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Aoife Barry What could Dublin learn from Cork's English Market?

Amid talk about Dublin’s market redevelopment, Barry looks at the success of Cork’s English Market.


IF I WAS the vindictive sort, I might respond to Dublin City Council Chief Executive Richard Shakespeare’s comment that Dublin’s reopened Victorian fruit and vegetable market would be far better than Cork’s English Market by saying: well, at least Cork city centre has a long-running covered market.

I might point out that there’s a second covered market in the capital city lying derelict, and so why try to one-up Cork at all? I mean, wouldn’t you be a bit mortified knowing that there are two potential covered markets in Dublin with only pigeons making their home there?

But I won’t, mainly because I think Shakespeare was trying to be positive, and to show us that the English Market is something to not just aim for, but shoot beyond. So to help him and Dublin City Council (DCC) make the most of this opportunity, here’s a Dublin-dwelling Corkonian’s take on what the English Market can teach the capital.

Learn from its history

The English Market opened because it was needed. Markets were, of course, the main way to buy and sell produce in the late 18th century. But a bit of forward thinking (inspired by Britain’s approach) showed that a covered market serving the city would make sense, and gradually what we know as the English Market today started to take shape.

dublins-wholesale-fruit-and-vegetable-market-in-marys-lane-built-in-the-1890s-and-currently-closed-for-renovation Dublin's Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market in Marys Lane, built in the 1890s and currently closed for renovation. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Dublin does need a new covered food market, not least because it’s a crying shame to leave the Victorian fruit and veg market, and the Iveagh Markets, lie empty. However, for a good market to stand the test of time, it has to be supported.

Since its opening in 1788, the English Market has weathered many difficult situations — and by ‘difficult’, I mean literal wars, the Famine, recessions, and fires. It’s seen a lot of history take place around it. But we can’t forget that the market wasn’t always held in such high esteem.

In the 1980s, it survived being knocked and replaced by a multi-storey car park and shopping complex — a familiar scenario for anyone who’s been keeping an eye on plans for Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre.

Then came the nineties and a renewed interest in Irish produce and places to buy it. Today, with cities awash with brand names and retail giants, it’s unthinkable that a treasure like the English Market would ever have been at risk.

Dublin can learn from this near-miss. But it can also learn that it’s important not to have short-term thinking — to realise that investing in a market is a long-term game.

Quality first

Another lesson is that it’s not enough to open a covered food market — you need to have quality control inside.

The English Market businesses are often family owned. Inside, you can find traders selling meat, chicken, fish, vegan produce, vegetables, spices, organic produce, cheese, cakes, bread, sushi, juices and more, all from local and international suppliers. And if you’re an old-school sort, you can even buy Cork’s famous tripe or drisheen for dinner too.

cork-ireland-23rd-dec-2022-cork-city-centre-is-full-of-people-today-who-are-doing-their-last-minute-christmas-shopping-the-english-market-was-very-busy-credit-ag-newsalamy-live-news Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

What adds to its appeal are places like the Sandwich Stall. Tucked behind the Real Olive Company stall (which sells incredible halloumi and hummus) it opened due to customer demand and serves up hearty, well-priced lunches.

Meanwhile, the Farmgate Café upstairs in the market is a stalwart part of the Cork café scene, and downstairs there are coffee stalls where you’ll find people nattering. The heartbreaking poem MND by Mary Noonan sums up the personal connection to the stalls at the English market. It’s more than just a place to buy things. It’s part of the community.

Think tourism — and beyond

Anyone who remembers the markets at Dublin’s Newmarket Square (before they were evicted in 2017 to make way for new plans which still haven’t fully come to fruition) will remember the lovely atmosphere there at weekends. You’d head there knowing you’d bump into pals, and leave with a bag of Irish-grown veg or vintage bric-a-brac, feeling good knowing where your money went.

A market isn’t just a fun place for tourists to tick off their ‘must-see’ list. It’s a place for locals and tourists alike to find delicious produce, meet friends for coffee, buy lunch or provisions for dinner, and soak up some atmosphere.

queen-elizabeth-ii-visits-the-english-market-in-cork-on-may-20-2011-the-duke-and-queens-visit-to-ireland-is-the-first-by-a-monarch-since-1911 Britain's late Queen Elizabeth II visits the English Market in Cork on May 20, 2011. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The Victorian market could be a place to attract city visitors, but it could also be a place to give small business owners a chance. Cork Rooftop Farm is one of the newest additions to the English Market, and there’s even one unit in the market reserved for start-ups. These two things show how the English Market is always open to evolving, good news for locals and tourists alike.

Take pride in what you have

Corkonians are fiercely proud of the English Market. We know it’s special.

Businesses can become more than just places to spend money when they’re given the chance to build a solid relationship with their customers. And shoppers will put their money towards local businesses when it’s easy to access them and their prices are affordable because of fair rents and rates.

A bit of pride helps everyone imagine a better future, and helps businesses and customers invest in each other. Fear that closure is around the corner helps no one. When the Victorian fruit and vegetable market is reopened, there has to be pride from DCC in it and its longterm prospects.

The Victorian market won’t open its doors until at least 2026 in Dublin, so we can hope DCC is soaking up all it can about how to make it a long-lasting and special place.

I’m crossing my fingers that it will only take two years for it to open — and if it takes a few leaves out of the English Market’s book, it could be here for centuries to come.

Aoife Barry is a writer and journalist.

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