Oliver Callan: The turkeys of Drumlusty have seen it all
After 40 years the Callan family is bowing out of the seasonal fowl business
It’s curtains, for the last time, for the turkeys of Drumlusty
People’s memories of a year aren’t based on great events that happened in important places. History is mostly personal. 2016 might be the year you fell in or out of love, or got the kitchen repainted. Trump and Brexit merely provide the background.
I attended a grand moment of insignificant history this week. In our tiny Monaghan townland of Drumlusty, the last Callan turkeys were being executed and plucked. The parents have been rearing seasonal fowl for 40 years. This festive cottage industry could stretch further into the two centuries we know the Callans lived in this wee place that translates as the “Burnt Ridge”.
All over rural Ireland, these little moments are taking place. The cracks are small on their own, but taken together it amounts to a gaping chasm in the soul of a nation. Little lanterns of unrecorded history being quenched out of memory, by the year, the month and the week.
My father and his friend PJ Fee were plucking the turkeys in the shed, just as they did this time in 1976. The banter is merry despite the methodical clicking of necks and flapping wings of death. Then a gentle and skilful ripping covers the bare concrete floors with a wintry blanket of feathery snow. “Do you mind the fella called Barlow had a pub beyont in Dundalk? Aye, and a lad says to him, ‘Jaysus Barlow this ale is awful cloudy’. Says Barlow ‘What do you expect for £3, thunder and lightning as well?”
The home-reared turkey business is fading out like the December sun, so too the small dairy farms, remote pubs, rural shops, post-offices, national schools, Garda stations, Church Masses and life itself. The lights are going out in houses perched like little matchboxes on the drumlins, as though a giant once scattered handfuls of bungalow confetti.
How did a generation of young parents skip an old Irish tradition of faith in small farm producers, or become providers themselves? Negative equity and long commutes lock them into their homes in front of screens each night, where advertisers grab them by the frontal lobes. They steer them towards bright supermarket chains on the edges of emptying towns. The likes of Drumlusty can’t compete with glossy inserts in Sunday papers.
The happy executioners enjoy one last day of snapping napes and telling indecorous yarns that would shock Mrs Brown. They mostly feature deceased characters with wonderful nicknames such as the Judd, the Sapper, the Hoiler, Skelpo, Shakes and Pokey. “Says I, ‘the sow only had 10 teats and reared about 12 of them’. Says he, ‘aye but my mother had only two and reared eight of us’.”
These little endings to Irish country life make me feel elderly and Luddite, and I only turn 36 next Tuesday. The wall outside the turkey shed is one I used to saddle up with a half-hundred-weight calf feed bag. I bridled the gatepost with baling twine and rode through Clint Eastwood’s prairies without ever leaving sight of Drumlusty fort. We made worlds and travelled them with old planks and ruined Cortinas in jungles of nettles, long before Xboxes and Netflix replaced the imagined wonders of childhood.
The diminishing Callan customers have either died off or are now being cooked for by their children and grandchildren. The ones who don’t trust kitchen factories down boreens that fed the nation before anyone had heard of pulled pork or high-falutin beers with names like “Whispering Hipster” or “The Badger and Spoon”.
At one stage, the turkey pluckers’ chatter sounds a solemn note. There’s talk of the alcoholics in the borderlands, who live in houses so dilapidated you have to wipe your feet coming out rather than going in. Neighbours give them lifts and help patch up felt and tiles on the roofs of their broken houses. A thankless task for truly kind people who don’t expect votes, donations or media coverage.
Many rural folk, often unmarried men or widowed women, dwell in abject loneliness. There is no celebrity hashtag for them on Twitter, no actors or musicians occupying buildings in token, headline-mobbing gestures of care. In these parts, they carry heavy consciences gnawed at by the Troubles and a feeling of not just being along a border but on it, neither part of North nor South. A forgotten dark line scrawled from Cooley to Inishowen and portrayed as a haven for sneaky miscreants.
Rural voters and the old are blamed for political results that were deeply unpopular in the enlightened urban populations in 2016. They have little regard for social media debates or comment sections considered so important by the urbanites and keyboard media. So they’re rarely heard from.
Who can blame them for voting in representatives who promise and deliver services that they’re already entitled to but cannot access on their own? Who can blame them for trusting only those who acknowledge their existence on the national stage, even if they do so in earthy ways? Who can blame them for turning a blind eye to the petty corruption of those representatives, abusing a system which expects dignity but offers none in return?
Nobody listens to rural Ireland and the people elected to do so actually have a vested interest in maintaining their disadvantages. They are no longer important to the media, the State, the Church or industry. Drumlusty is getting quieter and darker by the year. The wick on a little bit of our identity is snuffed out.
At least the turkeys will be glad.