Alley is that of Lord Iveagh himself.

However, the meaning and importance of these eight international faces may tie in with Lord Iveagh’s intention for the market, notes Martin-McAuliffe. 

“The Iveagh Markets complex was intended to demonstrate Dublin’s stature, not only within architecture, but also trade and commerce,” she says.  

“In other words, Lord Iveagh may have understood his bequest as a symbolic gesture: even though Ireland lies on the geographic margins of Europe, it is by no means isolated.”

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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