For fishmonger Pat O’Connell, it has been like losing a friend. The Corkman was busy serving customers at his stall in the English Market on Princes Street on Monday morning, but his mind was on the woman whose photograph beams down from the wall behind him, alongside a collection of framed letters. “I’m a little bit sad. I’ve really happy memories of her.”
Customers have been coming in all last week to talk to him about Queen Elizabeth II, but there’s nothing unusual in that. “That’s every day for the last 11 years,” he laughed.
He joked that his wife isn’t going to bother with an epitaph for his tombstone. “She’ll just use the photo of me with the queen.”
After the queen’s visit to the market in 2011 — when he cracked a joke about being more nervous than he had been on his wedding day exactly 30 years earlier, prompting a roar of laughter that was captured on camera — he stayed in touch with the British monarch, exchanging letters over the years. Their friendship culminated in his visit to Buckingham Palace in 2014. “The last letter I got from her was two months ago,” he said, shaking his head at the strangeness of it all. “The queen and the fishmonger — it’s a weird one.”
When 11 o’clock came there was no chance for a moment of silence at the busy stall, where customers were already queuing for prawns or monkfish. Instead he was choosing to focus on “really happy memories of an amazing woman, who was nothing like I expected, to be honest. I suppose when you look at them from afar you kind of think [of the institution as] elitist and it’s you know, a stiff upper lip and all of that. And then you meet this woman and she’s down-to-earth as they come with a fantastic sense of humour, and then you get invited back to Buckingham Palace. It’s not what I ever expected.”
Her legacy is that she “put the English Market and Cork on the map, and she did a huge amount, which is far more important, for Anglo-Irish relations; 2011 was the kind of time when people decided to look forward rather than back, because we have a lot more in common than separates us.”
Stallholder and artist Paul Mulvany has a very different memory of her. He cycled what he still calls “the queen’s bicycle” into the English Market on Monday.
He explained how, on the day of her visit to Cork in 2011, he rode another bike in and left it locked at the bike rack on Grand Parade. But when he came back that evening, the bike was gone. He discovered it had been removed by the queen’s security staff, who had decided “it was a bomb threat. They chopped my bike in half with a grinder.” He later got compensated for it, and bought the bike he still cycles to work at his Rave Cave T-shirt stall today.
While he’s not exactly a royalist, he isn’t holding a grudge about it. “If I was home, would I watch it on television? I don’t know what way I feel about it. I probably would watch it for the pageantry. You have to hand it to them. They certainly know how to put on a good show.”
Nonetheless, he planned to observe a moment’s silence at 11am. “I’d do that anyway as a mark of respect no matter who it was.”
Four years ago, he got the chance to meet prince Charles and Camilla, now King Charles III and the queen consort. From the back of the shop, he retrieved the slogan baseball cap he donned for Charles’s visit. It reads, “Grumpy Old Man”. “Charles looked at me and says, ‘I know exactly how you feel.’”
He has a sneaking sympathy for the new king. “It must be an awful job, to have to get up every morning and go out meeting and greeting people.”
Everyone in the English Market seems to have a story about the royals.
From the back of his stall, Belvelly Smoke House owner Frank Hederman produces a photo of the queen eating his smoked salmon at a lunch prepared for her by Irish chef Richard Corrigan in 2006. Afterwards, he heard that the queen declared the salmon “exceptionally good”.
Reflecting back on her visit, I got quite sad. I wouldn’t say a word bad about her at all, at all, other than good things. She was absolutely marvellous. Her visit broke several barriers
He is still kicking himself that he forgot to have the photo out on display during her visit in 2011, and that he never got to speak to her. But he did get to meet Camilla in 2018. “She came straight up and said, ‘Frank darling, I hear your salmon is the best in the world.’”
At his nearby stall, Coughlan Meats, Paul Murphy planned to observe a moment of private silence out of respect to the queen at his stall at 11am. “I’ll maybe personally just reflect and stay still for a minute.
“Reflecting back on her visit, I got quite sad. I wouldn’t say a word bad about her at all, at all, other than good things. She was absolutely marvellous. Her visit broke several barriers.”
Murphy is the fourth generation of his family in the business and he has been here for 64 years. While he didn’t get to speak to the queen herself during her visit, “I had a good chat with the duke. I found him very nice. He was quite humorous.”
He paused. “This might not go down well now, but I’ll tell you anyway.”
He recalled Prince Philip gazing admiringly over at the bread stall across the way. “The bread display was fantastic. I thought he was going to say, ‘Oh what lovely bread’.” But it turned out his attention had been caught by something else. “‘Oh, he said, ‘what lovely girls.’ True to his name.”
Not all of his customers were feeling similarly affectionate towards the British royals on Monday morning. He recounted a conversation he had with of his long-standing regulars earlier. “I said to her, ‘They’re putting Lizzie down today.’ She says, ‘It’s about time. I’m sick to death of looking at it on television.’”
Venice Bvudzijena, in the market to do some shopping with her son, 18-month-old Rain, was hurrying home to catch the funeral on TV. She has been both bemused and moved by the strength of the reaction in Britain. “It is amazing how many people were paying their respects, and queuing in the street and everything.”
She is from Zimbabwe and the response has struck her as strange but moving. “I’m foreign so it’s been interesting to see how people feel about the kingdom and all of that. It was good to see how people loved her and everything.”
Still, others were firmly immune to the nostalgia and pageantry of the day. One stallholder shook her head firmly and turned away when approached for a comment.
“She has been dead for 11 days,” said another man at another stall impatiently, when asked about the death of the Queen. He was here when she visited in 2011 and met her, but has nothing more to add about her. “What do you want me to say?”
Is he sick of talking about it? “Totally.”