IN the final article in this series on traders of The English Market, I talk to Donagh O’Reilly - the only person still making Cork traditional drisheen in Ireland today - and our very own fishmonger to the Queen and Chair of The English Market Stallholders Association, Pat O’Connell, about the importance of evolving while preserving what makes Cork’s famous market so unique.
Donagh O’Reilly – O’Reilly’s
“It’s a very simple business, there’s not much to it!”
So says Donagh O’Reilly, the third generation of O’Reilly’s at The English Market, a leading supplier of tripe, and the only producer of drisheen left in Ireland.
The business may be simple, but it carries on its shoulder the oldest and most idiosyncratic cultural food legacies in the city.
Donagh spends a couple of days a week in the factory making tripe and drisheen, sausages, and black and white puddings; the rest of the time is spent on the road delivering orders from the wholesale side of the business. At The English Market, the stall is in the capable hands of three women who keep things ship-shape.
Over the past two years, while wholesale business increased, market trade decreased significantly.
“We go all over the country, wholesaling tripe, and then Limerick, Waterford and Cork with drisheen,” says Donagh.
“Wholesale was kept busy because the butchers were busy. People had a bit more time on their hands to cook a lot more at home.
“Out of the blue, I got a new customer in Belfast. There’s a butcher up there who was buying a lot of tripe and bringing it in from Scotland. Brexit put a stop to that, so he got on to me and now I’m up there every couple of months. It was an unexpected bonus – sure, we’ll take them all!
“Business in The English Market for us was much quieter. I’d say I was down by half. Some of my regular, older customers are only coming back in to the market the last few months. They wouldn’t come out at all, at all; they were frightened by Covid. Sometimes, they’d try sending in their younger relatives but they were busy themselves; so drisheen sales were down, and to an extent tripe was, too.
“Whereas older Irish people would be my main customer for drisheen, a lot of my tripe customers are originally from eastern Europe and China; business in tripe wasn’t too bad because of that.”
O’Reilly’s is a small operation and unable to offer home delivery, but other traders were able to help.
“A few butchers in The English Market did start doing deliveries, and in fairness they were doubling up; their customers were asking if they could get some tripe and drisheen from me and could it be put with their meat order and brought to them.
“We were all looking out for each other. I have a couple of ladies who run the stall for me, they’re friendly with the other staff and traders in the market who’d come down to us looking for tripe and drisheen, pay us, take it away and deliver it to the customer.”
Being able to keep open was important to Donagh. The O’Reilly family have been trading from The English Market since 1900, but during lockdowns, when the market for many was the only social outlet, there was new interest in drisheen from a younger generation.
“People who would have been busy with their own work before were getting more adventurous with food and coming into the market; people who hadn’t had it for years and didn’t even know it was still being sold – that it was still here. If they were passing by my stall, they’d stop and say they hadn’t tried drisheen since they were a kid, they’d see it, buy a piece, take it home, cook it and say how fabulous it is - they’d forgotten about it.”
Donagh says that tripe has fallen out of fashion because people no longer have the time to cook it at home. A few years ago, Donagh would have dropped tripe altogether from the stall at Christmas time: “People didn’t have the time to cook it or have the space in their fridge to keep it,” he says.
But, in recent times, tripe has found a new audience in people from other cultures who view it as a feast food, rather than a penance food.
“At Christmas time, our wholesale business to butchers in cities goes up, especially Dublin and Cork, because of all the different nationalities who eat tripe at festive periods. They make stews out of it with pork, and all different kinds of things.
“It’s only for different cultures coming into the country I’d be gone from the business long ago. A lot of the eastern European families would have tripe at least once a week in their own home, whereas for the Irish people, sadly it is a dying trade.”
I asked Donagh if he feels a heavy responsibility to keep making drisheen?
“There’s not much to drisheen, really – it’s just blood and salt mixed together in a casing. Making drisheen is more of an art than a recipe! I make it myself – I’m the only fella in the world making drisheen I’d say! I do feel a responsibility to keep making it because I like to keep the family tradition going. We’d be renowned in Cork for it for so long; so yes, it is important for me to keep it going as long as I can.”
Pat O’Connell – K O’Connell Fishmonger
“Our standards are high, but that’s the way we like it. As my mother used to say: you’re only as good as the last fish you sold, so don’t ever get too cocky, son!”
Pat and Paul O’Connell’s mother, Kay O’Connell, founder of O’Connell Fishmonger, is never far from their mind when it comes to fish. Pat runs the business with his brother Paul, and is Chair of The English Market Traders Association.
I asked Pat how trading through Covid times has been for K O’Connell Fishmonger.
“It’s been exceptionally good really. There’s been a much heightened awareness of shopping local and local produce because of it, and there’s no place does that better than the market.
“Back at the first lockdown, my daughter, who’s in the business with me and my brother Paul, said we should do home delivery. I said it had been 40 years since we did home deliveries, and she said it’s 100 years since we had an epidemic!
“It took off and we did extremely well from it. It gave a great sense of community. We have third generation customers coming to us at this stage so it was nice to be able to return the favour and say we’d be delighted to deliver.”
There was a new cohort of customers too; those who suddenly had time to visit the market.
“So many people realised what they were missing - to pick out their fresh fish in the market and still have the banter. It was the second lockdown when people started to get fed up of it all and they were coming because they felt they were getting a bit of normality.
“Customers were cooking up family meals, which was lovely to see, people sitting around the table together again to have a meal cooked at home. It was good for mental health because there was something to do, there was a bit of fun in it and a bit of a challenge.
“It was amazing how many came in for really good quality fish, planning to cook up a storm for a Saturday night!”
The team are always on hand to offer expert advice on getting the most out of fish, too.
“That’s the beauty of the market, you have second and third generation stallholders as well as customers; it’s a place where you can talk, ask questions, you’re encouraged to ask questions, you don’t have to be shy. The market has history and tradition, passion and variety; things that are important to people who love their food.
“There’s a much bigger variety of fish available now - we have up to 50 different types of fish. Customers will ask what’s fresh rather than just asking for two fillets of whiting. We know most of our customers and we like to get to know their tastes. That relationship between customer and stallholder is so important.”
Pat and Paul’s children are also involved in the business: Pat’s daughter works the stall at The English Market; one of Paul’s sons works at their smokehouse in Bandon, the other at the Dunnes in Bishopstown.
“They have responsibilities and it’s a matter of them growing up in the business, learning and having their specialities. They come with their own ideas and I try and give them as much leeway as I can. Sometimes I do have to put the foot down, but I’ll hear them out!”
Pat says that there is more interest than ever in choosing fish over turkey at Christmas.
“We do a good bit of variety and people have an incredible choice, so instead of someone having turkey for the sake of it, now they’ll opt for turbot, black sole, organic salmon or prawns. You don’t have to be the odd one out anymore just because you don’t like turkey!”
As Chair of the Stallholders Association, what’s good for The English Market is good for Pat’s business. To stay at the top of your game, says Pat, you cannot stand still.
“In the last 60 years, we’ve never stood still, we’re always looking to improve, and it’s constantly evolving, but that goes for the whole market. If it doesn’t evolve, it’ll just fade away.
“I’ve had the pleasure of being chairman for the last 12 years, and all the traders have worked really hard on lots of improvements over time; but we have to keep that up. We can’t rest on our laurels, there’s plenty of work that still needs to be done.
“We got a huge boost from the Queen’s visit, it put the icing on all our hard work and gave us the recognition that we have something really special here; something that a lot of countries have lost: France and England have lost a lot of their markets, but rather than going downhill The English Market has been improving, and that is something we can be really proud of.”
“San Francisco and Cork city are twinned, and a couple of years ago I visited Ferry Port Market with Cork City Council. I was talking to a guy, saying they have a very nice market. He said it’s not as nice as The English Market. I asked him why?
“He said, the variety of stalls, the personalities, the friendliness and the chat for people whether they’re buying or only looking. But then it’s the fabric of the building – that one brick in The English Market has more history than the whole of the Ferry Port Market put together.
“That’s the kind of recognition our English Market has abroad; and I think it’s really important that we keep the things that we are good at: tradition, local produce, family business – all of that is just squashed into one little building. It’s something quite remarkable.”
Catch up on the entire series here