Above: The inimitable Robert Mullins.
Ennis has come a long way since 1240 AD when a thoughtful King of Thomond established a monastery here for 350 monks and 600 students. Situated on the banks of the River Fergus, the capital of County Clare is now one of the most thriving towns in the west of Ireland. President McAleese was in town on the day we encountered eighty-five-year-old Bob Mullins.
Bob is a Tipperary man. He was the third of seven children born to a farmer near the village of Garbally in the beautiful Glen of Aherlow. For the past sixty-five years, he has got out of bed at 4:30 every Saturday morning and made his way to Ennis Market. No other town benefits from his presence but Ennis. ‘I love Clare and the people of Clare,’ says Bob, ‘and that is a very fact.’
Founded in 1609, Ennis Market has changed a good deal, even in Bob’s lifetime. ‘Sixty-five years is only like five minutes,’ he says. ‘When I started it was all asses and carts. Everyone was selling vegetables and turf. The place was amok with cattle and pigs. There’s no livestock anymore. That’s all gone into the mart now.’
The chaotic presence of livestock came to an end with the opening of the purpose-built ‘cattle mart’ in 1957. Many local farmers initially boycotted the mart but, inevitably, the mart won the day and, by 1988, one of the mart’s best years, nearly 92,000 cattle were sold there.
Today Ennis market is all about home furnishings, fashion accessories, cheap electronics and shrubberies. Bob and his son run a nursery in Garbally. ‘Mighty God grows them for me.’ He knows his stuff. ‘That’s an aucuba japonica,’ he asserts, tapping a spotted laurel. ‘What about a Fitzroya cupressoides?’ he suggests of a Patagonian Cypress.
Though he bears a tough no-nonsense aura, Bob has a merry twinkle that has given him an iconic status amongst the citizens of Ennis. Younger woman constantly come and greet the widower and he responds with suitably curt flirtations.
‘When that man passes away we’re taking down O’Connell’s statue and putting him up instead,’ laughs Micky who sells cabbages at the next door stall. ‘They will like feck,’ says Bob with the vaguest hint of a smile.