By Kenneth Clarke
An Irish map of 1660 shows Belfast to be a compact town of 150 dwellings with farm produce being the mainstay of the people, with fairs falling at turning points in the year – February and March horse fairs; May cattle fairs; July and August sheep and wool fairs and October and November cattle fairs with land rental due.
Farmers in south Antrim marketed dairy produce in Belfast with north Down farmers marketing potatoes and vegetables.
The first Belfast fair was held in August 1604 at Cornmarket and in 1760 a new market was established at Smithfield which had all the attractions of a country fair with livestock, fruit and veg, amusement booths, Punch and Judy shows and storytellers.
In 1820 yet another market opened for the sale of butter, eggs, potatoes and vegetables. The Belfast Improvement Act in 1845 combined all markets in May’s fields and May’s Market, Oxford Street, sold flax, pork, butter, eggs, fish, potatoes, veg, straw, hay, cattle and sheep for 130 years, with some commodities initially being delivered by horse and cart.
For south Antrim farmers tiredness often caught up with them on the journey home. One farmer woke up to find he had fallen asleep in the cart travelling unaware from Belfast to Halfpenny Gate Maze.
Others could only blame the ‘devil’s buttermilk’ for their insomnia!
Many traders, including Edward Sturdy, Ballycarry, supplied hay for 100 of Inglis Bakery horses.
Seed hay was also in demand to feed the 800 Belfast Tramway horses with some farmers returning home with coal and others horse manure.
Across the street in St George’s variety market, buyers could purchase butchers’ meat, poultry, fresh butter, cheese, eggs, hardware, clothes, shoes and furniture.
St George’s has been revived with great success in the recent past, displaying and preserving the old Victorian architecture.
Market traders such as JimmyMurdock came from descendants covering all the local markets selling farm produce.
Jimmy recalls his father and a friend leaving one morning at 5am for Ballynahinch market with horse and cart.
On the return journey home at the Temple a farmer admired their horse and made an offer. A deal’s a deal and the two men sold the horse and pulled the cart by hand all the way back to Belfast.
During the post war years and the latter days of May’s fruit and veg market the following were retailers and wholesalers in the complex: F E Banner, G Bates and son, Cullen and Allen, D Devine and sons, Perry Donaldson, H Donnelly and Sons, Fagan Bros, Fyffe Group, Danny Hale, Andy Hayes, Wm McGrattan and Sons, McIlroy Bros, Wm Wilson and Co, and James McVeigh and Sons.
The latter establishment, in close proximity to Allams livestock sales, often had heated arguments with drovers as manure and speciality fruits did not mix.
In the Sixties early potatoes were imported from the Channel Islands, Cyprus and Israel via Liverpool docks while cabbage, carrots and cauliflower were sourced in France and tomatoes in Guernsey.
Patsy Fagan, a nephew of Wm McGrattan, had a long career in the markets and was born in Beechfield Street with a yard at Kilmood Street, and worked for the family selling produce collected in Ards with a fleet of vehicles.
He recalls boxes of red peppers at £40 being replaced on the top row with green peppers at £5 from the warehouse by greengrocer shopboys in the hope that the traders would be duped.
A heist for Patsy was in 1973 acquiring shamrock for sale when it was scarce.
McGrattans customers included the City, Mater and RVH.
The Oxford Street bomb had a tremendous impact on Patsy as in his office he was showered with glass and witnessed the sheer carnage – a land of saints and scholars?
In 1975 Fagan’s took over McGrattan’s business, keeping it in the family and moved to the Balmoral warehouses where they had 10 times the output.
However, with changed trading habits and chilled foods, Balmoral closed in 2010.
Eddie McGrattan was both a businessman and a character. One evening Perry Donaldson agreed to give a McGrattan employee a lift home. As Perry approached the store door he was pulled in amid an armed robbery.
Gerry McGrattan was asked to hand over the safe keys, which he did much to the disgust of brother Eddie.
On another occasion Eddie took delivery of a new lorry but no one would take her to the docks for a load in case she was scored.
Eddie took a fruit hammer used to repair cases and scored the mudguards: “There,” he says, “the lorry is now second-hand.”
One morning a store man was lookout at the upper store, hearing on the phone that ‘Eddie the big git’ is on his way up. Eddie overheard the call, saying: “The big git has arrived and you’re fired!”
Perry Donaldson began his career in 1964 with James McVeigh and sons and in 1971, along with growers Sam Hamilton and James Mullan, purchased Andy Hayes potato merchants.
On one occasion Perry told a petty thief to leave staff car radio alone. When one was stolen the criminal told Perry it wasn’t him, “I would have done a better job”.
Anyway, it was the skinheads and the neighbours gave them a free haircut for anti-social behaviour.
On another occasion Donnellys were asked by a customer where Perry was as they had an order for oranges. Donnelly’s staff told the customer that Perry was in the orange hall next door!
As May’s fruit and veg market was vacated in 1975 Donnellys Torneys and Pat O’Neill occupied Balmoral with Perry Donaldson and Fagan Bros also major players.
The industry was continually evolving with Dublin company Keelings having an influence in the market.
In 1996 Perry founded North Down and now as chairman employs more than 100 staff at Kennedy Way, where chilled vehicles deliver produce Province-wide.
Keelings and Total Produce (Fyffes), based at Dunmurry, also compliment the market. The retail and greengrocer market provides outlets for apples, beans, beetroot, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, chard, fennel, grapes, kale, leeks, lettuce, onions, oranges, parsley, parsnips, pears, peas, potatos, pumpkins, rhubarb, squash, strawberries, swedes, tomatos and turnips.
Some 81 per cent of domestic growers are in County Down, 11 per cent in County Armagh, with eight per cent elsewhere.
On the home market 9,500 acres of potatoes were grown in 2019 in Northern Ireland with the two main varieties being balls of flour and balls of soap.
With the ongoing peace process British Queens and Dublin Queens have now become Queens – the humble spud is now politically correct!
Annually 2,700 acres of vegetables are homegrown and 10,000 acres of Bramley apples producing 40,000 tonnes worth £20m from 250 growers. The by-products are juices, cider, tarts, sauces and jams.
In the greater Lisburn area the main growers of potatoes and carrots are Tates and Eglantine Farm supporting the supermarket chain.
Ian O’Neill and Gabriel Brankin produce lettuce, peas, beans, scallions, sprouts and tomatos with Lindsay Best specialising in strawberries under glass and John and Mervyn Farr growing lettuce, broccoli, scallions and sprouts.
Value added processors in the industry include Cloughbane Farm, Pomeroy, North Down Group, Daily Fresh (Kelly’s), Maze, Mash Direct (Hamilton’s), Comber, Gilfresh (Thomas Gilpin), Loughgall, Glens of Antrim Crisps, Avondale Foods (Geddis), Lurgan, Willowbrook Farm (McCanns), Killyleagh, Wilson’s Country, Portadown, Tayto Crisps, Tandragee, White’s Oats (Fane Valley), Tandragee, and many others.
Of course, Covid-19 has impacted the food market with catering and hotels restricted.
In conclusion, this wee Province will continue to have both orange and green provisions – some of which are edible and some cultural!