The English Market is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Cork City. Cork itself is regarded as the food (and foodie) capital of Ireland, so it makes sense that tourists and foodies alike would come and visit it. The market stretches over and combines the Prince’s Street market and the Grand Parade market. The building houses a variety of stalls that sell many sorts of local and foreign foods. The English Market carries on the tradition of the olden days when market areas were viewed as a social meeting point for the townspeople to chat.
Throughout the years, the English Market endured many challenges, natural disasters and much more. It was also present in times of social, political, and cultural change. It wasn’t always the shining municipal food market that it is today. Its beginnings are much humbler than you might have imagined.
The Early Years
The English Market started off as a small market area in 1788. It was opened on the 1st of August. The market was built and opened by the Protestant English corporation that controlled the markets in Cork City. Originally the “new market” was intended to serve as a meat market, but later, an expansion was built that served as a fish, vegetables, and fowl market. A passage to connect the parts of the market was constructed in the early 1790s. The secondary market area was much poorer compared to the original meat market area. It was unroofed, and the stands were much poorer. The biggest difference could be seen in the food that was sold, as the meat market housed products of a higher quality compared to the products that were sold in the new part of the market. These conditions remained the same until 1862.
Not a year after the market opened its doors, a horrendous flood hit Cork City. On the 17th of January 1789, the flat lands of the city were all completely flooded, with historic reports stating that certain areas were covered in more than 5 feet of water. The English Market was usually closed on Sundays, but because the flood hit on a Saturday, the market salesmen made an exception and stayed open the following day, so that the residents of Cork and those who were affected by the flood could stock up on rations.
The following years presented themselves as an era of prosperity and growth for the English Market. That was until the 1798 rebellion happened. The aftermath of the rebellion that is. When the rebellion was suppressed by the British, the soldiers seized food from markets all over Cork. Outbursts of violence could be seen in the market areas and that is why the head of the Garrison, Major General Myers had to place guards at every market entrance to ensure peace and order in town.
Growth and Change
Cork grew and the city soon became a popular naval stopping point for Royal fleets and other merchants that were passing through town. That meant that business grew, and so did the profits. The Cork City Harbour became an important destination for many ships. But in France, the atmosphere wasn’t so calm. It was a time of change and revolution. And that didn’t sound too good to other European countries. This was one of the reasons why the Napoleonic Wars began. The final war ended in 1815 and it resulted in Napoleon being exiled to the island of Elba. However, the damage had already been done. Ireland was faced with an economic shutdown and Cork would pay the price. The Port of Cork was no longer full of docked Royal navy fleets and merchant ships. There was a major decline in trading, and the residents of Cork were heavily affected by the consequences.
In the following years, the unemployment rate skyrocketed in Cork City. Competition from bigger and more prominent British colonies was tough. But certain people’s lives did not change too drastically. Shipbuilders, brewers, distillers, and butter makers weren’t affected at all by the competition, as Cork remained one of the bigger suppliers of ships, butter, and alcohol.
In 1840, the Municipal Corporations Act was signed by the British Parliament. The act reformed how municipal governments functioned. Shortly after the act was signed, there were elections in Ireland for the head of the corporation. In the 1841 election, the Catholic majority won, and that brought forth a new era for the English Market, its merchants and Cork.
The new corporation gave a budget of £3,000 to build a new market area in Cork. With that money, the St. Peter’s market was built in 1841. That budget may sound ridiculously small, but £3,000 pounds in 1841 would equate to around £400,000 pounds in our current era. However, the newly constructed market was worse in every aspect compared to the already existing English Market. The most notable was the quality of the food they provided. St. Peter’s Market was considered to be a poor man’s market as the selection wasn’t on par with the already existing market. People noticed, and they nicknamed St. Peter’s Market the “Irish market” and the other one was named the “English Market” as it was more expensive, and the food selection was improved.
Not shortly after that, the darkest period of Ireland was just around the corner. In September of 1845, Irish farmers were noticing that their potato crops were spoiled due to potato blight. But that was just the beginning. Initially, only the first harvest was deemed unusable. By the end of 1846, entire fields of potatoes were poisoned. The potato was a constant in an average Irish person’s meal. But with the blight, almost all of Ireland lost its primary food source. In the end, The Great Famine resulted in 1 million deaths all over Ireland. The winter of 1847 was so severe that some historians call it black 47.
It was not until 1850 that the effects of the famine began loosening their grip on Ireland. But with all that tragedy and hunger the English Market did not close its doors. It stayed open all through the famine. Even though the prices of produce flew sky-high, and supplies were scarce, the marketers did not succumb to the famine, and they endured it.
After the famine, the City Council thought that the English Market required a well-deserved face-lift to be more modern. That is why they contracted Sir John Benson (who was a renowned architect at the time) in 1862 to enhance the interior and the rooftop of the building. But with the face-lift, they felt that the old entrance (which was the main entrance) was overshadowed. So, to fix their “mistake”, they formed a committee a few years after the face-lift was completed. The task of that committee was to oversee the remodelling of the main entrance into a grander walkway. The entrance was thus fitted with a massive clock and a coat of arms.
At the turn of the century, the English Market celebrated its 112th birthday. In all those years it has survived an economic low, a horrible flood and the Great famine. The same, however, could not be said for St. Peter’s Market. The Irish market was on a downward spiral, just like many others in the area. When World War I started, it also brought along unsure times and horrible inflation. It was most notable in food prices. At the end of 1916, food sold on the market cost 86% more than it did before the war had begun.
The government knew that there was inflation, so to keep prices of food low for the townspeople they granted certain marketers rent reductions and other types of aid to help fight the inflation.
After the First World war, Ireland could not catch a break, as the War for Independence had begun. The “revolution” lasted from 1919 till 1921. In the end, the Irish people obtained their independence. But like every war, the revolution caused casualties. During the war, many houses, shops, and markets were the victims of soldiers who were looting and burning everything in their sight. The English Market luckily wasn’t their main target, but some stalls were damaged, and the roof caught fire, as it spread from the nearby roof.
After the war, the depression that previously affected other markets began to take hold of the English Market. World war, civil war, and a war for independence all had an impact on the economic depression that hit not just the market, but Cork City as well. During these times, the English Market often remained vacant for longer periods of time, but not completely empty as it survived the depression, and it was never closed. In the 1960’s the market and its interior were modernised and upgraded so that it fit in with the new age aesthetic and market look.
But a facelift was not enough to keep the market going. During the 70s, rumours spread that the English Market was going to be demolished and replaced with a multi-storied building that would be built in its place. The public quickly voiced their disagreement, and the pressure was too great on the council, so the building was not demolished. A couple of years later, further refurbishments were done to the building. The most notable was the replacement of the roof and the flooring inside the market area.
During that time, the leasing policy also got reworked. The City Council made it easier to apply for a stallholder position. The stallholders would also receive a 21-year long lease with rent reviews that were to be done every 5 years.
But the market wasn’t out of the tunnel just yet, as they had to jump through a few hoops before they could enjoy smooth sailing. An enormous fire broke out in the 1980s when a gas explosion occurred in the Princess Street market. That explosion caused a massive fire that engulfed the building completely in fire. After the fire was extinguished, only the fountain remained. The market was fully restored. The layout of the market was improved, and the fountain became a centrepiece of the new building. The project was done in tough economic times, and the renovation cost over £300,000. The renovations were successfully completed in October 1981. An upstairs gallery and café were also constructed during the renovations.
Interest in the market spiked after the renovations, however, the stalls weren’t packed as the economic state of the world was not very secure.
And to add insult to injury, another fire broke out in 1986. This one however was more manageable. With a quick response from the firefighters, only 8 stalls were destroyed, and a small section of the roof was charred.
Not shortly after the repairs for the fire damage were done, word began to spread that the City Council was planning to tear the building down and build a car park and a shopping centre in its place. The public did not agree with that, and an uproar happened with the public outraged. The plans were cancelled once again.
And when the ’90s rolled around, the English Market finally got to experience smooth sailing. The rising concern of food sources became a thing, and in an instant, the market was filled to the brim with people trying to obtain locally produced food. The boom transformed the English Market into a food emporium where local and exotic food could co-exist.
Today the market is a popular tourist destination, but most importantly it is a food destination. It is a building that houses different smells, flavours, textures and so much more. You can walk around and enjoy the stalls and the different food cultures. It’s no wonder that with such a vast market, Cork is the food capital of Ireland. So, why don’t you come for a visit and taste it yourself?