I was so excited planning my time in Ireland. For a market junkie/foodie like me, the opportunity to study market culture in a foreign country was like winning the lottery. I had made some assumptions from my research last spring about what I would find. I thought there would be open air markets around every corner laden with beautiful produce and open seven days a week. That’s not quite what I found but I thought food shopping in Ireland was pretty amazing.
The fallacy in my assumptions was that I would find open-air farmers markets with local producers similar to the kind found in many US communities. They are there, just not every day. The advertisements I read told me that they were generally held one or two days per week in the morning. Unfortunately, I was usually in the wrong place at the wrong time to attend but did happen to find the Westport Country Market located in the St. Anne’s Boxing Club in Westport, County Mayo. I walked in soon after the doors opened and was surprised to find so few shoppers. Small booths lined the walls of the gym selling homemade breads, pastries, jams, cheese, and prepared foods. There were also handmade knitted goods, wooden puzzles, photography, flowers, and beautiful produce. The vendors were welcoming and warm and willing to talk to me. I was a bit of a mystery to the vendors, though, this odd American with a Mickey Mouse backpack taking pictures and asking dozens of questions. I bought a chunk of cheese to eat for lunch, a colorful wooden puzzle for my grandson, and a beautiful photograph of Crough Patrick. I struck up a conversation with Michael Gannon, the photographer. I explained about my graduate research and my blog site and gave him one of my cards. I asked him about the state of small town Ireland and support of small, local vendors. His answers were very surprising.
When I walked around the cities I visited, I saw vibrant center city shopping districts. I was delighted to find no super stores or mega groceries. There was a wide variety of shops and they all were specialized; how lovely to walk into a shop that carries exactly what I need and not have to walk for miles searching through a thousand displays to find what I am looking for. Shopping may take a bit longer, moving from shop to shop but imagine having the shop keepers know you by name and supporting local business owners. Michael told me the shopping areas were growing smaller and many vendors were struggling to compete with big box stores like Lidl, a German owned discount grocery chain with more than 10,000 stores across Europe. I checked out their website, and it looks like an all too familiar Walmart situation.
We spoke a bit about the loss of American small town shopping districts to the one-stop mega stores sitting just outside of town, close to the interstate. It was sad for me to think I had found the town squares in Ireland to be alive and well only to learn that they are waning. I told Michael about Findlay Market in Cincinnati and other similar city revitalization efforts across the US. Hopefully, people like Michael, and the other country market vendors across Ireland, can band together to slow Lidl’s progress. My concern is the people who live in these towns won’t realize what they have until it’s gone.
I’m thinking a call to the Project for Public Spaces is in order…bring in professionals to give advice and recommendations to bolster the markets and local vendors and let the movement spread before it’s lost. Hey, I’ll help. I can’t imagine a better way to use my master’s degree and, as a bonus, get to go back to Ireland. Michael Gannon, let’s talk!