The English Market is located in the bustling, vibrant centre of Cork City. This fabulous roofed space has been a hub for those seeking the very finest in traditional Irish food items since 1788, meaning that it is one of the longest-running municipal trading spaces in the world. It is now famed for its commitment to organic food produce.
You may wonder why a famous Irish market is called the ‘English Market’. Several theories exist: that it was so named because English was the main language spoken there in contrast to its Irish-speaking competitors, or that its design was based on an English model, or even that only English residents in the city were permitted to shop there. In reality, it seems that the market took its name from the fact that the Market was established by the English Protestants that ran the city up until the year 1841.
Following a shake-up of the local government in 1840, responsibility for running the market was taken on by the (majority) Catholic representatives, who then set up a new ‘Irish Market’ – so named in order to distinguish it from its rival. Essentially, then, the moniker can be dated from this transitional period, and today it still stands as a destination for those seeking an eclectic range of high-quality organic food. Today it is known far and wide as the place to go for the best examples of traditional Irish food in the city, including delicious meats, fish and Irish cheese.
This serves to illustrate how the history of the market is inextricably linked with the evolution of Cork City in a social, economic, political and even dietary context. Through time, the market has been at the epicentre of changing food fashions and tastes, all the while retaining a strong grip on classic Irish food traditions. These days, while dedicated foodies flock to the market to source high-quality modern treats such as artisan bread and wonderful organic produce of all types, so too can local working-class residents continue to shop for traditional Irish delicacies such a crubeens (pigs’ feet), drisheen (blood sausage) tripe, cheap cuts of meat, battlebord, buttered eggs and other hearty Irish fare.
History of The English Market
The original market threw open its doors in 1788, initially selling only meat, though stalls selling fruit and vegetables and wild fowl swiftly followed, forming the parameters of the market as we know it today. The city of Cork was modernising at a jaunty pace at this time, and this new flagship market became the beating heart of the commercial district.
At first the produce sold in the market was very much targeted towards wealthier citizens of the city, illustrated by the fact that in 1874 a pair of Christmas turkeys would have relieved a skilled artisan worker of practically a whole week’s wages. It seems quite clear then that an average Cork resident would have been buying the ingredients for their Christmas dinner elsewhere. Generally speaking, poorer people existed on a diet consisting of cheaper foodstuffs such as bread and oatmeal rather than meats, which were the preserve of the rich.
Events in the wider world often affected the market. In December 1920, the Market managed to remain almost unscathed when British forces burned the city. In 1922, in the aftermath of independence, the Market became a victim of both restructuring and Cork City’s protracted period of economic depression. It started to transition to a more working-class destination, and the foodstuffs on offer therefore changed to reflect this new target group. A petition from the traders to rename it ‘Our Lady’s Market’ was rejected in 1954, and later in 1973 and 1988 it held fast against suggestions that it should be redeveloped as office space.
Cork’s English Market in Modern Times
In 1980 the English Market was very nearly totally destroyed by a fire, but like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it took this opportunity to reinvent itself as a thoroughly modern and more gentrified shopping destination. This was in part due to the arrival of traders from further afield, who brought with them organic food items such as Irish cheese, fish, olives, spices, herbs and fresh pasta. These new traders happily co-existed with those offering more traditional Irish food, resulting in the diverse selection of stalls seen in the market today. Smaller speciality stalls sit next to larger ones, and newer stall-holders exchange banter with those from established family businesses that have traded in the space for hundreds of years.
In May 2011, the English Market was given a boost by a visit from Queen Elizabeth II, who toured the space, speaking to many traders as she did so. Today the market caters to all tastes and budgets, selling a huge range of foodie delights, including a wide range of organic food such as fish, meats, herbs and spices, delicious pastries and cakes, vegetables, fruit, pasta and Irish cheese, and there are non-food items such as art, clothing and crockery, to name but a few. The market is also home to a number of popular delis and cafes – perfect to relax in after a hard few hours of shopping and to drink in the unique atmosphere of this fabulous destination. The expanding and diversifying customer base, including locals, recent immigrants and tourists, has resulted in a wonderful melting pot, with more and more people enjoying traditional Irish food that is truly representative of the modern Cork City.