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The English Market
How to make the most of Cork’s famous tourist attraction
When Queen Elizabeth visited Cork’s English Market in 2011, one image of the visit ricocheted around the world.
Elizabeth was pictured guffawing as the Market’s legendary fishmonger, Pat O’Connell, held up a monstrous monkfish in front of her, and cracked a joke. (The joke? “It’s a monkfish, ma’am. The ugliest fish in the sea. It’s known as the Mother-in-Law fish”.)
The photo was taken by Kerry photographer Valerie O’Sullivan, who gave up the rights to an image that bequeathed a million visits. And that is why any visit to the English Market means that you will be shopping alongside people who have come to the Market from all over the globe, following in the late Queen’s footsteps.
The market, which became The English Market in 1788, to differentiate it from its medieval predecessor, is proud of its links to Royalty, with the traders often referring to conversations with the Queen and Prince Philip, and the present Monarch. The Royal link, and the market nomenclature, sits easy with this municipal trading centre in the Food Capital of Ireland.
We recently enjoyed a guided tour of the English Market with Ireland’s leading food historian, Regina Sexton. Regina is the authority on the English market, and her passion for the place is infectious, so much so that an enlightened Government should pay her a private equity-scale salary to guide every visitor around the market aisles.
Listening to Regina talk, you can sense the smells, the actions and the daily comings and goings of a market that was not just at the centre of Cork’s place in the world, but which has served as a vital centre of global commerce, sending food out from the city that is blessed with the largest natural harbour in the world. Cork’s agricultural bounty was a huge resource for the British Empire, making Cork the centre for transatlantic trade.
At the same time, the Market itself was situated in a marshy bog between two meanders of the River Lee, and the place was steeped in the smell of boiled tripe, “the smell of poverty” as it was known.
Whilst it may be a tourist mecca, the market is first and foremost a working market, where Corkonians of all nationalities do their weekly shop. Recent incomers to the city, such as the Filipino community, will shop here every day according to market anecdotes, whilst the Irish stock up on the weekend, and the visitors troop through all year. On Saturdays, the place is only jammers.
Queer Gear: Tripe & Drisheen
Using animal blood as a foodstuff is an ancient practice in Ireland, and drisheen is Cork’s contribution to the tradition. Made from a mix of beef blood and sheep blood, drisheen is probably best described as an acquired taste. Many people fail to ever acquire the taste.
Tripe is drisheen’s natural partner, which is why they are sold together in the Market. There are four types of tripe - blanket; honeycomb; book; and the black. Tripe’s white colour arises because it is washed, bleached and boiled before being offered for sale.
The Market welcomes newcomers whenever a stall is vacant, which is why there are fascinating arrivals such as The Pie Guys, who make pies; Terra Ignis, a stall that specialises in fermented foods; and Maki Sushi Rolls, which specialises in maki sushi rolls. The most significant newcomer to the market arrived in 1993, when Toby Simmonds’ Real Olive Company signalled a new dynamic for the Market. The Real Olive has expanded and expanded multiple times, and is today one of the major players in the Market’s success. New generations reinvent the stalls, so make sure not to miss Margo Murphy’s The Roughty Foodie, which won an award for Best Reinvented Stall in 2018, and which is a veritable treasure trove of edible delights collated by Margo, the third generation of her family to pilot the stall. As we go to press, dynamic retailer and grower Cork Rooftop Farm has just opened in the old Tim O’Sullivan butcher’s stand.
On the morning of June 19th, 1980, a gas explosion caused a fire to engulf the Princes Street section of the market, destroying 11 stalls. In a stroke of good fortune the fountain, one of the enduring symbols of the market, survived. The restoration of the Princes Street section was completed in 1981 and the restoration won a Europa Nostra gold medal for its contribution to preserving Europe’s architectural heritage. A further fire broke out on January 6th, 1986 in the same section, but damage this time was relatively minimal.
I’d Ate It Like Chocolate
One of the most fascinating portraits of the Market is a paper written by Regina Sexton, entitled “I’d ate it like chocolate!”: The Disappearing Offal Food Traditions of Cork City”, for which Regina won a Sophie Coe Prize for food history writing. The paper’s interview with two market stalwarts, Mrs Harrington and Mrs Murphy, is a hoot.
Butter and Spiced Beef
Spiced beef has been associated with Cork since the 18th century, when salted beef began to be treated with spices and seasonings that were newly arriving in the city with the transatlantic food trade, in particular allspice, which came from the Americas. The Cork Cure for spiced beef came to be known all over the world. Recently, Tom Durcan’s stall has enjoyed great success by packaging and selling the spiced beef in convenient portions all year round.
An 1883 advertisement for William Dunlea’s butcher’s stall advised customers that “Neats’ Tongues” were “always to be had.” A neats’ tongue is a dried and smoked ox tongue, and Falstaff uses it to great, abusive effect: 'Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish!"
The English Market is one of the last places in Ireland where you can call in and simply buy Mutton. It’s usually available in The Meat Market (see Helen O’Callaghan below), and in Coughlan’s, established 1906, where five generations of the family have manned the stall. “There was always at least one son amongst the market offspring” explains Alan Coughlan Snr, “but now this new generation are too well educated”. If you request it in advance, Coughlan’s will make up a batch of salted mutton. In the past, salted mutton was made on a Saturday night, when the unsold pieces of mutton were dunked in brine and sold the following week. Now it’s only made to order.
The Butcher Lady
Helen O’Callaghan is the only female butcher in the Market. When she started working there were 27 butchers stalls: today there are only 4. Whole carcasses used to be brought straight into the market and hung from butcher’s hooks, and The Meat Centre, originally established in 1980 by a first generation butcher, Ken Barrett, is a traditional butcher, where everything is butchered from the bone.
“Serving A City: The Story of Cork’s English Market,” is a charming and authoritative book by two much-respected Cork historians, Diarmuid and Donal O Drisceoil, and was published by The Collins Press in 2005.
In advance of the Marian Year of 1954, a stallholder’s committee wrote to the Corporation “suggesting that a picture or statue of the Blessed Virgin be placed in a prominent position either inside or outside the Grand Parade Market and that the name of the market be changed to ‘Our Lady’s Market.’” The application was rejected.
The Corporation employed two Beadles to patrol the market to maintain good order. The Beadles were supplied with “Chesterfield overcoats lined with fine woollen plaid”, which cost £2. 5s 0d each, the equivalent of three week’s wages. The coats had to be returned in the event of dismissal.
In 1973 the Corporation considered a number of plans to develop the market site into a car park and ‘ultra-modern office block’. Intensive lobbying by the traders led to the plans being dropped.
Cork became the Ox slaying city of the empire and as a consequence a large number of ancillary industries popped up, including button makers utilising the bones, candle makers, and barrel makers.
Buttering eggs is the traditional practice of rolling still-warm eggs in butter, between the palms of the hand. This kept the eggs fresh for up to six months. Buttered eggs used to be available at Moynihan’s stall, but are no longer offered for sale.
Closing the Loop
Stallholders My Goodness Food have been the force behind the Cork Urban Soil Project, taking the compostable scraps from their market waste for processing in a biodigester in what’s known as a CUSP management system that converts urban food scraps into compost for the community. My Goodness Food themselves are a treasured outlet in the market, as this recent email from Fionnuala Harkin, Wines Direct explains (Photo also courtesy of Fionnuala).
“Just sitting on the fountain in the English Market, eating what I consider to be probably the tastiest bite in the city! I know you're well aware of it, but the Kimchi Mac and Cheese from My Goodness with the crack cocaine on a stick that is the mushroom drumstick (I've never actually had crack cocaine, just for transparency) is a pure flavour bomb. While the hibiscus kefir goes perfectly well with it I can't help thinking that a Romanian Pet-Nat would make the experience heavenly!”
The Fish Aisle
The Fish Aisle collects around the Oliver Plunkett Street entrance to the market. There used to be 9 fishmongers trading here, today there are three. It’s here you find the famous Kay O’Connell stall, which has been serving the people of Cork, plus its royal visitors, for over sixty years. Kay’s two sons, Pat and Paul, now run the stall, with a new generation of fishmongers coming up fast behind them. Across the aisle, Ballycotton Seafood is based in the fishing port of Ballycotton, and the Walsh Family sell direct from boat to mart. Frank Hederman is a noted artisan fish smoker who, in 2022, was awarded the Walter Scheel Medaille, a prestigious award that recognises a singular cultural contribution in food, the first time the prize was awarded in Ireland.