History & Gallery

The English Market: Historical Overview

Donal Ó Drisceoil

When my co-author and I set about writing a book about the English Market, a prime objective was to find an answer to the first question everyone asks: ‘So, why is it called the English Market?’. There were a number of ‘theories’ in circulation - only English was spoken there, while the other main city market was Irish-speaking; it was created in the style of English covered markets; only Cork’s ‘English’ inhabitants were allowed trade or shop there - none of which rang true. As our research proceeded, an answer began to take shape.

To cut a long story short, the Market was created in 1788 by the Protestant or ‘English’ corporation that controlled the city until 1841. When local government was reformed in 1840 and the representatives of the city’s Catholic, ‘Irish’ majority took over, they established another covered food market, St Peter’s (now the Bodega@St Peter’s Market) which became known as the ‘Irish Market’ to distinguish it from its older counterpart, which remained associated with its English creators. The name ‘English Market’, then, dates from this era of transition.

What this illustrates is the extent to which the history of the Market is interwoven with that of the city, and how its story is in many ways the story of Cork also, reflecting the political, socio-economic, cultural and dietary history of the city across 218 years. While the Market has encouraged, facilitated and reflected changing tastes, it is also a bastion of Cork’s enduring food traditions. So, while the ‘foodie’ new middle class can source olives, foccacia breads and organic meats, the old working class continues to buy tripe and drisheen, salted ling, crubeens and cheap cuts under the same roof.

The original Grand Parade meat market opened in August 1788. Over the following year fish, fowl, fruit and vegetable stalls were added, and the Market that we still know today was born. The modern city of Cork was taking shape at this time; the familiar streetscape of today was being created, and the new flagship municipal market was located at the heart of the new commercial city centre. In 1789 the city’s central fish market was relocated to a new site adjoining the Grand Parade meat market, between Mutton Lane and Meat Market Lane, and a ‘Fowl Market’, for the sale of poultry, and ‘Green’ or ‘Root Market’ for vegetables, were developed and extended in appended areas towards Princes Street. This was not roofed over, though peripheral shelter was provided by linney-type roofing around the edges of the market space. Here women sold vegetables and poultry from a chaos of standings, sittings and stalls, for which they paid much lower rent than the victuallers and mongers in the more formalised stalls of the adjoining covered meat and fish markets. It continued in this form until 1862, when the new, covered Princes Street Market was opened.

The Market was run for the Corporation by a superintendent or inspector. Under him were two beadles, or constables, who policed the Market in their tall hats and frock coats, and a range of other functionaries such as sweepers, scalesmen, and others, all kitted out in distinctive uniforms. They mingled with stallholders, messenger or ‘cleve’ boys, loungers, urchins and thousands of daily customers in a colourful, noisy daily soap opera. The Market was a vital source of revenue for the city, accounting for one-third of the corporation’s entire income in the 1830s. It was very much an upmarket market, serving mainly the city’s wealthy, Protestant and Catholic. During the Great Famine of the late 1840s, the Market remained open, the starving kept at bay by a special constabulary unit established by the Mayor and the Market’s own beadles.

The Market came into its own in Christmas week, when its annual exhibition of plenty was reported in the local press with classic Victorian hyperbole. Thousands visited: the wealthy purchased and the poor gawped at ‘the rich display’ on offer, as the Market became ‘a grand exhibition’ of, for the majority, unattainable abundance. Stalls ‘groaned under the supplies heaped upon them and hung from every available hook . . . the eye met nothing but successive tiers of rich hind and fore quarters of beef and delicious looking mutton, flanked by hams and bacon that might tempt a Rabbi; together with very fine fowls of all kinds.’ While vegetables were always plentiful, it was meat that dominated: ‘the sight on Saturday’, reported the Cork Constitution in 1866, ‘was one to delight the beef-eater or make the cold-blooded vegetarian rush in dismay from the market.’

The extent to which the Market was for the better-off is indicated by the fact that a pair of turkeys there at Christmas 1874 would have cost a skilled artisan the bulk of a week’s wages; a couple of geese would have left a labourer with no change from his weekly pay packet. One cod in 1863 was almost a half week’s wages for an unskilled worker, and a turbot in 1874 would have required him to go into debt. Clearly, then, the average citizen of Cork would not have been buying such items in the English Market, forced instead to rely on cheaper cuts and the wide variety of offal being sold in some of the less ‘media-friendly’ stalls, but more so in St Peter’s and the other working-class markets, in the smaller, low cost butchers’ and provision shops, and on the streets. More generally, the diet of the poor was based on cheaper alternatives like oatmeal and bread.

In 1881, the new facade on the Grand Parade, incorporating four shops and officially called ‘Grand Parade Market Buildings’, was opened, matching the highly-acclaimed frontage on the Princes Street side, opened two decades previously. Exterior improvements were matched by ongoing work inside, such as the building of small offices, the provision of new table-tops and flooring, and, eventually, the installation of electricity and piped water.

The ‘outside world’ continually impinged: for example, during the First World War one of the Market’s beadles, Denis O’Brien, joined the British army and was killed on the Western Front in 1918. The Market miraculously survived the burning of the city by British forces in December 1920, escaping with minor damage to the roof and some stalls. Following independence in 1922, the Market became a casualty of post-war/post-independence restructuring, as well as the prolonged economic depression of the city. The emasculation of the once-proud and powerful corporation and its effective replacement by a city manager impacted on one of its prime creations and symbols. The abolition of the beadles, together with the other trappings that made the Market more than just a commercial space, marked the end of an era.

It became an increasingly working-class market, and its fare reflected its altering customer base. The old divisions between the meat (Grand Parade), vegetables and fruit (Princes Street), and fish and tripe and drisheen sections gradually broke down. A cluster of fruit and vegetable stalls emerged close to the Grand Parade entrance, in the area now occupied by Superfruit. In 1954, the corporation rejected a petition from stallholders to rename it Our Lady’s Market; it survived a plan to redevelop it as an office block in 1973 and again in 1988. Following its near destruction by fire in 1980, the Market was rebuilt and slowly re-gentrified with the arrival of a new generation of stallholders, mainly from outside Cork. Olives, French cheeses, fresh pasta, exotic herbs and spices, and so on, joined the skirts and kidneys, bodice, tripe and drisheen, pork chops, chickens and buttered eggs in the re-born bustling space. The mackerel, cod and plaice, in the meantime, were joined by marlin, octopus, anchovy and other exotica demanded by the expanding customer base. The recent arrival of thousands of immigrants to the city has added additional spice to this melting pot of Cork life.

Donal Ó Drisceoil lectures in the Department of History, UCC. He is the co-author, with Diarmuid Ó Drisceoil, of Serving a City: The Story of Cork’s English Market (The Collins Press, Cork, 2005).