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Cork’s Vanishing Family Businesses: A Heartbreaking Trend

"Cork's Iconic Family-Owned Businesses Close Amid Economic Downturn: Con Murphy's Menswear Store Shuts Down After Almost 100 Years of Operation"

Cork has bid farewell to another iconic family-owned business with the announcement that Con Murphys, one of Cork’s oldest menswear stores, will cease trading after almost a century in operation on St Patrick’s Street. The store joins a growing list of at least seven long-running family ventures that have disappeared from Cork’s streetscape in the last five years. This includes Oliver Plunkett St’s Household Linens, independent bookstore Liam Ruiséal’s, and sports shop Finn’s Corner. Other much-beloved family businesses that have faded away from the city’s main thoroughfares include Bresnan’s Butchers, Finbarr Cahill’s Menswear, and John O’Flynn & Sons Butchers, which closed its doors on Marlboro St for the last time in January of this year.

The changing nature of retail poses challenges for more traditional businesses that have survived through generations, until the dawn of the internet and the increasing dominance of supermarket giants. One of the country’s oldest independent bookshops, Liam Ruiséal’s, was driven to closure in 2018, only a year after the family celebrated a century of doing business in Cork city. The family cited competition from online retailers and larger chains, as well as the economic downturn, as challenges that were too difficult to overcome. Household Linens owners Joe and Norma Cotter, and Simon O’Flynn of John O’Flynn & Sons Butchers, also both cited the changing nature of retail as reasons that contributed to their closure.

CBA President Kevin Herlihy agrees that while footfall in the city centre is “very good”, more niche family businesses that traditionally had a strong flow of business in the city are struggling to compete with bigger players. “That’s certainly the case that that’s happened, if you look at the likes of Liam Ruiséals, and you had O’Flynn’s butchers on Marlboro St, these are all people that it was just not feasible for them anymore to continue,” he said. “Certain businesses that have specific niche products like butchers, the supermarkets are obviously a big competitor to those people that are selling those type of products,” he added.

As was the case for Con Murphy’s son Neil, who took over the family business with his brothers in 1978, sometimes a family name ceases trading as there is simply no next generation to carry the torch. President of Cork Business Association, and himself at the helm of a family business started by his parents, Kevin Herlihy says that succession is always something at the back of a family business person’s mind. “Every business is facing challenges today, no more so than ourselves,” he said. Inflation is absolutely crippling, the cost of buying goods for resale is gone through the roof, then, of course, the energy crisis is there, and the rates which the government eased off on during covid are all back and we’re paying them full whack again. “So it’s not just family businesses that are facing issues, it’s every business… but succession is certainly something that is in the back of every family business person’s mind. I suppose it’s a fact of life really. If there is no interest from the next generation or there is no next generation, then unfortunately the family business has no choice but to close up,” he added.

The closure of these family businesses is a loss for Cork’s cultural heritage and economy. Liam Ruiséal’s, for example, was one of the oldest independent bookshops in the country. The Ruiséal family carved out a reputation for specialising in local history, Irish history, educational, and rare books, and were renowned for creative window displays. Shop founder, Liam Ruiséal, a lifelong Irish republican and Irish language enthusiast, was born in Cork’s South Parish in November 1891. After finishing school in 1907, he got a job in Con O’Keeffe’s bookshop on George’s St, now Oliver Plunkett St.

With financial backing from his father, Liam Ruiséal opened the Fountain Bookshop on Grand Parade in 1916, with his future wife Bríd Dixon. During the subsequent years of turbulence as the country struggled for independence, the shop was frequently raided by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Mr Ruiséal closed that bookshop and relocated the business to Oliver Plunkett St in 1929, extending into an adjoining unit in 1966. He would continue to work in the bookshop until three weeks before his death on October 26, 1978, aged 87.

When the famous store was forced to close in 2018, the family said that trading as a small independent bookseller became too difficult due to increased competition from online retailers and large retail chains, with the economic downturn at the time also being a contributing factor. At the time, local historian Diarmuid Ó Drisceoil described Liam Ruiséal’s as being as iconic to book lovers as the English Market is to people interested in food.

The closure of these family businesses highlights the need for support for small, independent businesses. While larger retailers and online stores have their advantages, they cannot replace the unique character and charm of family-owned businesses that have been a part of the community for generations. It is important for consumers to support these businesses, and for the government to provide assistance and resources to help them compete in an ever-changing retail landscape. The loss of these businesses is not just a financial one, but a cultural one as well. Cork’s unique identity and history are tied to these family businesses, and their closure marks the end of an era for the city.

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