Alive Alive-O! Hawkers of Dún Laoghaire

Street vendor, pitchman, costermonger, coster, costard, demonstrator, peddler, huckster, tout and hawker are just some of the names to describe those who practice the ancient art of street-selling through the ages.

Moore Street continues to be Dublin’s most famous patch for street-selling. In London, street-vending and markets used to define entire areas. People flocked to Smithfield for their meat, Spitalfields for fruit and veg, and Billingsgate for fresh fish.

Today, with the obvious exception of Christmas stalls, and the Sunday market in the People’s Park, the only bona fide Dún Laoghaire street vendor currently trading I can think of is George Davis’ newspaper stand at the George’s Street entrance of the shopping centre.

Fortunately this stall is still with us, as their livelihood was cruelly threatened by the shopping centre owners earlier this year. In March 2017, Davis successfully challenged this callous bid to shut down Dún Laoghaire last street business in the Circuit Civil Court and won.

Dún Laoghaire town has a rich history of street selling, and I’d like to take this opportunity to profile two of its most famous vendors.

Davy Stephens –  The King of Irish Newsagents (1845 – 1925)

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“The door of Ruttledge’s office creaked again. Davy Stephens, minute in a large capecoat, a small felt hat crowning his ringlets, passed out with a roll of papers under his cape, a king’s courier.”

                                                                  – from ‘Aeolus’ episode, Ulysses by James Joyce

The town’s most famous vendor has to be Davy Stephens. Stephens sold Irish and English newspapers around the Victoria fountain, Kingstown train station and ferry terminus, and was even immortalised by James Joyce in Ulysses.

Davy Stephens was forced to work to support his family from the age of 6 after his father died suddenly. He started selling a Dublin newspaper called Saunder’s Newsletter at fourpence a copy, and one penny to those who could not afford it. He managed to support himself, his mother and his sister. Over a career spanning sixty years he became the most famous newspaper seller in Ireland. According to The Life and Times of Davy Stephens – Told by Himself published by Cahill & Co. Limited in 1912: “Davy truly is the first man you see coming to Ireland, and the last to bid you God-speed on leaving. He is out from four in the morning until till the mail boat departs at nine at night. When he is not at the pier, he sits on the steps of the station, surrounded by his feathered friends.”

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Stephens was known for a Mary Poppins style relationship with the local pigeons and starlings and took the time to feed them every day. His business thrived to the extent that he could open his own shop on George’s Street, which was staffed by two girls and featured an extensive lending library of over 4,000 volumes.

Davy Stephens became so famous and widely known he regularly received mail to his home at number 27, Upper George’s Street addressed to simply “Davy Stephens, Ireland.” He worked every single day, except when he took a week off every year to travel to Epsom for the Derby and spend a few days in London. Stephens was renowned for a keen eye for the horses, and was said to pick the winner virtually every year.

Davy Stephens sold newspapers and greeted Kings, Queens and Lords and Ladies, but according to his brief but beautiful biography: “No difference in class is recognised by Davy Stephens. His sympathies are universal, the same hearty reception is accorded to every passenger as he scrambles up the gangway from the mail packet – immediately followed by a request to purchase some of his stock of Irish Times, Express, Freeman’s Journal and Irish Life.”

This Pathé clip of Lord Talbot arriving in Ireland features Davy in action, greeting his Lordship as he disembarks the boat.

 

Stephens’ story provides a fascinating link between the 19th and 20th centuries and colonial Kingstown and the emergence of modern Dún Laoghaire.

“I suppose I’ve met everyone at note that came over all that time,” he said. “I remember when Her Majesty Queen Victoria came over 40 years ago. She landed at the jetty. They had planking and red carpeting all the way up to the station. D’ye see the Town Hall there? Well that wasn’t there then; nothing but a blank wall, and if I remember right, a little bit of a tumble down cottage. Aye, there have been a lot of changes in my time.”

Davy Stephens would have witnessed Dún Laoghaire’s transformation into a thriving Victorian town and port. The Town Hall was not built until 1880, and he also clearly remembered two of Dún Laoghaire’s greatest tragedies – the great storm of 1861 with the loss of Captain Boyd and his crew, and the Kingstown Lifeboat disaster of Christmas Eve, 1895.

Queen Victoria presented Stephens with a sovereign, which he mounted in a gold clasp and pinned to his coat on special occasions. It is also believed that Davy was “knighted” by the Lord Lieutenant on a crossing to Holyhead after he performed a song accompanied by “his flip-flop gyration dance”, which amused and entertained his Lordship so much he conferred the honour of knighthood upon him. In the absence of a sword, the Lord Lieutenant reportedly knighted him with an umbrella and said, “Arise, Sir Davy.”

It is worth noting that despite these high-jinks, Davy Stephens was a teetotaller. Apart from consuming some contraband poitín and pipe tobacco a smuggler gave him in his youth, he claimed that he never again drank or smoked in his life.

Davy befriended a multitude of famous people, including Sir Henry Irving, an actor-manager who is reputed to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. During one of his visits to London, Stephens was invited to Irving’s house for dinner where he met “the chief lights of the dramatic and operatic world.”

Other luminaries Stephens met include Count von Bismarck, Sir Robert Peel, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and Sarah Bernardt, the most famous French stage actress of her day.

His biography and accompanying adverts is a fascinating throwback to a bygone era. It says that Stephens was “the first to welcome our Colonial friends on their arrival at Kingstown in 1886.” The copy for an Irish Times advertisement says: “Advertisers should note the fact the IRISH TIMES is the organ of the moneyed community.”

Davy Stephens also features in a chapter in Me Jewel and Darlin’ Dublin by the late Dublin historian Éamonn MacThomáis alongside great Dublin street characters like Bang Bang and Zozimus. There is good case to be made for Davy Stephens being one of the most famous people Dún Laoghaire of all time, although in modern times, his fame would be eclipsed by Ronnie Drew or Bob Geldof.

Davy certainly seems to have been a very proud Dún Laoghaire man. According to his biography: “Davy thinks the Royal Marine Hotel, with its gardens and views obtained from the windows, is equal to any seen in Italy.”

Vera Breslin – The Last of Dún Laoghaire’s Traditional Street Vendors (1933 – 2015)

Maybe a few people alive are old enough to have a faint childhood memory of Davy Stephens, but most readers are much more likely to remember fishmonger Vera Breslin.

Up until 2014, Vera Breslin sold fish at the corner of Convent Road, just outside where J.J. Darboven’s coffee and tea shop is today.

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Vera ran her fish stall in Dún Laoghaire since the 1950s and was a sixth-generation fishmongerer. Born at 11 Clarence Street, she helped her mother and father sell fish from the age of 7.

For well over the next seventy years, Vera sold fresh fish on the streets of Dún Laoghaire. She started on Upper George’s Street, but after the trams were discontinued, she moved to Convent Road, where she was based from the 1940s until she fell sick in late 2014.

Following her death, articles appeared in the Irish Independent, The Journal and Dublin social history blog Come Here to Me. In 2000, the Irish Times published a beautiful profile of Vera entitled Alive Alive-O in homage to Molly Malone.

“Everybody knows Vera – she rarely uses her surname, Breslin – it seems. Aged 69, she has been a fixture on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for more than 50 years, and is an old-style Dublin street hawker – in a town that is actively redefining itself with flashy, new construction projects, and whose main street is currently undergoing major work.

“Fish is very scarce,” says Vera, as she deftly decapitates a cod, removes its entrails and debones it. “It’s been very dear all week; you can buy a piece of steak for what you pay for fish.”

Be that as it may, Vera’s prices are astounding. John Murphy, a bouncer at a local club, recently bought a couple of large haddock fillets for all of £1.50. Mackerel are sometimes 50 pence apiece . . .

A throwback to the days of “personal service”, Vera still inquires after her customers’ health, while giving change and greeting an acquaintance across the road. If you want to know who died or separated recently, ask Vera.”

The Irish Times feature continues to describe Vera’s typical working day.

“A day in the life of a fish trader begins around 6 a.m., when Vera’s husband, Paddy, a retired dock worker, cooks breakfast for the pair. Vera’s nephew then drives her to the fish auction at the Dublin Corporation wholesale market, while Paddy and their son assemble her market-stall.

An ingenious affair built by Downer’s, a local sail-making firm, 10 years ago, it comprises a collapsible metal frame, removable marine plywood floor and a rubberised canvas roof that affords some protection from the wind and rain.

Vera assumes her post by 9.45 a.m. Selections vary according to market availability, but there are often less-glamorous but delicious-tasting fish such as red gurnet, mullet and ling sharing space with delicate plaice, sole, fresh and smoked cod, ray wings and hake.

When she’s not overseeing sales, Vera tidies her work area. Surfaces are constantly being wiped, the floor mopped, and the sidewalk and pavement scrubbed with disinfectant. Vera’s hands are permanently swollen from contact with water.

During lulls, Vera sips tea from her thermos, or sits on an overturned milk crate on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. Paddy brings her a hot dinner at noon.

The stall closes around 6 p.m., at which time Paddy carts away the disassembled stall to a nearby storage area, using the old pram. All unsold fish is thrown away.”

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I think it is comforting that a fish-selling tradition lives on in Dún Laoghaire at the Fish Quay shop on the Trader’s Wharf (between West and East Piers and accessed over the Crofton Road bridge over the railway).

Following Vera’s death, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council passed these motions:

Motion: Councillor M. Merrigan “That this Area Committee requests the Chief Executive to examine the suitability of the pavement area of Lower George’s Street (south) on the corner of its junction with Convent Road (west) in Dún Laoghaire as a possible site for the provision of a memorial seat in honour of the late Vera Breslin (née Shortall) who was the last traditional street trader of the town and who had her ‘pitch; at that site for over many decades.”

Motion: Councillor M. Merrigan and seconded by Victor Boynihan:

“That, this Area Committee requests the Chief Executive to designate the corner on the west side of Convent Road at its junction with Lower George’s Street in Dún Laoghaire as ‘Vera’s Corner’ in honour of the much-loved and sadly missed Mrs. Vera Breslin (née Shortall) the last street fishmonger in Dún Laoghaire who died on January 6th 2014 and that appropriate signage be erected at this corner on the site of her ‘pitch’.”

Come Here to Me published this lovely picture of Vera with a printed out selection of touching Facebook comments about her.

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Finally, I took these pictures at the seats at Vera’s Corner, which is a lovely memorial immortalising a true blue Dún Laoghaire legend. 

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam.

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