SEEKING NORMALITY Maria Gallagher from Westport Country Markets is hoping to be back selling her paintings in December.
The sight of the council staff putting up the Christmas lights in Westport usually adds a sense of giddy excitement at the prospect of the festive season being just around the corner. The town starts to get busy again after the November slump and the countdown to Christmas is on.
It is not just the retailers and the hospitality sector who have to make the most of this time of the year. The small producers of the country markets have, like Santa’s elves, also been busy putting the final touches to their Christmas fair.
However, under the current Level 5 restrictions only essential services can be sold and the prospect of a December of further restrictions does little to bring any festive cheer.
“I would really hope that on December 1, the restrictions will be lifted for the non-essential items like the arts and crafts to allow them to sell their goods in time for the Christmas season,” explained Maria Gallagher, the current Chairperson of Westport Country Markets.
“I would like to see a reduction of the restrictions to give people the flavour of Christmas and what it is like in the market. It will give people a little bit of joy and something to look forward to. Some sort of normality returning.”
The Westport Country Market has been allowed to operate in recent weeks but only for those selling food, as it is considered an essential item. For the likes of Maria who is an artist and sells paintings and prints at the weekly market, they will have to wait until the end of November to find out if the restrictions will be eased further to allow for arts and crafts to be sold again.
The last couple of months has been a baptism of fire for Maria who is in her first year as Chairperson. Not only has she had to handle all that Covid has thrown at them but she also had the added pressure of locating a new home for the market.
“That was pressure,” she quipped as she reflected on the last couple of months which eventually saw the Westport Country Market move from St Anne’s Boxing Club into the The Olde Railway Hotel along the Mall. The market is open on Thursday morning from 7.30am until 1pm with fresh locally produced fish, beef, lamb and chicken sold alongside the old reliables of bread and jams.
While Achill Tourism and the Westport Chamber of Commerce are both setting up virtual Christmas Markets as a way of getting around the restrictions, Maria said they never entertained going down the virtual road, joking that she couldn’t ‘imagine anyone selling a scone on the virtual road’.
Unsurprisingly the footfall in the last couple of weeks has been down but Maria stressed that there is always a steady flow of regular customers who come every week. However she notes the absence of visitors who would wander in for a look is noticeable and they are crucial to the success of the market at this time of year.
“Coming up to Christmas we would rely on the wanderer and the looker coming in whether they are buying or not, just for the atmosphere. Then they might see something that they like and might buy something which is a bonus.”
It is that atmosphere which Maria says is missing so far and she worries that unless the restrictions are eased the atmosphere in the run up to Christmas will not be the same.
“It is usually very jovial … people would come into town and meet people around the town for the chat and get the homemade pudding and cakes. We do very well at Christmas, especially the cakes and puddings, along with the dried flowers and the Christmas wreaths, they sell well.’
Those who partake in the market point to the fact that it is a real social outlet for them and they love being able to catch-up over a cup of tea and cake.
“A lot of our suppliers are elderly and they love the social aspect and meeting people to pass the time of day. When we were in the boxing club, we’d be able to sit down and have a cup of tea and a scone and chat the morning away. We can’t do that now because we are not allowed to [due to the restrictions], as it’s is now takeaway only. People who come in from the town are always asking when are we going to start serving the tea again.
“People love it, that they are able to come in and buy the food. The suppliers are very happy to be able to sell. Even if it isn’t all about the money it is about being part of something and coming out and meeting the public. They love it.”