Life

Meat Michael McCormick, the butcher who's become a legend on the Lisburn Road

From household names to mere mortals, ask anyone on the Lisburn Road in Belfast who Michael McCormick is and they'll likely know him as their larger-than-life neighbourhood butcher. As he prepares to put away his knives for the last time on 'the road', Joanne Sweeney finds about the life and times of a local legend

Joanne Sweeney
09 July, 2016 01:00

WHEN the poet Michael Longley immortalises your sausages in a poem and raves about your lambs' kidneys to the press, that's a commendation that most butchers would give their ribeye for.

But then, Michael McCormick, owner of Murphy's Quality Meats on Belfast's Lisburn Road, is not your average butcher.

Known as the ever-friendly head of a Lisburn Road 'institution', the master butcher will be hanging up his apron today when Murphy's closes after 33 years of business. Just ahead of turning 65 in September, Michael has decided to sell the shop to Co Down-based butchery chain Corries.

And even though, for some of Murphy's dedicated customers, the change represents the end of an era, Michael's considerable legacy will live when a refurbished shop reopens under its new owners.

His customer list has included some the biggest names from the world of sport, television, literature and politics in the north; and while he and his team have made sure that Murphy's has been, for customers, a place where everyone knows your name, perhaps inevitably Michael himself has been called 'Murphy' rather than 'McCormick' for years by some.

But the butcher has a fascinating life story of his own to tell which includes how he overcame alcoholism 32 years ago to finally make his wife and daughter Lisa (a successful BBC Tees journalist) proud; how the original owner of Murphy's – David Murphy – believed in him enough to give him one more chance, which led him to making the business his own, and how a gamble on a beef and Guinness sausage gave him the stake to buy the shop.

Michael McCormick in his own words

The master butcher who trained as an apprentice in England takes up the story and tells how the date July 9 has become synonymous for making dramatic positive change in his life.

"The original owner David Murphy opened the shop at 400 Lisburn Road in 1983 with a wine and cheese party hosted by celebrity chef Claire Connery. I was married to my wife Dianne, in my early 30s living in the Tonagh estate in Lisburn and drinking heavily. I was a practising alcoholic then, as I like to call it," recalls Michael.

"I would have gone on a drinking binge on and off. David would have taken me back and always given me another chance but then eventually he had had enough and fired me.

"The next year I finally cried out for help. I was completely finished. I became unemployable, my wife had left me and taken our baby daughter Lisa with her. I was bankrupt as well. I was just a broken man in every department – mentally, spiritually, physically, financially; everything was gone. So I phoned a fellowship that will remain anonymous and asked for help.

"I met a man called Gerry M and he suggested that I go along with him to a meeting and I was to meet him outside a shop at 156 Longstone Street, Lisburn. I went to a meeting that night and I haven't needed to take a drink since."

Michael, the second youngest of a proud working-class family, took his first drink at the age of 12 and says that he was hooked from then on.

"I didn't want to drink. But I didn't realise that I was powerless. Once I took the first drink something happened and I had to drink more. I drank for the effect [of drink]. I didn't drink because I liked the taste of it. I drank for what it did for me, to bring me to the level of a normal person as I always felt two steps behind [everyone else]. That's why I think I became a good butcher because I had to do something that was better than I was."

He is forever grateful that Mr Murphy offered to take him back after firing him once he heard that Michael was off the drink.

And in a strange twist of fate, his kind benefactor met with a tragic end that would ultimately lead to his taking over the shop and to making his family – especially his now deceased parents – proud.

"David loved to go scuba diving and snorkelling and the year after I went back he went off to the West Indies to meet a brother he hadn't seen for years.

"But tragically he disappeared after he went into the water, never to be seen again, and was later declared dead. We all worked very hard to help Wendy, David's widow, keep the business going and she kindly later gave me a chance to take over the lease."

Between devising and selling out the beef and Guinness sausages at the Ideal Home Exhibition which managed to raise some capital towards the lease price, Michael managed to buy the business – and the rest, as they say, is history.

He adds: "On this July 9 I will close the shop but it was also the day that I stopped drinking and the date that Dianne and I bought our first home together.

"I would like to thank everyone who has helped me along the way, to pay tribute to my wife and daughter and to thank all of my customers who have been so loyal over the years and to also to wish the Corries all the very best on the road."

PRIME CUTS: WHAT THE CUSTOMERS SAY

Poet Michael Longley CBE and his family have shopped at Murphy's for over 40 years

"I actually believe that the Lisburn Road is the centre of the universe and an important part of that is Murphy's shop. I think that civilisation is what Michael actually represents really. I like to queue up just before Christmas to collect the turkey and ham in what is an almost military operation. It's a pleasure to shop there."

Ireland and Ulster rugby international Tommy Bowe has been a Murphy's customer for over four years

"Michael's very well-known in rugby circles for helping us out with good big portions of meat. I know he's looked after Rory Best and Andrew Trimble and the lads for years when they trained out of Newforge. He's a real character and incredible at how he remembers every customer's names and even their kids' names."

Kerry Kearney, daughter of broadcaster Wendy Austin, is a third-generation customer after her mother and grandmother Irene Austin shopped at Murphy's since the shop was in Bradbury Place

"We'd have starved without Murphy's. Mum was always popping in for their sausages, or a Sunday roast – and of course a bit of craic or advice from Michael and Jackie. It's a Lisburn Road institution! And Granny who was a great cook just loved them."

Finance minister and former Belfast Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is a regular customer

“If a Martian landed on the Lisburn Road and asked to be taken to our leader, I suspect most locals would take our alien visitor to Murphy’s butcher’s rather than Stormont. For master butcher Michael is at once the mayor, elder, guru and king of the road. "

09 July, 2016 01:00 Life