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]
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]
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]
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]
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.
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]
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]
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.
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]
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.
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