By Donal Fallon, Historian
As a social historian, it is the history of so-called ‘ordinary’ people that interests me most. Unfortunately, it is precisely these people who are often missing in our archival collections, and who can fall through the cracks of history. This, of course, shouldn’t be surprising to us. In war and politics, they say history is written by the victors. In every other sphere of life, it is written by those with power and influence. Or, at least it was.
It is important to say attitudes have shifted in recent decades. Kevin C. Kearns, author of several oral histories of Dublin, including the groundbreaking Dublin Tenement Life, was among the first to tap into the potential of such histories in Dublin. He understood that oral history put ordinary people back into the picture, and filled the gaps. He found researching tenement Dublin provided “an oral historical chronicle of struggle, survival and a splendid triumph of the human spirit.”
Any examination of food in Dublin, now or in the past, is ultimately a study of community
For me, this project as part of The National Neighbourhood, is doing much the same. Through gathering oral history testimonies, and photographing the rapidly changing urban landscape of north inner-city Dublin, we are trying to capture that same “splendid triumph”. Any examination of food in Dublin, now or in the past, is ultimately a study of community. Stew houses in inner-city flat complexes and charitable institutions that feed the poor have featured among the stories of great resilience. A study of food in Dublin isn’t a totally nostalgic trip into the so-called Rare Oul’ Times, indeed it is as often about the absence of food, as the presence of it.
To date, my contribution to this project has largely involved interviewing individuals about their own memories of food and its important place in their lives. I spoke to Terry Crosbie of the Stoneybatter and Smithfield People’s History Project, who recounted working in inner-city slaughterhouses, which are now a relic of the past themselves. The very idea of a slaughterhouse operating in the inner-city would surprise younger Dubliners, but the sights and smells that came with it were once common. In a difficult and physical working environment, what emerged most from the interview was the strong sense of camaraderie between those who worked there.
This project can also shine a light on the important social history of familiar places, indeed places so familiar to us that we can walk by them without a second glance. Capturing the historic buildings, signage and markers of the north inner-city is important in these days of massive redevelopment. There are precious few pictures of the fish markets, demolished in 2005, and it’s important to think about this project as capturing a moment in time now.
Tomorrow, today will be history. Remembering that, this project is engaging with young people as well as those who have lived and worked in the area for generations. A snapshot of what Dublin children are eating today (primarily a Chinese takeaway favourite known as ‘Spicebags’, for the curious) or how they think about food will no doubt interest the researchers of the future. Likewise, encouraging young Dubliners to think of their homeplaces as communities with long histories is important in giving them a sense of civic pride.
What does food mean to us today, in the days when ALDI and LIDL dominate streets were markets were once found?
This project is capturing a moment in Dublin, and a city in transition. What does food mean to us today, in the days when ALDI and LIDL dominate streets were markets were once found? It is also, I firmly believe, giving people a belief and confidence in themselves and their stories, and an awareness that it is the everyday people who turn the wheels of industry and who have made Dublin the city that she is. While food is the topic we are interrogating, what is emerging is in many ways a study of community and identity.
by Donal Fallon, Historian3