Three Sisters Turkey Trade

Traditionally Christmas has been a time of excess when whatever you were celebrating was marked by feasting and making merry.  Turkey originated in Europe with the early explorers returning from America with breeding pairs.  The large bird became a favourite for feasting and special occasions.  The industrial revolution led to an increase in demand as more and more families’ incomes rose.  Turkey, a large, meaty bird, provided an excellent option to feed hungry families. The imported birds adapted well to the new climate and quickly established themselves on Irish farms, principally for an export market of the burgeoning industrial cities of Scotland, Wales, and England.  This article paints a picture of what the local scene looked like in the opening decade of the 20th Century.

Waterford Quays in the early 20th Century were heaving under the weight of fowl lining the busy streets of the town.  The city was utilising its location and thriving coastal trade links to the UK to service a voracious market within hours of the city, supplied from the conduits of the rivers, roads, and the train lines that radiated towards the city quays.

A Fowl Trade

A local paper gives a sense of this trade in 1907 with a roundup of the local suppliers and their activities.  The firms included Messrs Flynn and Young of Conduit Lane, W Street of Beau Street, Messrs C J Hill, King Street (Now O’Connell St).  Prices vary from each firm for the birds, but for a sense of the variety on offer and the price here’s what Street & Co are paying: Cock turkeys, from 12s to 25s per pair; hen turkeys, 9s to 11s per pair; geese,  9s to 11s per pair; chickens, 4s to 4s 8d per pair, and ducks 4s 6d per pair.[I] 

A load of Turkeys outside the Flynn & Young premises in Conduit Lane. AH Poole photo originally via Val Flynn

Although the market includes the local, a significant amount is for export to Scotland, Wales, and England.  An estimated 25,000 turkeys have already been processed in Waterford that year  – killed, cleaned, plucked, and trussed.  Some were also sent abroad as presents.  According to the article, the quality of the Irish turkey exceeds that on offer from the continent or Russia and prices are good to the women on the farms of the surrounding countryside.[ii]

An internal shot of the Flynn & Young Premises with a large supply of salmon laid out on the left, suggesting it is summertime. Note a block of ice suspended overhead. AH Poole photo NLI

Each of the companies seems to have a different focus and it seems geese are making a better price this year but had slumped previously due to cheaper imports from Russia.  The farm women had got out of geese as a consequence, but due to a fall in supply from the East, geese were now in demand and prices were good for those who continued to rear them.[iii]

AH Poole photo from the NLI showing cartloads of Turkeys and other goods along the Quay of Waterford in 1907

Hill reports that, although Irish birds are meeting stiff competition from the French and Italians, (apparently because they show little care in the feeding and general treatment – but maybe that was just a bias of the journalist!), Irish reared turkeys continue to hold their own.   Irish geese, they claim, are a thing of the past.  “We are unable to compete with cheaper produce from Russia, and consequently there is neither the supply nor demand that ruled previous years”.[iv]

As I said not all these birds were for the foreign market.  A reporter of 1901 gives a sense of a vibrant scene, that would not be out of place in 2021.  “The season of Christmas is fast approaching, and the owners of business houses in the city are taxing all their ingenuity to make their respective establishments as attractive as possible. This is as true of the smallest shopfront to the monster warehouses. Fowl of every kind—geese and turkeys in particular—is very much in evidence… All the business houses in the city are arranged with excellent taste, especially those along the Quay, indicating that Christmas is to be viewed with eagerness and looked back upon with pleasure.”[v]

Adverts also highlighted a vibrant local trade as evidenced by the advert from AS Furlongs of 77 The Quay, Waterford. Waterford Standard – Saturday 20 December 1902; page 1 and below Waterford Standard – Saturday 12 December 1903; page 2
And not all that were sent abroad were specifically exports. Some were sent as presents to relatives working abroad as evidenced by this advert from the Waterford Standard – Wednesday 11 December 1901; page 2. And just like today’s retailers, Flynn & Young were keen to let local customers know that it’s best to get your orders in early to avoid disappointment.

In 1906 inmates and staff of the Waterford District Lunatic Asylum, 572 in all, were said to have “enjoyed a fine Christmas with the dining hall decorated with flowers, evergreens, and mottoes…  dinner…consisted of roast beef and mutton, turkeys and ham, potatoes and vegetables… afterward plum pudding was served…and a bottle of stout to those inmates who could take It or to whom it was allowed”[vi]

Meanwhile, at the Military Barracks, the day was celebrated with “more than the usual gusto…The fare for dinner consisted of turkeys, goose, partridges, pheasants, and roast beef and mutton, with veg of various kinds and potatoes” drink isn’t mentioned, but doubtless if flowed.[vii]

Markets and Transport

In 1907, it would appear that Messrs Flynn and Young were buying largely in Wexford.  “Several times during the past week they chartered the new steamer on the Waterford and Duncannon service, and one day alone this steamer brought 2,085 turkeys from South Wexford and district” [viii] The steamer was the SS Duncannon which due to local pressure was brought in to replace the loss of the PS Vandeleur and other ships that had connected Duncannon, Arthurstown, Ballyhack, Passage and Cheekpoint with daily sailings from 1837.  The Duncannon service would continue to 1917 when the vessel was requisitioned for war services and the service was discontinued. The turkeys were also transported via road on carts or via freight carriages on trains.

A price list for Flynn & Young, date unknown. Image courtesy of Val Flynn.

Local agents also worked on behalf of the firms, middlemen who in some cases could be rather unscrupulous as we will see below.  In New Ross a fowl market was held on a regular basis, the Paddle Steamer Ida acting as a good conduit for the transport of the birds to the city.  The PS Ida stopped running to Waterford in 1905 – the New Ross to Waterford railway had opened in 1904!) In 1903 for example the New Ross Standard reported that “The great Christmas fowl market was held in New Ross on Saturday last. Turkeys and every description of fowl were marketed in great number and good condition…The market was well attended by the Waterford, Wexford, and local buyers”[ix]

Some turkey farmers had their private clientele too as this postcard highlights sent by Mrs Pearl O’Neill nee Phelan anxious to be sure the turkey dispatched by rail had arrived safely from her farm on the Fethard Road, Clonmel, Co Tipperary. With thanks to Alan O’Neill
Patrick Kirby employed up to 300 seasonal town workers at Christmas time in Lough St, Carrick On Suir. In 1911 for example he delivered 100 tons of dead turkeys to England and on 11th December alone sent 1,000 chickens. Extra railway porters had to be employed to handle them. Photo and information supplied by Patsy Travers Mullins

In 1908 a market was held in Chaple in Wexford and was described as follows: “…was of very large dimensions, people attending with their turkeys and geese from a radius of five miles…The attendance of buyers was very good, Wexford and New Ross were well represented, and it was estimated that no less than £2,000 worth of the feathered tribe were purchased. The vicinity of the railway station was packed, and several wagons left during the day, besides many horse load by road… [a] representative of a large London poultry firm, with his New Ross agent, was in attendance also, and purchased very cautiously.”[x]  For a sense of the export business in 1908, the Waterford Chronicle reported that Flynn and Young alone, disposed of some 10,000 turkeys for the English and Scotch markets.[xi]

In 1909 we are told that Waterford poultry merchants have spent at least £10,000 in purchasing turkeys to meet that year’s demand. A good financial season is hoped for and  “…This is made more ensured now that the local railway and steamship company are offering exceptional facilities to the poultry merchants, rates having been reasonably reduced, and besides transit is now much quicker and safer than in years gone by.”[xii]

PS Ida alongside in New Ross. Andy Kelly Collection.

A flavour, if you will pardon the pun, of the scene at Ballyhack is provided by the New Ross Standard that same year:  “The turkeys are gone, but not with a vengeance. They went in carts and cars, hundreds upon hundreds of them, to Ballyhack on Monday and Tuesday last, and from thence to Waterford to undergo the death sentence in preparation for the Christmas dinners of the inhabitants of John Bull’s land. John Bull has an enormous appetite, and thousands of turkeys will go to satisfy it on Christmas and succeeding days. Everywhere you hear talk about the turkeys. They are a fertile source of gossip. It would be difficult to imagine Christmas without them. It is a pity that we cannot keep some of them for use in Ireland, and not send them all to gorge John Bull”[xiii]

In 1906 the new railway line connection to Rosslare opened up new possibilities to exporters.  However, trade continued in and out of the port city.  In December that year, Great Western Railroad Co ran the Great Southern and the Great Western on a regular basis to Fishguard and on by rail to London.  Clyde Shipping Co and Waterford Steam Ship Co also continued to trade as the advert below highlights.

Source: Waterford News Letter 8 December 1906; page 2
SS Dunbrody alongside one of Waterfords many floating hulks to avoid the notorious mud banks

Foul Trade – Crime and punishment

Given the popularity of the bird and the economic benefits, a criminal element was also associated with them.  In 1909 for example there was a crime spree reported in the Campile and Sheilbaggan districts of Wexford where no distinction between rich or poor turkey farmers was made by the perpetrators of “this reprehensible work”  The “stealers…carried on their work cleverly, stealing only a small number of birds, and extending their operations over a wide area. One poor woman had three birds ready for the market, and when she went out one morning she found that they had been stolen”  It was described as “low conduct” and  “a very mean crime”. [xiv]

In 1906 the same paper reported on two cases connected to the feathered friend, or maybe in this case fiend!  The petty sessions at Arthurstown heard of a dispute between two locals named Young and Conway who in an ironic twist, had throttled each other after a falling out about the cost of a bird.  Meanwhile, two men from Nuke – John Shea and John White had come to blows over a matter of turkey trespass. [xv] The two johnnies how are you!!

In September that same year in Fethard (On Sea had yet to be added), Ellen Jacob Ralph summoned a neighbour James Dunphy after his dog savaged her “real good turkey that was laying all the year round”  The turkey strayed “only into Dunphy’s Turnips – not in his corn” and was so badly mauled she could not even eat it. It seems no defence was put forward and Dunphy was fined a shilling and paid his neighbour 5s in compensation.[xvi]

Of course, there were other challenges for farmers; unscrupulous business practices.  At the Callan Petty Sessions in Kilkenny in January 1908 no less than four buyers were before the magistrates charged with having inaccuracies in their weighing measurements – calculated to give them a financial advantage over the producer.   Sergeant McDermott, inspector of weights and measures successfully prosecuted all four, despite their excuses, named Nolan, Lanigan, Griffin, and Costigan [xvii]

Blackguarding was just as harshly dealt with in Wexford Town.  That same January a laggard found himself before the court.  ” Why did you steal the turkey?” asked the magistrate. “Oh, it was merely due to impulse,” responded the prisoner, in an off-hand sort of way, glancing the while round the court as if he were a mere spectator. “yes, impulse is a curious thing,” responded the magistrate, musingly, after trying vainly to attract the prisoner’s attention. ” I feel an uncontrollable impulse just now to sentence you to six months. It is merely impulse, but there it is.[xviii]

Meanwhile back in Waterford turkey tangler Mrs. Mary Cullen was before the courts for using language that was described as abusive and filthy and given the season “…could not by any means be taken to convey peace and goodwill” Mrs. Cullen was delivering a load of turkeys at Messrs Flynn and Young’s in her cart when she stopped in the middle of High St., which was highly congested at the time.  When Constable Organ told her to move on, as the cart was causing an obstruction and congestion in the street, things became heated.  The case before the City Police Court was adjourned to await the next Petty Sessions court.[xix] (Where Mrs. Cullen was fined 5s and Costs!)


Although I can’t pretend to know much about the rearing of turkeys or the details of farm life then or now some details that I picked up from the papers may give a sense of the reality of the time.  The work seems to have been an aside for the women of the farms, and as such probably represented their only income stream independent of their husbands.

The work was difficult, particularly when the birds were younger.  In 1902 the New Ross Standard gave this description. “Turkey poults are notoriously delicate during the very early stages of their growth. They are very dainty feeders and require to be very carefully watched and very frequently fed if successful results are to be achieved with them. During the first few days of their existence, they should be supplied with hard-boiled eggs broken into small pieces and given in conjunction with a little biscuit meal or common bread worked into a crumbly mass either with boiling water or hot skim milk. Care should be taken not to give the meal or bread to the young birds in a soft sticky condition. Like other fowls, they do much better when the food is given rather in the form of a crumbly mass than of a soft paste”[xx] 

And of course, if you managed to get them from the hand-reared stage, you had to be constantly vigilant – including as we saw from straying into neighbouring fields! But also from illness.  But there was something to be bought for this too.  The New Ross Standard tells us of a “…certain cure for Gape in Chickens and Turkeys. Hundreds cured with one shilling tin. Sold by W. G. Williams, Quay-street, New Ross.[xxi]

Many farmer wives seem to have kept their own breeders to ensure a regular supply, but they could also be bought as this advert suggests.  New Ross Standard – Friday 11 September 1908; page 1
The aforementioned Mrs Pearl O’Neill nee Phelan was obviously a progressive farmer. Buying in an incubator to ensure healthy new chicks made it to adulthood. Although not visible, the postmark is dated 1912. With thanks to Alan O’Neill

And it seems there was also advice to be had, at least in 1908.  At the monthly meeting of the County Committee of Agriculture in Kilkenny, a report was given about poultry instruction in the county by Miss J. M. Campbell, Poultry Instructress.  She reported that she had been busy providing lectures around the county, making “…periodical inspection of the 17 egg, 22 turkey, and 3 goose stations in the county, and visiting poultry-keepers in the vicinity of these stations…”[xxii] I know absolutely nothing about this detail at all, was it in other counties? What is a turkey station?  Or what form the lectures took?  I’m sure they must have targeted the farm women – as I would doubt the men would take instruction from Miss Campbell in the era?

In a follow-up comment on the published story, Tony Molloy reminded me that there was a poultry and dairy school run by the St. Louis Sisters in Ramsgrange as part of the Home Economics College. The college started in May 1871 and continued into the 1970s. And it was not just for locals, it took in boarders from all over Wexford, Waterford, and beyond.

The poultry rearing was part of an initiative born out of a newly established Dept of Agriculture at the turn of the 20th Century. This department proposed to set up five new colleges to train young women in what were considered practical skills; cookery, needlework, laundry, poultry keeping, and dairying. The St Louis Sisters were faced with a dilemma however, to accommodate the new college the boarding element of the school would have to go, and this was closed in 1905 after 35 years of existence. The following autumn two new teachers – misses Yeatman and Jones arrived and commenced the training of the first 30 recruits. It was known as the “practical School”. [Information accessed from an artilce by Barbara McArdle in On the Hook Parish magazine 2020 pp 7-14]

And of course, the economic benefits were clear to see for the farm wife as this advert proclaims New Ross Standard – Friday 29 November 1907; page 6


Although the trade in turkeys and other fowl was a vibrant one, it might be easy to conclude that the port trade was flourishing as a result in that opening decade.  At that stage however, rail was providing competition which was increased further when the SW Wexford line linking Waterford to the new port facilities at Rosslare opened in 1906.  Although large beasts such as pigs, cows, and horses would continue to be transported from the quay, exporters favoured rail for the lighter produce of fowl.[xxiii]

The local market must have continued to be small, for example, my mother and father rarely if ever ate Turkey in their childhoods in Ireland of the 40s and 50s.  It was, however, firmly part of our childhood in the late 1960s early 70s.  I can also remember some of my more wealthy friends having the bird at Easter, something I thought was an amazing extravagance.  But maybe that family was just ahead of the wave.  It’s now commonly available as sandwich filler and all manner of fowl can be had from the frozen goods section of supermarkets throughout the year.  Who knows what the future holds.  Meat-free turkey breast anyone?

My thanks to Val Flynn who assisted with some family mementos of Flynn & Young to enliven this piece. Alan O’Neill did likewise. I also got some information from Carrick On Suir via the one and only Patsy Travers Mullins. Also to Myles Courtney of New Ross Street Focus for clarifying some details. All errors and omissions are my own needless to say

Christmas fowl-up

O'Flynns Butchers, Waterford

It was Christmas eve morning 1985.  Home, a small council house in the Mount Avenue, Cheekpoint, a mad house. Our father and mother, Bob and Mary looked on with mild amusement as we readied ourselves for a trip to town.  Young adults with thoughts of friends, drinks and a few last minute presents.  My brother Robert and I were to head in on the Suir Way bus, our sisters, Kathleen and Eileen, had other transport arrangements.  Our baby brother Chris ran amongst us, caught up in the excitement, on top of his little world as he had already opened his birthday presents that morning, and could look forward to many more the next day. As Robert and I headed out the door, our mother called after us to remind us to collect the turkey.  As it was the umpteenth reminder we waved her away as we headed up the Avenue, to await the bus at Elliott’s. 

The morning was dry, mild but cloudy and we were dressed in our best; runners, levis jeans and sports tops.  The plan was simple, alight the bus outside Kelly’s on the Quay, stroll around for the gifts, maybe meet the lads for a few pints and get home again on the 3 o’clock bus if possible and ready ourselves for the long night ahead. The plan worked to perfection until Robert bumped into some mates from the place he worked, AIPB in Christendom.  They dragged him away for a pint in Egans, leaving me to my own devices around the town

O'Flynns butchers, Waterford

At 2.30 I was standing outside Phelan’s Butchers in Georges St, waiting on Robert to arrive.  As mobile phones were decades away I had little choice but either wait patiently or walk the town in search of him.  Standing there the evening became darker, a drizzle started to fall and the lights and decorations that lit up the street gave a golden glow to the last minutes shoppers struggling by with bags from the likes of Darrers MrHipps or Mork from Ork!!

Ten minutes later I gave up waiting, and perceiving a lull in the activity I pushed in the door and joined the queue.   I never liked the smell of the butchers I have to admit and in those days when much of the butchering was done on the premises the smell was more intense.  Sawdust was strewn across the floor and behind the counter a large timber cutting block, immaculately clean on the day, was often the scene of pigs being cleaved apart as we stood on the floor as children with my mother.  On this occasion the shop was a scene of organised chaos as a well oiled machine of a family run business processed pre-orders with a military precision.

The counter ran from the right of the shop around in an L shape. A gap allowed for access and egress to the shop floor. A glass front allowed visibility of all the wares and meat hooks hung down from the ceiling, bare today, but regularly holding up sides of beef or pig, heads and all.  Tom Phelan himself was the master of operations and he greeted his customers with a familiarity and fondness that seemed genuine and heartfelt.

I didn’t even have to open my mouth for once my turn came the call went out for Mr’s Dohertys Turkey, which was handed over the counter and with a Happy Christmas from the man himself I was on my way.

Jolly Sailor, Cheekpoint
The Jolly Sailor at Christmas time , Tommy Fardey on guitar. Photo Bridgid Power

Boarding the bus down on the quay, I searched in vain for Robert and presumed he had made his own way home.  But once I got there he was nowhere in sight.  I left for my grandmothers not long after, leaving my mother busy with the preparations, my brother Chris lying on the couch with my father watching TV.

All seemed well in the world, but what I didn’t realise was that while I was strolling for the bus with the turkey in my fist, Robert realising the time, had burst out of pub and headed for the turkey himself. Running up Barronstrand Street he crossed over to Georges St, into O’Flynns butchers and joined the surge of customers inside.  He searched in vain for me, and in his mind he guessed I had hit the town and forgotten all about the errand. 

O’Flynns of course was also well known to the young Doherty’s.  My mother had a countrywoman’s habit of going to different butchers for different cuts of meat.  One week it would be O’Flynns for the ham, chucks or skirt, Phelan’s for the tripe, sausages, etc.  The following week she might switch shops and although there was undoubtedly a method to it, we could never grasp it. 

So when Robert’s turn finally came in O’Flynns he too was recognised.  But on asking for his mother’s turkey rather than eliciting an instant command it created a bit of a stir.  Now of course this only created confusion in Robert and a fair bit of panic.  Where in the hell was the turkey, and how could he go home without it.  The fact that he was six foot four inches and almost as broad across the chest as the proverbial bus perhaps played a part.  They didn’t call him Rambo for nothing or give him a job bouncing on the door of the Ardree disco at 17 either!. There again it might also have been the queue of customers backing out the door.  But certainly his earnestness in thinking that our mother had ordered and paid for a turkey and that he was supposed to bring it home could not be questioned by the staff in the shop.  Relenting, a turkey was found and handed over and Robert left the shop, contented that he had saved Christmas.  Realising he had missed the 3 o’clock bus he went back to the pub.  

Meanwhile I was relaxing in my grandmothers reflecting on what had been a good day so far; I had the presents I needed, the turkey I delivered was being prepped for the Christmas day dinner and now I could look forward to a good night out in the local pub, Tynan’s Jolly Sailor.  Returning to my mothers at about 7pm I walked in on a very different scene.  The calm and peace I had left was now in tatters.  My mother was furious, my father had gone to the pub and Chris had retired to the safety of the girls room, who had returned from town with Robert on the 6pm bus.

My mother, the most calm and good natured woman in Cheekpoint, had almost fainted when Robert had walked through the door.  On hearing his account she had rushed out without a word.  She had run to the Cross Roads, where from the phone box she had tried unsuccessfully to ring the shop to apologise for the mistake.  The O’Flynns had closed and now my mother was custodian over a turkey that she could ill afford, did not need and couldn’t fit in her tiny freezer. 

Robert and myself decided to make ourselves scarce as we couldn’t stop laughing.  When we got to the pub Robert got a great cheer, my father had already put a spin on the story and the way he had told it made it sound like Robert had jumped through the window with the bird under his arm.  The gauntlet had to be run of course.  First was my fathers mates, fishermen and sailors alike like Robert Ferguson, Martin Mahon, Paddy Duffin, Tom Sullivan and Ned Heffernan.  The story had to be told, with my fathers interjections, and they roared with laughter as the scenes unfolded.  Next was our own mates stuck in the far corner, Mossy Moran, Paul Duffin, Neil Elliott, Ger Doherty, Michael Duffin, all shouting at once, laughing and blackguarding.  As each new group came into the pub the story was told and retold. 

Visitors to the house on Christmas morning had already heard the account at that stage and their questions and reactions put a smile on our mother’s face and lightened her mood. 

All those  Robert met over Christmas wanted to hear the story from the horses mouth and from The Jolly sailor, the Suir Inn, Jack Meade’s and into town the story grew legs and his infamy grew.

Our mother eventually decided that she would have to cook the second turkey, for it wouldn’t keep and to waste good food was a sin in her eyes.

Her biggest fear of course was that it was someone else’s turkey and that their Christmas was ruined, and try as she might that thought dwelt at the back of her mind that whole Christmas. The first opportunity she got to get into town, she was away to O’Flynns with her purse and her apologies.  Bernard O’Flynn at least managed to put her mind at rest about another family’s Christmas being ruined, as he had several on reserve and no one went hungry. It was as if Christ himself had answered her prayers and she was a much less troubled woman when she finally arrived home.  But from that year on neither Robert nor I was ever asked to get the turkey again.

Previous Christmas blogs

I have to acknowledge the assistance of Frank Murphy in helping me title today’s blog. Frank is one of the many background team I have who help me on a regular basis

I’d like to wish all my readers a wonderful Christmas, where ever you are and whatever you are doing and look forward to further interactions in 2019.

Next week we have more Christmas tidings, this time from upriver on the River Barrow, a guest blog by Brian Forristal; Christmas at Aylwardstown