Cleave Campaign – Frank McNally on Patrick Kavanagh and Cross-Border Turkeys

An Irishman’s Diary

“Turkey money” was long a staple of Irish rural life in general, a well-timed seasonal supplement to whatever else could be earned on a farm during the year.

“Turkey money” was long a staple of Irish rural life in general, a well-timed seasonal supplement to whatever else could be earned on a farm during the year.

 

To most people now, a “cleaver” is a deadly instrument, typically seen (you hope) in the hands of a butcher. But the word used to have another, very different meaning: poultry dealer. That was from “cleave”: a large, wicker basket used in the trade. And if those kinds of cleavers were less deadly, they could be sharp enough in their own way.

The sharpest in Ireland, probably, were the cleavers of Crossmaglen, whose fame was recorded for posterity by Patrick Kavanagh. In a Christmas essay of 1945, “The Turkey Market”, he starts off poetically, recalling the pre-dawn preparations, under a starry Inniskeen sky, for a fair-day in Dundalk. Then he gets to the market, and an encounter with cross-border turkey buyers, who knock some of the poetry out of him.

Although written at the end of one war, it was set during an earlier one: de Valera’s economic war of the 1930s. For this and other reasons, the turkey market was depressed. So the only buyers of Kavanagh’s produce that day were smugglers from Crossmaglen. “And though nobody has a higher opinion of the cleavers of Cross from a romantic viewpoint than I,” he wrote, “at the same time I could never recommend them as wholesale buyers.”

A typical softening-up tactic they used was feeling a sample turkey’s breast and then admiring, for anyone in earshot, the bird’s antiquity. “That’s an oul’ warrior”, they would say. 

Despite such slights, Kavanagh held his nerve to ask for “eightpence a pound”: a highly romantic valuation that caused the cleavers to replace the turkey on the cart, pull the sheet over it “with an air of finality”, and walk away. Then of course he called them back, from where on the price was heading sharply downwards, towards the dealers’ opening bid of “three and sixpence”.

I’m not sure how the actual war of 1939-45 affected cleavers. Certainly, cross-border turkey trafficking was still going strong after it, and well into the 1950s at least.

But such were the business opportunities for smugglers during the conflict, the cleavers may well have diversified into areas with even higher margins.

Writing elsewhere in 1945, Kavanagh mentions the shortage of farm labour in Monaghan then, caused by the absence of casual harvesters who formerly travelled from South Armagh, but “are today all in the millionaire class”.

No doubt he was exaggerating here, and again when remembering their prewar work ethic: “Little they then realised the fortunes that were to be theirs when in the Klondyke of a little store of tea or rivets, or of God knows what, they would stake their claims.”

But exaggeration or not, the old, semi-hard border was indeed a boon for certain entrepreneurs. Even now, there may be a few in South Armagh quietly hoping for its return. In these Brexit-dominated times, to coin a phrase, cleavers would not all be remainers.

“Turkey money” was long a staple of Irish rural life in general, a well-timed seasonal supplement to whatever else could be earned on a farm during the year.

My own Auntie Mary used always raise a small flock, up in the hills of east Cavan, a few miles west of Kavanagh country.  

In her case, it was mostly philanthropy. The turkeys were destined to be Christmas presents for extended family, including us.

They might travel as far as Dublin, but I’m fairly sure none of them ever ended up in Crossmaglen.

As children, we sometimes had to pluck them, which was hard work. If you’d been doing it professionally at the time, the going rate in some markets was £1 a head, although that may have included execution, something we never had to do.

I suppose cleavers of the other kind are often used in the grim business of dispatching turkeys.

In Auntie Mary’s, it was always neck-wringing, which in the right hands (ideally at the end of long, strong arms, because they had to hold the bird by one end while strangling with the other) was fairly instantaneous and humane. I witnessed it often enough to have a general idea how to do it, but I don’t think I’d trust myself with the task even now.

Plucking them was traumatic enough, although hard as turkeys could be, geese were worse. It seems fitting that a bird whose feathers were for centuries used as writing equipment yields them with great reluctance. There’s a poetic metaphor there about the difficulty of finding the right words. Less poetically, when turkey pluckers were getting £1 a bird, the rate for geese was £2.  

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