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“HATS, FLAGS And HEADBANDS?!”: Croke Park’s Casual Traders

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Derek Byrne: ”I’d be for the Dubs, d’you know what I mean?” (image: Robert Holmes)

 

The cry is as much a part of the GAA match experience as the rusty turnstile, the over-priced match programme and Mayo being spooked near the final hurdle. I decided to approach a “casual trader”, or “hawker”, as they’re universally known, and see what it’s like to be the one calling out that immortal phrase.

At first, Derek Byrne looks perplexed as to why anyone would want to ask him any questions other than, perhaps: “how much is that Monaghan flag?”. Nevertheless, he tolerates my presence with unfailing politeness, as himself and his sales assistant go about packing up. A job, I see, which involves the filing away of county colours with no little amount of military precision.

I begin with a variant of the “do you come here often?” line.

“30 years here”, he tells me.

What got him into it?

“I was unemployed and gave it a go and I’m still at it.”

Derek is from Pearse Street originally but lives in Ballybough and prefers the Dublin hurlers to the footballers. I admire his good taste. I ask him does he mind missing being at the football matches, in this era of Dublin success?

Not really, as it happens.

”I’d be for the Dubs, d’you know what I mean? But, I’d rather the hurling than the football.”

I had looked up the rates for casual trader licenses on the Dublin Council website and tentatively asked Derek if he has one. “Oh yeah, absolutely, I’m working right now. It’s €38 for Croke Park days.”

If you want to make a living as a casual trader it seems you have to put the hours in.

“You have to be pro-active now”, Derek tells me. “Years ago there was a handful of us doing it and now there’s hundreds out”. Derek says he’ll be out two hours before the first match of the day, every time. Seeing the array of goods he has on offer, I’m not surprised.

I ask him if he just does Croke Park and he scoffs and tells me he’ll be anywhere else hosting a big event, all year round. “The o2 (the new 3Arena) is €25 and I’ll be there every time”.

Casual traders selling hats, flags and headbands (with a nod to the enterprising ladies who sold 3 chocolate bars for a pound, out of a pram) have been around since the 1960’s. Before that, I’m told that it was customary for men to pin pennants featuring the stars of the day to the lapels of their suit jackets.

I ask the oldest person I have to hand, (my father, 60), what he remembers them selling: “Rosettes, paper hats and miniature dolls to wear on one’s chest”, he tells me.

“When it rained, the dye in the paper hats ran down your face”, leading, he says, to many a person in the stadium sitting or standing with what looked like a county colours face-painting job gone wrong.

I quickly see how the hats (cotton/cowboy), flags and headbands took over.

Whilst they need not diversify much, competition appears to have made the business even harder.

“You have your good days and your bad days”. Derek says,

Dubs matches, I enquire, must be the best days?

Derek is quick to reply: “No. You’d be surprised. Dubs in an All-Ireland final, maybe. But what you want is a team that doesn’t get to Croke Park often, a team that hasn’t been up here in years. They buy the most souvenirs.”

I chance my arm and ask him who his best ever customers were. For a moment, he stares off into the distance, a grin grows on his face, and, eventually, he replies: “Donegal, 1992”.

Yeah?

“Yeah. I went up on the Saturday, the day before the final and I cleaned up.”

That heart-warming story aside, he has nothing but scorn for the “drunk northerners” who booze all the way down on the coach and then interfere with his stall when they get off the bus.

“Messy f**kers”, he says.

To round off, I ask him will he be at the Limerick-Kilkenny Hurling semi-final the next day.

Almost before I finish the question he replies:

“Oh, rain, hail or snow. Rain, hail or snow.”

I was at that game myself and we had both rain and hail. Sure enough, there he was, plastic covers shielding his wares and extolling the virtues of a Limerick flag to a potential customer as I walked by.

Follow the writer at @RobHolmes1982

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