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 Michael Bresnan of Bresnans Butchers at the English Market which celebrates its 230th brithday. Picture Dan Linehan
Michael Bresnan of Bresnans Butchers at the English Market which celebrates its 230th brithday. Picture Dan Linehan

English Market marks 230th anniversary

FOOD tastes and shopping times may change but as the English Market celebrates its 230th anniversary, one of its stalwarts says the heart and soul of the market comes from the people who shop there.

“The best thing about the market is the Cork people themselves,” Michael Bresnan of Bresnan’s Butchers said.

“They give the market its character and keep it going.”

Michael is better qualified than most to comment on the market, having spent more than six decades working there.

The English Market is paying tribute to traders past and present as it celebrates its 230th anniversary today.

The foundation for the Market was formally laid in September 1786 and almost two years later the grand opening took place on August 1, 1788.

The English Market which celebrates its 230th brithday. Picture Dan Linehan
The English Market which celebrates its 230th brithday. Picture Dan Linehan
Banners hung the length of the market celebrate traders past and present, and Michael pointed out some photographs that date back to his early years working in the family stall. His family’s connection to the market goes back even further, to the late nineteenth century.

“We are the longest established business here,” Mr Bresnan said.

“According to the corporation, my grandmother and grandfather started it in 1898. They both worked here.

“I am working here since the late 1950s and full time since about 1959/1960. I came straight from school.”

As the eldest of 10 siblings, there was no real debate about him becoming the third generation of Bresnan’s to work in the family business.

“I was happy to join the business, as a child I was working away anyway in the background,” he said.

“It never crossed my mind not to. My father always worked here and then I had an aunt that worked here too. My mother had a family to rear so she was mostly at home with us.

“I was the eldest and being the eldest in a large family that time meant you always had chores to do, be it at home or in the business. You were expected to do things.”

The business has now reached a fourth generation and spread beyond the initial stall.

One nephew of Michael’s has his own stall now, O’Malley’s, while another nephew operates Bresnan’s Butchers in Douglas.

The English Market which celebrates its 230th brithday. Picture Dan Linehan
The English Market which celebrates its 230th brithday. Picture Dan Linehan
But Michael has no plans to step away just yet, still working in the stall every day and enjoying the chat with customers. He has seen huge changes in the decades since he started as a young boy.

“The difference then was people bought by day because they had no fridges,” he said.

“They came in a few days, Tuesday, Fridays and Saturdays would be all busy days because you had people in to buy their meat and fish. There was no refrigeration so everything was killed and sold in the week.”

The time of day has also changed, with more people now coming in to buy meat on their lunchtime from work or before going home in the evening. Years ago, the shopping was done primarily in the mornings.

“We used to start at around half eight or nine, it is probably later now,” Michael said.

“Trade is more at lunchtime and in the afternoon now rather than the morning. Once, when it passed twelve noon, three-quarters of the day’s trade was done. Nowadays it is different.

“But then it was different, people stayed home to look after children so they had time to come to the market in the morning. It was important to know the times of the Masses because people used to go for coffee or to Mass while they were out getting the shopping!”

The layout of the market has also changed, with a smaller number of larger stalls than was the case in the 1950s and 60s.

Michael pointed to the long counter directly across from his own business, now the Chicken Inn business.

“When I started the stall there would have been a greengrocer, the stall beside it was a bread stall and beyond that was a vegetable stall, with a butcher down the far end,” he said.

“Now it is all one, all chicken.”

The size of the stall highlights some of the changing tastes of shoppers.

“Only a small amount of chicken was eaten in the 1960s, it was actually a very dear meat,” Michael said.

“It was expensive, beef, lamb and bacon were all cheaper.

“They were a lot of bacon stalls then and three or four stalls selling tripe. There is still one, Reilly’s are the only one left.”

Fish was reserved almost exclusively at times set by the Catholic church.

“Fish was eaten that time as a penance, on Friday,” Michael said.

“So it was always very busy on Thursday evenings and on Friday. The whole fishing business was geared towards Friday, not early in the week.

“The fishmonger would hardly ever come to work on a Monday or a Saturday either.”

Michael believes the market’s longevity is down to the hard work of the stallholders themselves. “We work hard,” he said. “It is the individuals here who have kept it going, only for them it wouldn’t last. The City Council do the best they can, I have no issue with them at all but it is up to the individuals who run the stalls, without them it would fall. The council could never keep it going without us.”

The market has grown to huge prominence in recent years, boosted by the visit of Queen Elizabeth in 2011 and promotion that has seen it become a must-see destination for visitors to Cork. Michael believes the raised profile has not necessarily benefited the individual businesses or their customers.

“Tourists have suffocated us, there is too much of it,” he said.

“The people that we want can’t get into us. Sometimes the numbers of tourists coming in are overwhelming, they come in waves and they block the place taking photographs.

“Someone who wants to do a bit of business wants to be able to move on, whereas the tourists are walking around in twos and threes abreast. They don’t get out of the way because they have nothing to do and all day to do it.”

He believes this is unfair on the tourists as well as the locals, as the market is not geared to their needs.

“Tourists are being funnelled in here presently but it is a trading market, not a tourist market,” he said.

“There is almost nothing here for tourists. If they allowed stalls to dedicate themselves to the tourist trade it would be something but they are not allowing that either. If they want to push tourists, they should allow part of the place to cater to them.”

He is also concerned that it is becoming harder for customers to get into the city centre, citing the recent traffic ban, due to be reinstated next week.

“I would like people to have the freedom to get into town, I think they have made it very difficult for people to get in to us,” he said.

“That is the biggest problem. We can see it in the footfall and we have people complaining to us.

“I am worried about the ban, it was a disaster the last time and I would be very concerned about what is going to happen. They claim they will do it differently but I doubt if they can do it differently. They are taking away people’s freedom to move around, I don’t like that. People have lost a lot of freedom over the last 20 or 30 years at every level and this is part of it. It seems to be controlled by the State, of what you do and don’t do.

“There are rules for this and that, the freedom to do what you want to do has been taken from us.

“The best thing about the market is the Cork people, they give the market its character and keep it going, not tourists,” he concluded.

“We have lost a certain amount of that. I would like to see that back.”