Ireland's Christmas markets (and fairs) are, truth be told, a mixed bag. From local efforts that often end up as a tacky fairground with some added tinsel to small events in great houses that attract the curious and will test your financial wellness. And from short commercial offerings that bring new customers to established shops, to those inner city markets that try to imitate the "Continental" (more often than not German) original.
Let us have a run-down of some popular Christmas markets in alphabetical order. And rate them as well. But how?
My list for a "proper" Christmas market includes a number of core ingredients, though one cannot be rated:
- A good Christmas market needs a good mixture of stalls that actually offer goods you'll want to buy, with an emphasis on seasonal offerings;
- It'll also have a variety of food stalls that satisfy your cravings, but also with a seasonal twist;
- It should have room to move, and the opportunity to have a good look without being pushed and prodded;
- A Christmas market should have a background that has a certain flavor, the more "olde worlde", the better;
- And, finally, there is the right weather, nothing makes a Christmas market more successful than some snow and a dry cold; but as rating the Irish weather would be unfair, we'll pass on that one.
Belfast Christmas Market
The Belfast Christmas market takes place in front of City Hall, right in the middle of Belfast. And here are the basics you need to know:
- Mixture of Stalls: Very good and with a certain festive flair. The focus is on variety (though this may be a contradiction in itself) with locally hand-made decorations, Eastern European craft imports, baubles, trinkets, and lots more. Stocking fillers, practical or decorative items, even flowers.
- Food Stalls: Now we're talking. Belfast bills the Christmas market as "Continental", and it certainly brings together food and drink from all over Europe. Germans selling Bratwurst (of several varieties), Italians selling cakes and sweets, the French and Dutch presenting cheeses. And that's just a small selection. Which does not even include the tempting Jamaican specialities on offer as well. Or the sizeable beer tent.
- Comfort? Surprisingly good - though the market area is enclosed (by the railings around City Hall and City Hall itself). There are areas where you can munch on your food in peace (though not necessarily quiet).
- Background and Scenery: Maybe the best in Ireland. The stunning background of the festively decorated and (in the evening) lit City Hall certainly adds to the overall impression.
Dublin Christmas Market
The Dublin Christmas market moved to the north-western corner of St. Stephen's Green in 2014, very central for Dublin and conveniently near the inner-city shopping areas (unfortunately, in 2015 the Dublin Christmas market fell foul of the LUAS extension works and had to be cancelled - let us hope for a revival in 2016).
Here are the basics you need to know:
- Mixture of Stalls: Slightly uneven - vintage jewellery rubs uneasy shoulders with mass-produced (and occasionally overpriced) stuff, crafts and artisan offerings are few and far between.
- Food Stalls: Mostly of the Bratwurst and burger variety, with some selling sweets and nuts as well, but few real show-stoppers for sale. As to drinks, you get your mulled wine and other staples, so the basics check out.
- Comfort? Er ... not really, it can get very cramped and especially the food and drink areas need massive improvement. The location on a thin stretch of pavement does not really work.
- Background and Scenery: Well, there are some nice buildings around St. Stephen's Green, but they really do not make an impression on the Christmas market. So you are walking between stalls, park railings and industrial utility fencing, not very atmospheric.
Galway Christmas Market
The Galway Christmas market happens in Eyre Square, otherwise a quite uninspiring area bang in the middle of Galway. Andreas Riemenschneider shares his impressions:
- "Lots of people, lots of stalls, a beer tent, But seriously, the market is certainly a local attraction and people like it. Especially the many stalls selling food and drink, albeit at the usual "Christmas prices" one gets used to at such markets. Doesn't seem to dampen any spirits, as the Galway Christmas market is certainly well frequented."
- "To me it seemed to be a bit of an effort to combine both Oktoberfest and Christmas market into one, as the big German beer tent tends to dominate part of it. Anyway, it is a good effort."
Lidl's (Travelling) Christmas Market
German supermarket chain Lidl set up a traveling Christmas market, in 2014 this visited Belfast, Dublin, Galway, and Limerick, spending a few days in a central location in each city. It is a bit different,but it works:
- Mixture of Stalls: It is a Lidl monoculture, and a "Santa's Grotto" plus a vintage carousel do not change this much. And nearly all stalls are focusing on food and drink. Having sai d that ...
- Food Stalls: Once you get to grips that you'll only get food sold by Lidl here, you'll be (more than likely) pleasantly surprised. As you'll be stuffing yourself with free samples (and be encouraged to "Go on, have another one!", except for the mulled wine). Of course, you can also buy the goodies, and they are sold at the exact price as at the supermarket. It must be the cheapest Christmas market to stock up.
- Comfort? Lots of room, seriously.
- Background and Scenery: Not really the strong point, in Dublin it was the Docklands area (with old harbour offices and new office blocks), in Belfast St. Ann's Square. Could be worse.
Sheridans Cheesemongers Christmas Food Fair
The Christmas Food Fare at Sheridans Cheesemongers (just off the N3 between Kells (County Meath) and Virginia (County Cavan) is an event worth travelling to ... but bring some money to spend on delicacies from all corners of the earth! Because here's what you'll find:
- Mixture of Stalls: Good - the usual stalls in the main building (cheese, wine, cakes, meat and delicacies) are supplemented by stalls highlighting mainly local produce, from cider to more cakes, from speciality oils to goat cheese, from handicrafts to flower arrangements.
- Food Stalls: Excellent - though a lot are quite pricey (we are talking artisan and speciality foods plus imports here). Get a cake from Bakealicious (highly recommended), or grab a sausage and bacon sandwich ... whatever tickles your fancy. And browse the excellent wine selection.
- Comfort? Well, not really ... the few seats are rapidly taken (and often hogged), so you'll more than likely have to make do with standing room. Which (thankfully) seems to be always available without being bowled over by other shoppers.
- Background and Scenery: For me, great. Because Sheridans are actually based in a Victorian railway shed. Might not work its magic for everyone.
Dublin's "I Believe" - the One to Forget
Let us make this short and not very sweet. Touted as "Dublin's Iconic Christmas Tree & Village" on the I Believe website, this pitiful excuse for a traditional Christmas market surely ranks amongst my most disappointing Dublin moments since the Christmas market once held in the Dublin Docklands, behind the IFSC.
Located in the "Custom House Quarter" (which you'll not find on a Dublin map, but the market is in the Dublin Docklands, behind the IFSC), the market is made up of a traditional carousel, several overpriced food and drink stalls, and an assortment of white plastic tents about as festive as a proctologist's glove. The whole thing seems to be geared towards providing entertainment for the multinational office population of the area, when the offices close.
The logo proudly proclaims "Est. 2015." Apart from the question why marketing needs to include such a ludicrous claim to "heritage," I would not wonder if this crass parody sank without a trace in the same year.