Friday 20 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Goodbye to Ireland's first hipster'

Superquinn founder and former senator Feargal Quinn. Photo: RollingNews.ie
Superquinn founder and former senator Feargal Quinn. Photo: RollingNews.ie
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

A recent arrival to Ireland would have been confused in the past few days at the national outpouring of grief and affection on the death of a grocer. But then, Feargal Quinn was more than just a grocer, wasn't he?

For one thing, Feargal Quinn epitomised the kind of decency and sense of duty that Irish people value. The word that was most commonly used about him in the past few days was ''Gentleman''. Such a quaint, old-fashioned, rare thing. You sure wouldn't hear it said of most guys in business these days. Feargal Quinn occupied a space like Michael D or David Attenborough, a twinkling, fundamentally sound guy beloved of young people as well as their parents.

But it was more than that. Feargal Quinn, it turns out, represented, for a lot of people, an Ireland that is gone, an Ireland before the Germans came, when there was Dunnes, Quinnsworth, and Superquinn. This was an Ireland where the boss of a supermarket company could become a celebrity, like Maurice Pratt, whom we saw last week is still going strong, and still vaguely resembling that gauche, goofy younger man from the Quinnsworth ads.

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It was an Ireland that was more insular maybe, but also more innocent. Simpler times. It was a smaller country then, too. Most people seemed to have met Feargal Quinn at some stage, and they told stories of an unassuming man without airs or graces but with a sense of fun. Almost like our Bill Murray, a guy of wealth and fame who insisted on going about life as an ordinary bloke, popping up in the most unlikely places, spreading joy. And the reasons people remembered him fondly ranged wide. Many still remember that Superquinn was the first business they knew to put people with disabilities in customer-facing roles.

But there was something else, too. Feargal Quinn, we realised last week, was in fact Ireland's first hipster, and Superquinn laid down the template for modern hipster businesses. Superquinn had butchers that would talk to you about meat with the authority of connoisseurs about traceability and provenance, long before the rest of us knew what it was. In true hipster style, Superquinn even took a humble working man's food and fetishised it.

Before other brands like Tayto got their current retro kudos, Superquinn sausages were a cult item. The in-store bakeries were ahead of their time, making on-site what we would now call artisanal bread. With no sweets at the checkouts, he was years ahead of those hipsters who won't give their kids sugar. He even had creches at the stores, prefacing an age where hipsters take their kids everywhere and expect them to be looked after.

So farewell then, Ireland's last gentleman, and Ireland's first hipster.

Sunday Independent

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