A Day of Sheep Shearing

I was working in the office when the phone rang. Sara picked it up in the lounge. After she said hello, she listened for a while. I could only hear her side of the conversation.

“I’m sure he would like that,” I heard her say. “Where is it?”

“Uh huh, uh huh.”

“Over the Connor Pass, turn left.”

“Turn left again.”

“Okay. Over the bridge, make a left.”

“And just down the road a little. Got it.”

“Late morning on Saturday. I’ll tell him. He’ll love it. Bye now.”

She hung up.

“Who was that?” I yelled across the hall.

“That was Lynne. There’s a sheep shearing demonstration at Thomas and Charlotte’s farm on Saturday. She thought you might like to go out to see it. The world champion shearer is going to be there.”

“That might be fun,” I called back to her.

Saturday morning dawned bright and clear with just a few white clouds in the sky. I threw my wellies and a collapsible chair into the boot of the car and went into the kitchen to say goodbye to Sara and Lucy. 

“Where did you put those directions?” I asked.

“Oh, I didn’t write them down. You just go over the Connor Pass and make a bunch of lefts. Lynne said you can’t miss it,” she answered.

I set out. At the top Connor Pass, I pulled into the car park for a moment to admire the view on what had turned into a stunning day. The car park was mobbed. The Irish government has urged the Irish to take “staycations” because of Covid-19, and it seemed that most of Dublin had decided to staycation in West Kerry. I hopped out of the car to briefly take in the view. 

I’ve been to the Connor Pass hundreds of times over the years, but it can still suck the breath right out of me. Directly below the car park, perhaps a thousand feet down, three lakes mirror the mountains surrounding them. In the distance, Tralee Bay glistens.

Nearer to the lakes, I can just make out the remains of some ancient stone structures. I’ve been told they are sheepfolds and shepherd’s huts. I wonder how to get to them.

But I can’t tarry. I need to get down the next couple of kilometers of single lane road that drops precipitously on my left while dodging petrified city-dwelling Dubliners who seldom drive. I hop back into the car.

At the bottom of the pass, I make the first left, trying to remember the directions from the overheard telephone call. Left at the next road, I recall. Then over the bridge and make the first left. I drive over a small bridge, but I don’t see a road on the left. When I pass through the village of Cloghane that I know I have gone too far. I pull over to call Lynne.

“I surrender,” I say when she answers. “I can’t find the left after the bridge.”

“Where are you, darling?” she asks.

“In front of the church.”

“Just go back down the hill to a white farmhouse and turn right. We’re about five miles down that road. If you can’t find it, call me back and I’ll come and get you.”

I realize when I get to the bridge that I’ve missed the road again. Turning around and driving slowly back, I spot it. There, hard against the white house, is a narrow road that looks like a lane to the sheds behind the house. I turn into the lane.

After the first mile or so, I can see that I am driving into a long valley. Hills are on my right and off to my left there are a few small lakes. Two or three times I have to squeeze into small lay byes to let farmers pass with their tractors. Old stone cottages and out buildings are scattered around me. When I reach the four-mile mark, I can see a few buildings, cars, and tractors a mile further on. And then I spy Lynne waving her arms. I had arrived.

“This is gorgeous, Lynne,” I said, after I had squeezed the car into a spot between a tractor and a 4×4 and pulled on my Wellies. 

The sheep farm that belongs to her daughter Charlotte and her son-in-law Thomas is at the end of the valley I had just driven through. Mountains with stone outcrops rise a thousand feet on three sides. Two narrow waterfalls cascade down from the top of the mountains, feeding the lakes I had passed. Hundreds of sheep dot the hillsides. There isn’t another house in sight. It could have been the set for Brigadoon and I half expected Gene Kelly to dance byIt is heaven.

Lynne and I squeeze through the gate into the shearing pen, shooing newly shorn sheep who are hoping to make a break for it. Thomas, who travels all over Ireland each year for his shearing business, is showing a local farmer how to wrestle a ewe into position. He picks her up by the horns to get her forelegs off the ground, sitting her on her haunches. The ewe looks startled. 

“Get her left foreleg between your legs, up behind you like, and use your left hand to hold her head,” he instructs. “You can use your knees to control her.” This sounds dangerous to me.

He guides the electric shears down the flank of the sheep from her head to her tail. Back to the head for another swipe with the shears, turning the sheep with his knees as he goes. The wool falls off to the side like a thick blanket. In two to three minutes he has the job done and releases the sheep to scamper about the pen. An assistant scoops up the wool and shoves it into a large bag. Thomas grabs another ewe.

“Your turn,” he tells the fellow.

All around us, others are doing the same at their stands, or stations. Three are on the shearing trailer that Thomas built for his business and three more are scattered around the pen. The trailer has a chute along the back side in which the sheep are lined up in single file and three gates that open so the shearers can take one out at a time. Electric shears hang from the roof. 

Emma and Dean, a young couple from New Zealand, were travelling around Europe on an extended backpacking trip when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. They found themselves in Ireland as international travel shut down and Thomas hired them to help out on the farm. Dean is shearing ewe after ewe at one end of the trailer, while Emma sweeps up the wool into a bag. Kiwi’s know their way around sheep. 

Ivan, the world record holder from County Mayo, is walking around giving tips to the shearers. He shows Thomas and Charlotte’s 14-year-old son Toc, who is already a competent shearer, where to place his knees below the sheep’s shoulders for better control. 

“Just lift your knees up and down to control her,” he tells Toc. Ivan is a natural coach and Toc gets the hang of it immediately.

“What is his record?” I ask Lynne.

“Thirty-seven seconds,” she replies.

“Jaysus, I couldn’t even catch a sheep in thirty-seven seconds.”

When Ivan has a moment, I ask him where he is from in Mayo.

“Ballinrobe,” he says. “Do you know it?”

“My grandfather was from Ballyglass,” I answer, and soon we are discussing mutual acquaintances and favorite pubs. Ireland is a small country. 

Charlotte jumps up on the trailer to give her son a break, pulls a sheep out of the chute, and goes to work. Usually, when I see Charlotte, she is dressed to the nines with full make-up and perfectly manicured nails. This side of her is a revelation.

While all of this is going on, Charlotte’s eleven-year-old daughter Lily is out in the fields, directing the dogs as they round up more sheep from the hillside. This business is a family affair.

Thomas walks over to Lynne and me. “Would you like to give it a go?” he asks me.

With a panicked look on my face, I stutter “Oh god, no.” I have enough trouble holding Lucy when Sara is giving her a haircut. I wasn’t going to tangle with a hundred and fifty-pound ewe. 

After a couple of hours, I walk over to gaze at the sun glinting off the lakes. That’s when I realize that they were the same lakes that I had seen from the car park at the top of Connor Pass. In the distance, I can make out the huts and sheepfolds I had seen. Shorn sheep bleat around me. A dog sleeps in the corner until he is needed again. Hawks wheel overhead. This really is paradise, I think.

I turn to say goodbye to Lynn and to thank Thomas and Charlotte. It’s been a great day, but I still have to cross the Connor Pass, dodging terrified Dubliners as I go.

Bacon–I’ll Be the Judge

“Would you be interested,” the email from a friend read, “in judging for the Blas na hEireann awards on Saturday afternoon? The category is ‘Bacon and Bubbly.’”

“I’m in,” I emailed back.

Judge bacon, I thought? I’ve been training for that since I first ate solid food at six months old. And bubbly? Who doesn’t love a good Champagne or Prosecco?

Blas nah Eireann, The Irish Food Awards, are the premier competition for Irish food products. Over 2500 entries are judged each year, vying to win the prestigious Gold, Silver, and Bronze awards. Judges, I read on their website, “come from a wide range of food backgrounds; they are chefs, restaurateurs, academics, journalists, authors, caterers…” I started to get nervous at this point “…and enthusiastic home cooks.” There it is, I thought, that’s me! I cook, and I am nothing if not enthusiastic! Still, it felt daunting to be among such experts.

I saw myself sitting around a large table with food experts of every stripe, keeping a low profile, eating bacon and quaffing Champagne–almost a brunch-like atmosphere. Maybe there will be mimosas, I mulled. And the cráic should be massive.

When I first set foot in Ireland in 1972, Irish food was, how can I phrase this…filling. I remember my first dinner at a cousin’s house in Mayo. The usual suspects were arranged in the center of the table: cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and some type of meat boiled until it was beyond recognition. It could have been a bowl of stewed prunes as far as I could tell. This exact dinner was repeated multiple times on that trip. I have a vivid memory of a young cousin coming in from the farm yard, sitting at the table, pulling his penknife from his pocket, wiping it on his pants, spearing a spud from the bowl, cutting it up into pieces that he dipped in salt, and using the knife to pop them into his mouth. Like I said, filling.

But what a revolution there has been since that time. We are surrounded in Dingle by superb beef and lamb, most of our veg comes from just over the Connor Pass, and small craft producers along the West coast make cheese and chutneys and ice cream and sweet and savoury snacks. Irish food producers and chefs are known throughout the world for their quality and innovation and Blas na hEiriann honors them. And I was going to be, in a small way, involved. Plus, it was bacon.

An hour later, an email arrived from Blas na hErieann, with directions to the event, details about the judging procedure, and rules about social distancing and sanitation procedures. So, I realized, no large table with the banter about the entries flying fast and furious among the judges.

And one other thing: the category now read Bacon & Carbonated Drinks. Could that mean choosing either Pepsi or Coke to accompany the bacon, I wondered? I’m more of a ginger ale man, myself.

Saturday afternoon I arrived, early as usual, at the venue on Grey’s Lane and, after washing my hands in the sink near the front door, was shown to my seat at a small table in the corner by a woman wearing a face shield. On the table were hand sanitizer, Dettol wipes, plastic cutlery, a stack of paper towels, and two bottles of water. A plastic lined rubbish bin sat on the floor beneath the table. I removed my mask and waited.

Around the room, separated by at least two meters, were a few other tables equipped like mine. Soon the other judges trickled in and found their tables: a chef, a woman who runs food tours in Dingle, and a professor of food science. I felt a bit intimidated.

A fellow who seemed to be in charge explained the process to us. Individual samples would be brought to our tables, which we would evaluate on attributes such as Appearance, Aroma, Taste, Texture, and Market Appeal. We were to rate them on a scale of 1 to 12 in a program that we accessed on our electronic devices. The evaluation program was developed in conjunction with food scientists from universities in Ireland and has been adopted by other food competitions around the world. I was impressed, though I wondered why the scale went up to twelve rather than ten. It must be like the amp in Spinal Tap, I reasoned. If ten is the best, twelve must be better.

“We’ll start with the carbonated drinks,” the woman in the face shield announced.

The first sample arrived at my table, delivered by a different face-shielded woman.

“This is an apple cider,” she told me.

I lifted the sample to my nose and had a good whiff. I took a sip and rolled a drop around my tongue like I was sampling a fine whiskey. I swallowed, then tilted back in my chair in contemplation before turning to my I-Pad. I was still flummoxed by how I was to rate the texture of a liquid when the face-shielded woman set the second sample in front of me announcing, “This is a raspberry infused tea.” I scrambled to finish rating the first sample before tasting the tea. I gave the tea a better score on texture because it had bits of raspberry pulp floating in it.

I managed to get a bottle of water opened to cleanse my palate before the face shield was back. “This a kombucha tea,” she said. 

I winced.

I can truthfully say that I can think of no earthly reason to drink kombucha tea. I find it vile stuff. But in the interest of science and the promotion of Irish producers, I took a taste. It confirmed my preset opinion. 

We worked our way through nineteen samples–some good, some bad, and some, I must say, quite tasty. There was another cider that caught my fancy and a lemonade that was outstanding. This is the price that must be paid to identify the very best, I reasoned.

But now we were moving on to bacon. I took a sip of water in preparation. I was born to do this.

“This is unsmoked gammon.”

Let’s do this, I thought. 

Wait, gammon? Aren’t we judging bacon? You know, rashers and such. Maybe one or two pieces of streaky bacon for variety.

It turns out that the term bacon in Ireland refers to a large variety of cured pork products. Gammon – like the piece in front of me – ham, back bacon, streaky bacon, bacon chops – all dry cured or wet cured, and smoked and unsmoked.

“Collar bacon, smoked,” the face shield put another plate in front of me. I cut a small slice.

“Ham fillet. Dry-cured.” Another bite. And a sip of water. Enter my ratings.

“Green bacon.” Bite. Sip. Ratings.

“Streaky bacon.” Sip. Open the second water bottle. Sip. Ratings.

“Back bacon.” Sip. Sip. Sip.

And so it went, through twenty-five samples of bacon and two bottles of water. Bacon makes you thirsty.

At last we were finished. We binned our detritus into the receptacle, tied up the bag for disposal, sanitized our table, and put our masks back on before standing up to leave.

“I’ve met my salt quota for the week,” I said to the chef as we made our way to the door.

“I would murder for a pint right now,” he responded, “but the pubs are still closed.”

I left the venue and popped into the cheese shop next door for a tub of Dingle goat cheese. The proprietor is also a chef, teacher, and judge for Blas na hEireann. We talked about the awards and their importance to Irish food producers.

“I worry that I may have been a harsh judge of some of the products,” I confided.

“Don’t you worry, Jim,” he assured me. “The only way to improve your product is to hear what others think of it. The good ones will tweak this and change that and come back next year with something better. They need and want your opinion. There are no overnight successes.”

We also talked about the contrast of tasting bacon and kombucha.

“I mean,” I said, “even bad bacon is still bacon, but kombucha?”

“Tasting for Blas na hEireann is like life, isn’t it?” he answered. “One day you’re tasting steak, and the next vinegar.”

Isn’t that the truth, I thought. I picked up my goat cheese and headed home.