One year on – Oliver Plunkett Street traders reflect on their ‘Great Street Award 2016’, writes Marjorie Brennan.
IT often takes an outsider to point out the special nature of something we have taken for granted.
When Cork’s Oliver Plunkett Street was named the best street in Ireland and the UK at the beginning of November last year, it was a recognition of the street’s unique charms, to which shoppers can be impervious as they go about their business.
The award was also a big boost to traders on the street who had put a lot of hard work and effort into making it look its best.
According to the judges for the Academy of Urbanism, which awarded the title, the community there was one of the best organised they had seen in the competition.
Adjudicator Geoff Haslam said: “We sometimes have to search for the DNA of a street but Oliver Plunkett Street exudes it — it’s a vibrant living street and community, full of surprises and it is clearly on an upward trajectory.”
So, what about a year on? What impact has the prestigious award had on the city’s longest street?
MJ Galligan Furnishing and Fabrics has been trading on Oliver Plunkett St for almost 100 years.
According to Eleanor Galligan, whose grandfather established the shop in 1919, the award was a big boost to the street.
“It gave people a pep in their step in terms of getting their frontage done and maintaining the buildings and so on.
“It was a great honour. The street has come on a lot. There’s so much to be found here, artisan shops, hairdressers, beauty salons, great restaurants, boutiques, bookshops and more. Hickeys [hardware shop] coming back has been great.
“The work on Parnell Square and the restaurants down this end have also contributed and brought a great footfall to the area.”
Eleanor’s mother Ann is 81 and still works in the shop.
Eleanor followed her into the family business, although that wasn’t originally the plan.
“I came in by default, I wanted to be a nurse. But I had a bit of a grá for it and it blossomed from there. I like retail and dealing with people. You either do or don’t.”
The shop has faced many challenges down the years, not least the most recent recession.
“That was a tough time but we are lucky that we have a loyal clientele.
“We have a lot of people who come here from the same family down the generations. We are also very small and run it very tightly.”
The judges visited Galligan’s as part of the adjudication process.
“They came in here because we are the longest trading on the street. We were very lucky on the day because the weather was in our favour.
“It was a fabulous day, you couldn’t have asked for better. All the buildings looked good. There were children playing lovely traditional music outside the GPO, you’d swear we’d put them there.”
While Galligan’s has been in business for nearly 100 years, neighbouring shop Olori recently celebrated one year on the street.
Lisa Grainger, who runs the boutique with her sister Susanjane, says the street was her optimum choice as a location.
“I love being on this street. The award has brought a feelgood factor and more businesses have opened since the award.
“It has definitely made it more of a destination. Things are on the up, there’s a different mood, people are more optimistic, you can feel it.”
While Lisa is hopeful about the future, she worries about the impact of proposed rate hikes and increased parking restrictions.
“They are going in the wrong direction, it will affect businesses. Retailers are only starting to feel a bit of an upturn and it will really impede progress. There aren’t enough places to pull in, a lot of people say it puts them off coming into town.”
Eleanor Galligan is similarly concerned about council plans to increase pay parking hours from 6.30pm to 8.30pm, and reduce two-hour on-street parking to one hour in some zones.
“We are fighting for footfall and that’s what they do to us. I think City Hall are removed from how people make their living.
“When your wages are there for you every month, it’s very easy. If I don’t make sales, I get no wages. It’s as simple as that.
“I had a customer who was coming in to pay me this morning and she had to go around four times to find a space.”
Richard Jacob, who with his wife Mairéad owns Idaho Café, just off Oliver Plunkett St, also believes the council must do more to help businesses.
“There is a real feeling that we need to be doing more to attract shoppers in. At the moment, especially for our older customers, it’s so easy to drive to Mahon Point and park for free.
“When we opened 15 years ago, there was on-street parking everywhere but since then, I think the council has taken away more than 300 on-street car parking spaces, due to cycle lanes, the free bike scheme, the road widening and pedestrianisation.”
He says the Oliver Plunkett Street award had a positive impact on the city and beyond.
“There was a huge feelgood factor which spread to all the other streets.
“It’s fantastic for Cork, and for Munster, it’s saying that the city offers something different, it’s not just Mahon Point Shopping Centre and high street shops.
“We are starting a Maylor Street trader’s organisation now purely because of what’s happened on Oliver Plunkett Street.
“We realise that we really need to work together and make our street look sharper — we’re all getting out in the morning and scrubbing the pavements.”
He believes the independent traders that make Oliver Plunkett Street so special should be supported more, which in turn will prevent the homogenisation of the urban landscape which has plagued so many cities and towns across the Irish Sea.
“It’s almost a once-in-a-lifetime award, giving credit for what is there at the moment, which won’t necessarily be there in ten years.
“The more people are aware of it, the more the council will treasure the street and say, ‘no, we don’t want franchised restaurants or large chain stores opening there’.
“They need to work to keep the independent traders that make us different. They are the heart and soul of the city. If we don’t support them, they’ll be gone and we’ll be the same as Basingstoke.”
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