ALMOST exactly a decade since Blackrock Village Farmers’ Market was founded, a €2 million refurbishment has concreted the Sunday market’s place at the heart of Blackrock living.
It’s a story close to my heart; I started the market with my sister and business partner, Orla O’Byrne, shortly after we opened The Natural Foods Bakery in the village in 2006.
Although I left the business to pursue a career in journalism, Orla is still the driving force behind it, and is delighted with the boost the area’s facelift has brought to the thriving Sunday market.
“We started our bakery business at market stalls at The Coal Quay and Mahon Point, so when we moved our business to Pier Head in Blackrock and saw that big space overlooking the water, it seemed like a natural move to start one there,” Orla says.
The weekly market has become something of a ritual, both for residents of Blackrock and for Cork people who use the amenities the Marina area offers; cyclists and walkers from the Blackrock to Rochestown railway route rub shoulders with rowers from the Boat Club and currachers from Naomhoga Corcaí queuing for coffee or hot food.
But most importantly, the market has become a focal point for the community, a place where neighbours bump into each other while doing a spot of shopping.
Cork City Council’s recognition of this civic potential for the area has been realised in the investment in upgrading the village, Orla says. “The council has really seen the potential that’s there. We’re not in a car park any more, we’re in our own, beautiful market square. It’s such a boost to the village.
“It’s not a traditional casual trading area, but it’s the centre of a village so it makes a lot of sense as a location for a market,” Orla says. “That’s evident from the huge amount of support we’ve had from residents, local councillors, other businesses and gardaí; everyone who’s helped us to keep going.”
The €2 million renovation to the area has included a large pedestrianised plaza, the widening of Convent Road, a seating area and access steps, as well as dedicated pitches for 18 market stalls, complete with power points and — close to Orla’s heart — a socket for an annual 32ft Christmas tree for the area, that she had petitioned for to city council for many years.
“I swear they think I’m obsessed with Christmas, because I’ve been banging on about this for years!” she jokes. “I kept phoning them up. I’m really excited because it’s just going to bring so much atmosphere this year. We’ll organise carol singing and it’s going to be a fantastic seasonal addition to the area.”
Ten years in, the market is an institution in its own right, but it hasn’t all been a smooth ride; as always in Ireland, the weather can make or break outdoor events, and the economic downturn since the market started in 2007 may also have had an effect on a couple of lean years, where a core of eight traders kept going through thick and thin.
“We hit this at a high point in 2007, but there was also a little bit of overkill,” Orla says. “There were markets everywhere, every day of the week and it was all a bit saturated. Then they kind of tailed off, but we hung on, and I think really think that’s because of the community aspect to it.
“We did stumble on for a few years with eight stalls! But we kept it going every single Sunday, and I think that’s why it’s still there.”
Organising the market isn’t only a question of ensuring there’s a pitch for everyone; successful markets have a range of different types of stalls, so, Orla explains, her waiting list for stalls is arranged by category.
“I can’t replace a cake stall with a hot food stall,” she says. “Some stallholders don’t really understand that when they’re contacting me, they just see a space in the market. It’s a space for a jewellery stall, but they want to sell sausages.”
With 18 pitches now to fill, Orla put out a call on social media for local craft stalls, to broaden the market’s range of goods. The response was enormous.
“I thought it would take a couple of days, I’d see what they were selling and start deciding,” she says. “But I got 20 applications in the first day, and more the following day. It’s sad to disappoint people, but I now have a huge waiting list.”
New additions have included On The Verge, a local clothes designer, Blackrock Smoked, a chef who makes smoked pork belly on site, and From Seekings: “They’re a couple, and everything they sell comes from Seekings Cottage, their own chemical-free garden in East Cork,” Orla says. “They have cut flowers and potted plants, but also jams and produce.”
Dog-lovers will also be delighted by Premium Canine, who sell handmade dog treats, while those on a Sunday health buzz will be able to splash out on raw, vegan cuisine courtesy of My Goodness and Pure Raw Energy.
“We have so many exciting new additions, but it’s really important not to forget our backbone: the people who have been doing this with us for ten years,” Orla says, “Old die-hards like Jim’s veg stall, Mags Curtin of The Pastry Fork, and O Conaill’s Chocolate. They’ve stuck with us through thick and thin and become friends as much as anything. They’re wonderful people to work with.”
Orla and I opened The Natural Foods Bakery in 2003, in Paul Street, where our mother first began a wholefoods bakery in the 1980s above her health-food shop.
In the early days, we had no retail outlet, so the move to Blackrock, where we ran a bakery shop at the front of our production unit, was a steep learning curve. Orla’s partner of ten years, Roddy Henderson, joined the growing team, which now comprises three outlets and a dedicated bakery unit.
The Natural Foods Bakery currently employ 33 staff citywide.
An early comment we often received when we started the Blackrock Market was “You’re doing so well here selling coffee and cakes on a Sunday; why are you letting competitors set up stalls outside when you could be doing all the trade yourselves?”
“We’ve always felt that it’s a ‘the more the merrier’ mentality,” Orla says. “We’re strong and confident in what we do, and we know that our product is really good quality. We’re not intimidated by having someone else who sells cakes or coffee nearby because if you can create a little hub and a little buzz of excitement, it just draws more people. It’s more of a welcoming, friendly approach than a negative, ‘get off my turf’ kind of attitude.
“It’s very rewarding to be down here on a Sunday. We’re part of a broader movement that encourages people to think more about how and where they shop; it’s great to see people interacting with their growers and food producers, and to see what a vibrant part of Blackrock’s community the market has become.”
Blackrock Village Farmers’ Market opens at 10am on Sundays.