The Duchess of Duke Street
Wrapped from head to toe against the hostile elements, surrounded by a riot of colour which cuts a sharp contrast with the grey February day, meet the flower ladies of Grafton Street.
They say the ladies are “the heart and soul of Grafton Street” and what helps save the road from becoming just another English high street. You’ll find the ladies bringing both wit and colour to the corners of Chatham, Harry and Duke Streets.
Tina Kelly tells us she’s been selling flowers all her life, starting off aged 12 helping her mother when Grafton St still had two-way traffic. She has seen a lot come and go from her perch on Duke Street. Tina tells Dublin.ie that one time she even met The Duke himself. “Yeah I met John Wayne.” “Sure I met them all,” she adds. “Sean Connery… I was talking away to him, Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Lisa Stanfield. I met an awful lot of them. And sure Eric Clapton, well I was talking to him on the street for nearly two hours and I hadn’t a clue who he was.”
A natural born story teller, you can tell Tina enjoys the banter that comes with the trade. Many of the customers are obviously regulars as there’s lots of first name usage. Sister-in-law Susanne, who mans the Harry Street corner, says “you have to enjoy talking to people.” And in case we hadn’t noticed, she adds: “Now I would be a talker!”
The Kelly name is synonymous with flowers on Grafton Street going way back, Susanne says. “Now I married into the Kelly family,” she says adding that she comes from a family of boxers. “My grandfather was Spike McCormack.”
Tina says they have a picture of her grandmother selling flowers on the street back in the 40s. And Tina’s mother, Theresa, was such a cherished Grafton Street figure that when she died aged 85 last summer, her white coffin, carried in a white and glass hearse and drawn by two plumed white horses, was given special permission to come down Grafton Street.
“Lunch-time shoppers stood in silence as the hearse paused at the junction with Harry Street and a lone piper played a final lament,” the Independent reported. “There were so many wreaths for the former flower seller that a second, heavily laden, horse-drawn show-cart had to pull them behind the hearse.
A huge spray of red roses covered the coffin and the family wreaths included one in the shape of her favourite tipple – a Guinness bottle – and others in the shape of a pack of cigarettes, a heart, a book, a chair and even a butterfly,” the paper added.
Business is picking up after the years of austerity. “Sure no one had the money,” Tina says. “When times are tough, a chicken is better than a bunch of flowers no matter what way you look at it,” she admits.
Despite the wide range of new exotic flowers, the best sellers remain roses, lilies, tulips and bouquets. Both Tina and Susanne said they were looking forward to Valentine’s Day but not with the degree of enthusiasm one would expect. “Valentine’s Day, I have to say it’s good but the stuff goes up. It has gone up already. Everything is nearly double,” Tina says.
All the produce comes from Holland and with current growing techniques, they can delay flowering and manipulate the market. “They can hold back the stuff and create a demand,” Tina says. With the Capel St market gone, the ladies deal directly with the Dutch lorry drivers. The Dutch buy at auctions in Holland and drive straight over to Dublin. “They come in during the night. They have a warehouse here. Then the fellow comes down to us the next morning,” she says, adding “There’s no middleman.”
Roses and bouquets are still the lovers’ favourites. But despite selling at almost double the price, the flower shops are a threat, Susanne says. “People are buying with cards in the shop so they can pay for it in instalments.” Lidl and Aldi also offer cheap alternatives. But Susanne frowns at the mention of the German chains. “Yeah they are cheap but they are skimpy little tiny roses,” she says.
The women say they pay handsomely for their spots on Grafton Street. “It’s a good street but you wouldn’t get away with being soft,” Tina says. The odd “drunken eejit” might try to make off with a bunch. “But If I run up the middle of the road, half my family would see me. So you catch them up there, give them a few smacks, take the flowers off them. Then ‘on your way’.”
Tina smiles as she recalls an animal rights protest outside the furriers opposite her stall a good few years back. “This woman walked down – lovely looking woman in her 50s. She was real handsome. You know the way you look at someone and you say ‘she’s still lovely’. She was a beautiful looking woman. This protester comes up to her. ‘Do you know how many animals were killed to make that coat?’ the protester says. The woman turns and quick as that, says: ‘Do you know how many animals I slept with to get it’.”
And with that Tina turned to serve a customer. Once again, first name usage tells us he’s a regular.