The trend towards urbanisation continues at an increasing pace and town and city dwellers now make up the majority of the global population for the first time in human history. The early decades of the 21st century have been characterised by increasing economic, social, and political challenges that municipalities have to manage according to the interests of urban citizenship. Indeed, a fundamental condition of urban living is the necessity for urban dwellers to obtain goods and food from outside the city limits. With this in mind, street markets have existed in towns and cities for hundreds of years and are often viewed as valuable assets in promoting sustainable food policies and stimulating economic activities, in addition to contributing to the cultural vibrancy of urban environs. Municipal public street markets have long been recognised as pivotal in supporting the growth of the local economy and being places where local culture evolves daily or weekly. The cultural vitality of public street markets can be sustained by strengthening their local identities through their products and cultures, providing spaces that can facilitate tourist activities and cultural participation, while enhancing the development of local businesses both in and around the street market area.
Such street markets have existed in Irish towns and cities for centuries and have undergone considerable expansion, both in number and in size, in recent decades. In the modern period these Irish street markets tend to be viewed as significant assets in promoting sustainable local food production and small-scale artisanal economic activity, as well as making a distinctive contribution to the cultural vibrancy of their respective urban environments. Street markets can further be regarded as valued social spaces that reflect and contribute to the diversity of urban life in contemporary Ireland. While Irish farmers’ markets have attracted some research and attention from social scientists in the past there is still a dearth of research on the more generic types of street markets. Against this backdrop, this research project focuses on the Galway St. Nicholas street market, whose origins in the heart of the city date back to medieval times. The market showcases the produce of local artisans ranging from different types of foods, home-baked goods, crafts and paintings. The primary focus in the first phase of the research – currently under way – is on how the traders themselves perceive the market, their place in it, and how they view the manner the local authority exercises its regulatory responsibilities over the market and the individual traders. A second phase will investigate how the local authority views the recent evolution of the St. Nicholas street market, its current organisation and its further development in the near to medium terms. A third contemplated phase of research will consider the views of consumers who shop in the market, as well as tourists who visit while in the city.
A mixed methodological approach is being adopted in the first phase of the research. So as to contextualise how the St. Nicholas street market stands today and to provide a baseline against which to gauge changes over recent decades, an attempt is being made to reconstruct what the market looked like, and how it was organised, thirty years ago at the close of the 1980s. Various archival sources and interviews are being used to construct this baseline. By means of a combination of questionnaires and in-depth interviews the main challenge in the first phase of the research is to discover how the current generation of street traders, along with members of their representative committee, view the contemporary organisation of the market, and their place in it, in terms of its perceived strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges. This study will investigate the market from the perspectives of its present condition and its potential for the future, with the aim of understanding its position within the cultural, social and economic life of the city, and enhancing our overall knowledge of the impacts of such municipal street markets on urban livings. It aims also to identify the tangible and intangible qualities of the Galway St Nicholas market, so that it can sustain its cultural, social and economic qualities well into the future.
A report documenting how the St. Nicholas street market has changed over the past three decades and how the present generation of street traders view the market’s current organisation will constitute the key output of the first phase of the research. It is envisaged that as well as being of interest (and value) to the traders themselves, the report covering the first phase of the research will attract a readership among local decision-makers, politicians and members of the general public. The first phase research further lends itself to the preparation of a number of academic papers and presentations. The Project is being managed by Dr Mike Hynes and Dr Tony Varley with the assistance of the REaL Project, an initiative of the SSRC which seeks to involve students in practical social scientific research. The REaL Project allows students learns through their own discoveries and experiences, working in collaboration with experienced academic advisers and other students in a research-rich and supportive environment.