The Fall and Rise of the Irish Market Square

November 21, 2018
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Fridays in Clonakilty and Bantry, and Saturdays in Skibbereen have a special buzz about them. It’s market day. The market is the place to bump into friends, buy some fabulous artisan produce, and feel the sense of community identity in this unique setting.

Historically the market square was the economic and social hub of the surrounding rural communities, but sadly today in many Irish towns it is in a state of decline.

Six Irish architects and designers, Jeffrey Bolhuis, Jo Anne Butler, Miriam Delaney, Tara Kennedy, Laurence Lord, and Orla Murphy have been researching this phenomenon in 10 small towns (populations under 5,000) and were selected to represent Ireland in this year’s Biennale Architettura in Venice with their project Free Market.

The Biennale Architettura is recognised as the most important architectural exhibition in the world and this year saw 64 nations participating with exhibitions in the historic pavilions at the Giardini, at the Arsenale and in the historic city centre of Venice.

Significantly for Ireland, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects in Dublin were selected as Bienale Architettura 2018’s curators. Their chosen theme was “Freespace”. Yvonne describes the concept, “Freespace is the space that’s given as a gift to us as human beings to stand in. Architecture can give you that space where your life can be.”

The Irish pavilion Free Market  became a ‘small town hub’ where visitors were invited to pause on steps reading the pavilion’s newspaper, Free Market News, browse through the Town Bookshelf, a collection of books related to towns in Ireland and around the world, and sit in snug seats listening to the audio work, Sound Travels, while they watched passers-by. Photographs collected by the curators showed bustling town squares of yore in stark contrast with the same, often deserted, squares today.


iewers at Ireland's Pavillion 'Free Market' Venice 2018 Photographs by Matthew Thompson
Viewers at Ireland’s Pavillion ‘Free Market’ Venice 2018 Photographs by Matthew Thompson

With one in every three people in Ireland living in small towns, this situation demands attention. Free Market imagines a vibrant future for Irish rural towns but also maintains that urgent change is required. Despite the plethora of policies, plans and frameworks relating to towns, there appears to be a disconnect between people and plans, a lack of actual change, and many poor planning decisions being made on the ground. The Free Market curators insist that people must be placed at the heart of changes of policy, behaviour and the formation of design. Fundamentally, they believe that making these conversations happen within the very core of towns will ultimately strengthen communities.

Curators of the 2018 Biennale Architettura in Venice, Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects
Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects.   Photograph

The great news for those who were not able to experience Free Market in Venice is that there are plans for the pavilion’s return to Ireland in 2019. The pavilion will visit the towns featured in the project and be positioned in various configurations on the actual market places. Ultimately the tour will culminate in a seminar on the future of towns, which will be an opportunity to share all that has been learned along the way and prompt action.

As Shelley McNamara comments, “Architects have to be optimistic because we are imagining new worlds. We’re imagining a future. We’re imagining spaces that have not yet happened. And in order to imagine, you have to believe in the ability that architecture has to improve people’s lives.”

This optimism is demonstrated by Free Market curator Jo Anne Butler who observes, “There has certainly been a decline, the role of the market has declined, but the space is still there and, with small changes, they could become more active again.”