Tuesday 22 May 2018

'If you want peace you should go to a graveyard' - Meet the retailers under siege from anti-car measures

With a new ban on cars on Patrick Street reversed after a public outcry, retailers in Cork and Dublin are feeling the impact of anti-car measures in city centres. They spoke about their concerns to Kim Bielenberg and John Meagher

Famines, wars and council strategies: Shopkeeper John O'Connell (89) of TW Murray. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Famines, wars and council strategies: Shopkeeper John O'Connell (89) of TW Murray. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Eddie Mullins of Fitzgerald Menswear. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Lorraine Hogan. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Shopper Carmel Tynanon on Patrick Street in Cork city

Kim Bielenberg and John Meagher

Doing Pana sounds like performing an exotic South Sea dance, but to residents of Cork city it involves ambling down Patrick Street, window shopping and talking to whomever they might meet along the way as the traffic trundles by.

Unlike the Grafton Street area in Dublin, with its endless identikit chain stores and a Starbucks at every turn, the main thoroughfare through Cork still has an intimate village atmosphere.

There is the English Market on one side, and a warren of backstreets fanning out from the main street, with an eclectic selection of shops.

Small family stores like Keane's jewellers, Fitzgeralds Menswear and TW Murray - selling everything from a salmon hook to a snooker cue to a pipe or a rifle - have somehow survived the onrushing tide of globalisation.

Stretching out in a pleasing crescent shape from the banks of the River Lee, this is a street chock-a-block with historical resonance.

It was here where Charles Stewart Parnell told a rally that "no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation".

And here, the temperance apostle Father Theobald Mathew, whose statue stands sentinel at one end, urged tens of thousands of Corkonians to give up the drink - with decidedly mixed results.

But this week, the shopkeepers around Patrick Street and many of their customers feared that their busy thoroughfare was dying*

They blamed a decision by Cork City Council to ban cars on the street from 3pm until 6.30 in the evening.

There was uproar among traders and furious complaints, and the council was set to meet yesterday evening to discuss whether the ban should be officially lifted. By Thursday night there were strong expectations that it was about come to an end. During the period of the car ban, the hum of traffic disappeared from Pana though most of the afternoon, but the customers disappeared with them, according to many disgruntled retailers.

Shopkeepers are complaining about a collapse in trade, and were even talking of a march on City Hall and a commercial rates strike in order to put a stop to the motorised fatwa.

Standing out on the empty street, Lawrence Owens, chief executive of the Cork Business Association told me earlier in the week: "Some people say it is very peaceful here now, because there are no cars, but if you want peace you should go to a graveyard."

The ban implemented on March 27 was part of the 'City Centre Movement Strategy', designed to speed up the movement of buses through the centre.

'Deserted village'

As he looked out at a Patrick Street, denuded of people as well as traffic, late in the afternoon on Tuesday, John O'Connell, the 89-year-old owner of TW Murray, was bemused. Trams, horses and carts, and big black cars used to pass by his window.

O'Connell remembers vividly when Patrick Street was thronged with people, and nearly all the men wore caps and many smoked pipes.

"It's like a deserted village now out there," says O'Connell in a little booth at the side of the shop, as customers enquired about fishing baits and sized up hurleys. "They are cutting the heart and soul out of the place."

When 3 o'clock struck, gardaí in hi-viz yellow jacket stood and blocked the streets in an impressive show of force, and there were stern signs warning of a detour.

O'Connell estimated that his business was down by 50pc after the traffic ban was implemented. In the new green, clean urban environment, Corkonians have been expected to travel by bus or pedal from the city's outer reaches on a bicycle. But anglers popping in to Murrays for a rod and waders, and shooting enthusiasts buying a rifle and a few rounds of ammo, don't tend to carry them on the bus or on a bike unless they want to look like they are recreating a skirmish from the Anglo-Irish war.

TW Murray, founded in 1828, has survived the Famine, the burning of Cork by the Black and Tans, and on one occasion almost a century ago, it was visited by a gang of IRA volunteers, who made off with a cache of weapons without going to the trouble of paying.

O'Connell, who took over the shop from his father in 1954, said when the traffic ban was in force this week: "We then went through the Civil War and two world wars, but now it is our own city council who could knock us out."

He believes the ban on traffic was totally unnecessary, and has only diverted traffic to other areas where there are worse jams.

At first, the complaints from traders could be casually dismissed as the usual gripes about any innovation. After a short period of adjustment, busy trade would continue.

The city council insisted that better routing of through traffic and improvement of bus services were necessary responses to the growth in the city's workforce and residential population.

The council promised that the closure would guarantee a more reliable bus service.

But with business apparently draining away, the gravity of the situation was underlined by the middle of this week when the Cork Evening Echo reported that three weeks into the ban, some traders were already cutting the hours of staff.

The ban was introduced for a three-month trial period, but traders warned that the collapse in business was so dramatic that it would have to be reversed much sooner.

John Minihan, whose family chemist shop has operated opposite Cork's GPO for over 60 years, says: "The social, cultural and economic heart of Cork is in its centre, and people come in - not just for shopping - but to meet people."

Minihan said while the ban has been in force, Patrick Street has been dead in the afternoon, and the hustle and bustle has gone. As a result, every afternoon was like a Sunday morning in the city centre.

Minihan said evening deliveries of drugs to chemist shops in the city centre had to cancelled because the delivery vans could not get down Patrick Street.

The owner of the pharmacist said: "The council should learn a lesson from this that you can't experiment with people's livelihoods."

Those in favour of the afternoon car ban pointed to a significant cut in journey times on some bus routes through the city centre, but this did not wash with the angry city centre shop owners.

Disappearing public

"It's fine if we have all the buses moving and all the cyclists moving and everything pedestrianised, but then you would have no city, because you have no traders," John Minihan says.

The ban on cars was even causing concern in one of Cork's prime attractions, the English Market, which has an entrance on Patrick Street.

If you predicted 10 years ago that the queen of England would come to Cork to ogle fish, people would have thought you were dreaming.

But that is what happened when Queen Elizabeth stopped by at the English Market in 2011, and talked to fishmonger Pat O'Connell. The market has had some dramatic reversals in fortune over decades, and it has been damaged by fires at least three times.

During its history there have been plans to flatten it and turn the site in an office block, but it somehow escaped the bulldozer, and has continued to thrive.

As the market's historian Donal Ó Drisceoil has observed, as well as becoming a magnet for the 'foodie' middle class who can source olives, exotic cheeses, sourdough bread and organic meats, the old working class continues to buy tripe and drisheen, salted ling, crubeens and cheap cuts under the arched wooden roof.

But the fishmonger Pat O'Connell says he has never seen such a collapse in trade, as that brought about by the traffic ban.

"I have never seen the public disappear in such numbers," he said

According to O'Connell, workers normally come in during the evening to get their vegetables and meat. The fishmonger said that during the ban, the priority has been to get out of town before the traffic built up on the quays.

According to the fishmonger, who supplies his produce to the local Apple factory, the people hit the hardest by the car ban have been the small family businesses.

"This is a working market, and it has to be accessible, for people getting their meat, fish and veg."

Not all the stallholders in the market suffered a collapse in business. At the Chocolate Shop in the middle of the market, Rose Daly says: "We are lucky in that our trade is seasonal, and a lot of the people coming in to buy chocolate are tourists."

At the same time, Rose was worried about what was happening to her fellow traders. She said it was not good for the market if trade was falling in the afternoon.

The late food writer AA Gill called in to the English Market not long before he died for Packet and Tripe, and was so impressed by the locally landed fish and the many "iterations of pig" that he described it as the best covered market he had come across south of Scandinavia and west of France.

Even the renowned spiced beef trader, Tom Durcan, was feeling the pinch this week, and said he suffered a 50pc drop in trade on some days.

Looking out over an empty Patrick Street late on Tuesday, Durcan said: "It's scary. I have been in business over 30 years and I have never seen anything as bad as this. We were doing a much healthier business through snow and floods."

@KimBielenberg

A RETAILER'S VIEW

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Eddie Mullins of Fitzgerald Menswear. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
 

Eddie Mullins of Fitzgerald Menswear presides over a shop that has been on Patrick Street for 160 years.

"The family business started as shirtmakers, and it grew from there."

Eddie says Cork people stopped coming into the area during the afternoon when the street was closed to all traffic apart from buses, ­bicycles and taxis.

"It was like turning a switch at 3 o'clock, and the business disappeared."

By Thursday night, Eddie was hopeful that the ban was about to be lifted and the outlook seemed positive: "We are delighted if that is the case. It would send a clear message that Cork is still open for business."

He was among a group of 300 traders and members of the public who met in the Imperial Hotel on Wednesday to voice their opposition, and the pressure they mounted seemed to have paid off. "There was a strong resolve from city traders and a line has been drawn in the sand. We want to get back to what we do best."

VIEW ON THE STREET

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Lorraine Hogan. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
 

Lorraine Hogan, a singer-songwriter from Fermoy, said during the week: "From a consumers' point of view, the shops are very dead at the moment. It's a weird feeling.

"People are commenting a lot about the traffic ban, and the shops have felt the effects. It's particularly hard for independent shops.

"Maybe the big shopping centres outside the city such as Wilton and Mahon Point, that are easily accessible, are having a big effect on the shops in the city as well."

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Shopper Carmel Tynanon on Patrick Street in Cork city

Shopper Carmel Tynan from Mayfield in Cork said the car ban did not make much difference to her personally because she travelled by bus, but she was concerned about the plight of local businesses.

"I spoke to someone who works in one of the department stores and she said it was hitting businesses," she says.

*The ban on cars in Cork city was reversed after a city council meeting this week

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