Butcher boy: Conor Pope’s day behind the counter at FX Buckley

FX Buckley: Erin Mac an tSaoir, manager John Collins, owner Paddy Buckley, Carlos Ruelafcalin, Fran Bennett, Ann Crawford and Frank McMahon of the Moore Street butcher, in Dublin. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

“The sex organs of the male lamb are popular,” says Paddy Buckley from behind his spartanly furnished wooden desk in an office two floors above the Moore Street butcher’s shop which has carried his family name for the guts of 100 years.

I cross my legs and shift uncomfortably in an old wooden chair that creaks ominously as he talks but, despite my unease, he continues in the same vein.

“The balls,” he clarifies with a panache I think unnecessary. “I’m talking about the balls.”

He pauses. “We don’t call them that mind you, we call them lamb fries.”

It’s not hard to see why the product is somewhat euphemistically named, and while FX Buckley is not a place for the faint-hearted, flogging the testicles of baby sheep so brazenly might be a big ask.

I stand on the sawdust-strewn shop floor of one of the most old-school butcher’s in Ireland staring sadly at a pig’s head and holding an enormous ox heart in my hand

It is not found wanting in the other organ stakes. Over the course of a summer’s morning, the stream of people who come through the doors in search of kidneys, livers, the hearts of sheep, oxen and chicken as well as pigs ears and trotters is steady.

There is even a full pig’s head, waiting in a cold room deep in the bowels of the shop for someone to collect.

That someone is not – and never will be – me.

As I stand on the sawdust-strewn shop floor of one of the most old-school butcher’s in Ireland staring sadly at the pig’s head, and holding an enormous ox heart in my hand, I rewind the film of my life several hours back to my kitchen.

“The photographer will make you pose with a pig’s head you know,” my non-meat-eating wife told me with some horror as I readied myself for my day as a butcher’s boy.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I responded. “There’ll be no pigs’ heads. Sure who would buy a pig’s head? And why would I need to touch it? There will be no blood on my hands.”

Less than two hours later and here I am, staring at a bloody pig’s head, which, in case you have ever wondered, is considerably more revolting from behind than it is from the front.

It is, I am told, lovely roasted.

Conor Pope sees the funny side of life in the butchering trade. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times
FX Buckley: Conor Pope’s wife warned him he’d have to pose with a pig’s head. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

Paddy Buckley is untroubled by the visceral nature of such things. Butchery is in his blood and he has been working in the business since he left school in 1970.

His father opened the Moore Street shop in 1930 after learning his trade in his own father’s butcher shop on nearby Dorset Street.

It would have been Paddy’s grandfather John who sold Leopold Bloom his breakfast kidneys in the summer of the 1904 but not, perhaps, on Thursdays.

“Thursday not a good day either for a mutton kidney at Buckleys fried with butter a shake of pepper better a pork kidney at Dlugaczs,” says Bloom in one of the early chapters of Ulysses.

While most companies would be delighted with a single namecheck in one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, the Buckleys managed two with Molly giving it a mention as well, although not in the most flattering of terms.

Paddy gives me a postcard on which the words of Molly and Leopold appear. “I’ve done your work for you,” he says as he hands it over.

He has certainly done a bit of that work. On the card Molly’s is quoted as saying: “That everlasting butchers meat from Buckleys loin chops and leg beef and rib steak and scrag of mutton and calfs pluck.”

That is not the complete quote however, and the top and bottom of have been chopped off with the razor sharp precision of a master butcher. What Molly actually said was: “Ill get a nice piece of cod Im always getting enough for 3 forgetting anyway Im sick of that everlasting butchers meat from Buckleys loin chops and leg beef and rib steak and scrag of mutton and calfs pluck, the very name is enough.”

FX Buckley: Conor Pope (left) with owner Paddy Buckley and manager John Collins. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
FX Buckley: Conor Pope (left) with owner Paddy Buckley (right) and manager John Collins. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

What used to be called “calf’s pluck” is now known commonly as offal, and Paddy has sold a good deal of it over a career spanning almost 50 years. He has the trade almost to himself now. When he started out there were, he says, dozens of butcher shops on Moore Street. “That was a long time ago, mind you. Today there are only two of us left.”

He nearly slung his butcher’s hook himself during the boom, after being offered “a colossal amount of money” by the Chartered Land developers who had planned to build an enormous shopping mall that would have eaten Moore Street whole.

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“I said no because we were really busy,” he says. “But then the Cross City Luas works came and that took a lot of the business away from us during the construction, and we never really got it all back.”

That shopping centre never materialised, and the latest iteration of plans to develop the area will focus more on creating and reinventing streets. Paddy is optimistic the fresh plans will be more sympathetic to local traders, and says it has been a long time coming.

We are meat eaters and have been meat eaters for thousands of years. That won’t stop. And animal husbandry in Ireland is better than anywhere else

“For more than 15 years we have had over six acres of the inner city fronting on to O’Connell Street, Henry Street, Moore Street and Parnell Street lying almost completely idle. Moore Street is nothing to be proud of today. Once there were three traders outside our shop, now there are none. They have all left because of neglect.”

While business looks brisk, he says the shop is “not as busy as we need to be”. I ask if trade has been hit by a shift towards a plant-based diet as environmental concerns about meat eating mounts.

“Ah no. We are meat eaters and have been meat eaters for thousands of years. That won’t stop,” he says. “And animal husbandry in Ireland is better than anywhere else and our farmers are doing a great job.”

He has, however, seen changes in how people eat meat, and cites a reduced demand for the traditional Sunday roast. “Sitting down for Sunday lunch doesn’t really happen anymore, certainly not like it used to. People don’t want to spend time roasting a chicken even, they just want chicken breast because it’s about speed. Back in the day, maybe the wife would’ve been at home and would have been able to spend time cooking, but now women are busy all of the time and don’t want to spend time in the kitchen cooking.”

It was a different world when FX Buckley was opened by Francis Xavier in 1930. The success of the Moore Street shop saw him open a string of shops across the city, with six of his seven sons and one of his six daughters joining him in the business.

FX is long gone, but his mark endures in the form of a pink neon strip light over the meat counter with the legend: Meat Par Excellence.

It is a phrase Francis happened up when he and his wife Dausie went to Paris for their honeymoon and it has featured in the shop ever since.

“We had a lot of shops; at one time I think we had more than 13, now there are four,” Paddy says. “When it came to dividing up the butchering business between the family, it all worked out amicably.”

Some siblings took shops, another took the restaurant, one took the slaughter house.

Conor Pope under the eye of Paddy Buckley. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times
Conor Pope under the eye of Paddy Buckley. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

Paddy says he misses the city centre slaughter houses. When he left school in 1969, animals would be brought from Smithfield into town and butchered adjacent to the shops. “We had an abattoir on Camden Street, but regulations made life very difficult to operate like that.”

Other changes to the broader butcher business have been profound, but FX Buckley is still a long way from the somewhat sanitised meat counters found in supermarkets, where you might struggle to buy a shin or cheek of beef.

Paddy says the popularity of the latter has increased dramatically in recent years.

“In the past we couldn’t sell it. Now it is very fashionable, and you see it on the menus in Chapter One and people are coming in looking for it so they can serve it at dinner parties. It’s a speciality now and pretty cheap, although like anything, supply and demand has seen prices increase.”

Veal is popular among Italians, while trotters and pigs ears are mostly sold to eastern Europeans, Moroccans and Filipinos. Rabbit is also very popular “with everyone”, says Paddy, as are the liver and chicken hearts. “You just need to fry them in garlic and serve them with a salad,” he tells me.

I look unconvinced.

“You should try in, it is delicious,” he says.

I still look unconvinced.

“Ah I know, people are funny about it,” he accepts. “They will insist on the giblets of a turkey so they can make gravy, and turn their noses up at the chicken hearts.”

FX Buckley: the Moore Street window display. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
FX Buckley: the Moore Street window display. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

More than once Paddy refers to FX Buckley as “real butchers”, and his pride in the fact that he and his team “are breaking up the cattle and sheep every day” is evident.

“When you have a beast on the block you don’t think of the live animal,” he says. “If it’s really good quality meat you can get real pleasure out of handling it and breaking it up. I do anyway.”

Buckley’s three children are travelling on different paths and look unlikely to follow in his footsteps, although his grandson Callum is working in the shop this summer. I ask if he would like to be a butcher.

“No,” he says without a second’s hesitation.

Callum has only been in the shop couple of weeks. But many of the staff – just like his granddad – are FX lifers. Carol Feeney is office administrator, and has been with Buckley’s for 40 years. “I did my Inter Cert and was told that if I didn’t get a job I would have to go back and do my Leaving,” she says. “So I got a job here, and here I am still.”

Paddy interrupts her and points to a photograph hanging prominently in the office they share. “You see all that meat hanging in the shop in that picture? You’re not allowed do that any more. That’s a pity.”

Whatever about hanging meat, the man with the impressive sideburns connected artfully to a similarly impressive moustache is what stands out in the picture.

“That’s me,” he says. “Not many people could carry that look off back in the day. It was very unique.”

FX Buckley: owner Paddy Buckley with his grandson Callum. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
FX Buckley: owner Paddy Buckley with his grandson Callum. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

Ann Crawford is another lifer and she is busying herself on the shop floor. “I look after the office and the cold meats and the fish . . . but not all at the same time,” she stresses. “We don’t sell much fish here but it is still a good thing to have it, and most people like to come in and have a look at the displays. So it is an attraction.”

The shop is a bit of a tourist attraction all right, and people are frequently found taking pictures of it in all its grizzly glory. “Sometimes when I see tourists taking photographs I ask how many they have taken and say that there is a €2 charge for each one. I am only messing though,” says Paddy.

As I stand uselessly behind a counter, a man comes in and asks for two lambs’ hearts. He is immediately followed by woman in the market for two pigs’ ears and two pigs’ trotters

Eventually I sell a customer something I have eaten. Maureen Doyle from Pearse Street asks for some white pudding. “I used to do all my shopping here years ago but I do most of it in Dunnes,” she tells me. “It is just handier, although the white pudding here is brilliant.”

Just look at all the stupid cooking programmes on the television. There’s something like 36 of them, and the only good cook is Neven Maguire

She talks to a backing track of hacksaw on bone. It is being wielded close to where we are talking by Fran Bennett, as old school as they come. He was born in Cabra 60 years ago and started out as a butcher’s boy at just 13. “People from Glasnevin and Phibsborough would ring the butcher on a Monday and order meat for that day and for the next couple of days. Then on Fridays they’d come in and settle up, and order their meat for the weekends.

“I’d make up the orders in parcels wrapped with brown paper and deliver them on my bike.”

He stops to draw breath. “That was a real proper bike, very heavy with a metal basket in the front. I tell you that was a challenge, going up the Glasnevin hills when you just 13 years old with 30 or 40 parcels of meat on the bike.”

Bennett is a man of strong opinions and strong language and unafraid to speak his mind. “I’ve a real thing against freezers,” he says unexpectedly. “Eating fresh meat is much better.”

He recalls “years ago doing a radio programme and I said I could feed four adults for three days for £10. It was easy.”

FX Buckley: Erin Mac an tSaoir, manager John Collins, owner Paddy Buckley, Carlos Ruelafcalin, Fran Bennett, Ann Crawford and Frank McMahon of the Moore Street butcher, in Dublin. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
FX Buckley: Erin Mac an tSaoir, manager John Collins, owner Paddy Buckley, Carlos Ruelafcalin, Fran Bennett, Ann Crawford and Frank McMahon of the Moore Street butcher, in Dublin. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

He takes me through it step by step. “You’ve the mince for burgers and stewing steak and potatoes and carrots and bread and butter. It is all real food. There isn’t enough of that any more. I was in a supermarket recently and saw a woman with a trolley full of stuff and not a single proper meal in there. People need to go back to eating fresh meat with no plastic and no freezers.

“I’m telling you straight up. Just look at all the stupid cooking programmes on the television. There’s something like 36 of them, and the only good cook is Neven Maguire. And what is wrong with Kerrygold? That is the best butter and the only one we need, so why is there an aisle full of butter replacements? I don’t care about cholesterol. Everything is geared towards getting people to spend money on stuff they don’t need.”

Then he has a go at lightweight butchers. “Butchery is a proper craft, I can do the killing too. But we get people who jack it in after three days because they can’t hack it. It is a real skill and it annoys me when I see these guys bringing stuff in cardboard boxes and calling themselves butchers when all they are doing is taking stuff out of boxes.”

Erin Mac an tSaoir is from East Wall and has been working in the shop for just three weeks while on his summer holidays from college.

“There are loads of things here that I’ve never eaten,” he admits. “You don’t really get to eat much meat when you are a student, and I’ve never had chicken hearts because my nanny does the cooking and she wouldn’t be mad for cooking them.”

I think I know how she feels.