‘Would you like to take my card?’

On a sunny Sunday morning in early spring, we’ve accepted business cards from 16 artists having browsed their works on the railings of Merrion Square Park. A card is not just a card here – it’s a magic ticket for these artists, and many of their lives have been changed by the people who accept them.

Merrion Square’s outdoor art market is a real Dublin institution. It was first formally regulated by Dublin City Council in 1985, but as some of its veterans tell us, they were tying paintings to the railings long before that. It takes place every Sunday from 10am to 6pm on three sides of the park, as dozens of license-holding artists set up shop to display and sell their work in the hail, rain, or shine. Anyone can apply to be an exhibiting artist, and licensees automatically become members of the Merrion Square Artists’ Association. This fantastically supportive organisation promotes the market and its members’ work.

Open-air art markets exist in major European cities – the Sunday shows of Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris come to mind – but Dublin’s offering is unique. As Elizabeth Prendergast explains, the Merrion Square art market stands out as a democratic model of casual trade. The public and the artists themselves curate the market. But why is this important? Prendergast highlights that the customer gets to “meet the artist, not the agent”, purchase their works without a middleman, commissions or markups, and hear about their creative process from the source. She says it’s “not being hijacked by the art world. It’s utterly open to whoever wants to [exhibit], & that’s what makes it special”. She is the artists’ association secretary and has traded at the market for decades, so she’s passionate about preserving and promoting its unique offering in the city. Only original paintings can be sold here – no prints or reproductions. Prendergast says this is an important yet vulnerable aspect of exhibiting here, as “it’s you [the artist] putting your own, original self on the railings”.

  • Mary FallonMary Fallon
  • Brendan HigginsBrendan Higgins
  • Tonja MaguireTonja Maguire
  • Jacqui RobertsJacqui Roberts

The conversations between public passersby and the artists are vital, as they get feedback from their customers and develop relationships with them, leading to repeat purchases, custom commissions and recommendations. For example, a special commission from 2018 is captured on Prendergast’s Instagram, where a still-life orchid formed part of a marriage proposal.

Personal interactions and a relaxed open-air environment make the market the perfect place to shop for art. Whether you’re looking for a painting to hang in your home or a gift for a loved one, you’ll find something that tickles your fancy among the many styles, mediums, and formats on show. Jacqui Roberts tells us that “the artist starts the journey, but when the painting makes it into your house, it becomes part of your family” — the artists are very aware that their work can become an heirloom. Roberts puts painstaking work into her textured paintings, layering several materials, including glass, enamel, oil, acrylic, metallic paints, modelling paste, and varnish. She shows us one of her paintings which took 180 hours to complete and says her meticulousness is all worth it when she knows her work will end up hanging in someone’s home.

It’s not just Dublin locals that frequent the market. One Sunday, actor Jeff Goldblum visited landscape painter Caroline Carroll’s stall to purchase some art, and the paparazzi soon followed. He took her card to pass on to a famous friend. That friend turned out to be none other than Dame Judi Dench, who came to visit the stall a couple of weeks later. She was out in Dublin for a ramble, sans entourage, and purchased two paintings to tuck under her arm and bring home. Carroll credits Dench’s Dublin links as the reason she was so laid back during their exchange – her mother grew up here and is proud of her Irish connection. She’s also had Irish A-list clientele but remains tight-lipped about them! Carroll also tells us that she’s the first living artist to have a painting hung in the Dáil — her work sits proudly next to a Jack B. Yeats painting. She credits the Merrion Square market for opening many doors for her work.

Caroline Carroll

Caroline Carroll

As we peruse paintings and speak to the trading artists, one Dublin icon is consistently represented – the Poolbeg chimneys. Countless depictions of them appear across the railings as they’re reimagined through each artist’s lens. From their medium to their style and colour palette, it breathes fresh life into a familiar sight from the city’s skyline. So whether you’re a fan of still life, abstraction, stained glass, or ink sketches, you’ll find a tribute to them that’s to your taste to bring home.

Visit merrionart.com to learn more about the artists of Merrion Square Artists’ Association, explore their work, and keep up to date with their news & events. You can also follow them on Instagram.

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