Festival Fit: slimy oysters, sizzling rashers and skimpy Speedos in Co Galway

The Galway Oyster Festival leaves Mark Graham a little cold, but the Leenane Autumnal Festival warms the cockles of his heart

While slurping down slimy shellfish at Galway Oyster Festival last week, I may have hit upon the reason bivalves are believed to work wonders for the libido. I would have gladly put anything in my mouth if only to effectively block the entrance of another oyster, including someone else's tongue or toe.

Granted, na oisrí Gaillimhe were a particularly fine and fresh specimen, but every time I swallowed or chewed one, I couldn't get over the fact that they tasted just like salty water with an added dot of Tabasco. Aren't oysters just like going for a swim in the Atlantic with a runny nose, a strong inclination to avoid nasal drip and the unabashed ability to hock a loogie in public? It's quite possible I'm a foodie philistine.

The gulping gourmands weren't in town just to gobble down oysters by the basketload and quaff champagne and stout by the bucketful; there was the business of the World Oyster Opening Championship to be dealt with. I listened to the former Irish and European champion shucker, Michael Moran, describe how fellow competitors on the world championship circuit psych themselves up like prize fighters before they get in the ring, cutting themselves off from the hubbub with headphones and motivational music. He described oyster shuckers as rock stars of the seafood world, and I laughed along with his jokingly made comparison. Unfortunately, he wasn't joking.

Jesper Knudsen from Denmark took this year’s title; his newfound shuck-stardom will see him playing shellfish stadia around the globe.


Having had my fill of pastel slacks, frocks and shuckers, I headed to Connemara for Leenane's Autumnal Festival, and, while driving through the achingly beautiful countryside, I caught up with a familiar feeling that has me somewhat addicted to life on the road. There was a horse fair happening at Maam Cross, and a gnarled farmer in a woolly hat that had as much personality as the dude under it saluted Wanderly Wagon as if we were hauling a horsebox ourselves. There was a Spartan food wagon at the side of the road advertising its sole offering: rasher sandwiches. The foodie philistine in me kicked off his boots and made himself comfortable – the dude in the caipín had been welcoming us home.

The shifting green gallery of the sweeping hills was tarnished in patches with a rusted brown that turned gold when the sun snuck out from under a cloud. The leafless hawthorn trees stood stark beside lichen-stained stone walls, splattering the scene with the contrasting pointillism of their crimson berries. The grey, skeletal stones jutted out from the land in odd places, and jet-black-faced sheep stood in the middle of the road, staring down the van, unmistakable masters of the domain. The crystal-clear water lapped gently onto the white sand at Dogs Bay, but here the spell of the postcard-perfect scenery was broken. I pulled on the speedos and went in for a dip. Not a pretty sight.

The vibe in Leenane was more laid-back than that in the city, the lack of dress-code helping. There were oysters, but cockles and mussels seemed more popular. There was brown bread, buns, freshly churned butter, basket weavers, a trad trio and a pig roasting on a turf-and-block fire. This was more my scene. I understand the attraction of the oyster festival in town, especially for the crew who get dolled up and hit the races during the summer, but I found the spin out around Connemara a most satisfying change of gear. I bought an apple tart and a St Brigid's cross. The apple tart was much tastier.

This weekend there are more foodie festival offerings in Dingle and Ennis, but I'm heading for our equivalent of the markets of Marrakech and the Camel Festival in Rajasthan: Ballinasloe Horse Fair. I'll make do with a rasher sandwich.

Safe travels, don’t die.