Kelly’s Oysters at 60: A Story of Determination

Kelly’s Oysters at 60: A Story of Determination

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The coast of Galway comes in many guises. You’ll find yellow coral beaches and turquoise water in Carraroe. White sand and azure sea in Inverin. Crowds of holidaymakers stretched out on the sand between boulders of pink granite at Salthill.
The coastline of South Galway is not as glamourous as any of these places…at first glance. Look a little harder though and you’ll find a part of Ireland with a more subtle beauty, and those of us who live there wouldn’t be anywhere else.

One hot Saturday in September, I went to the quay at Killeenaran with the idea of sketching something unusual that I’d heard would be happening there. This is what the quay looks like on a normal day:

Sunshine at Pier bollard, watercolour by Roisin Cure

Pretty quiet, unless it’s a hot day and high tide. Then there’ll be people coming and going on bikes, in cars and on foot, in swimming togs, to swim off the quay. But to the best of my knowledge there is almost never a table, dressed up in a smart white tablecloth and laden with food, right at the water’s edge.

This day was going to be one of the busy ones. I’d been told that some singers were coming down from Dublin to sing to the oysters as part of the Clarinbridge Oyster Festival. Singing? To the oysters? I was intrigued – it sounded like a drawing opportunity not to be missed – and turned up on the quayside shortly after midday. Michael Kelly and his wife Bernadette were already there, sitting on the stone bench with their backs to the wall. Before too long, a coach pulled up on the far side of the bay. Out spilled lots of men wearing kelly-green polo shirts, each carrying something as they made their way in single file to the quay. They set down a table, covered it with a heavy white tablecloth and bedecked it with plates of brown bread, smoked salmon and lemon wedges, and glasses of chilled rosé. The men in green polo shirts were the Brook Singers, an all-male a cappella group, who are in the habit of bursting into song without notice. With them was Peter Caviston of Caviston’s Food Emporium in Glasthule, Co. Dublin, whom Kellys have supplied with oysters for many years. After warm greetings were exchanged, Peter suddenly produced a very fancy cake. I hadn’t realised that Michael Kelly Sr. had turned 80 just a few days earlier. Peter presented Michael with the cake, made a very nice speech and the Brook Singers sang “Happy Birthday” to Michael in glorious harmony. I did my best to sketch the action.

Kellys and Cavistons, watercolour by Roisin Cure

The men sang traditional songs in beautiful vocal harmonies, their male voices humming together mellifluously. The whole thing was gorgeous. I’d already spent a week trailing the Kellys as they prepared for the Oyster Festival (read more here) and while I knew by now how the oyster gets from its happy spot in the sea to our plates, I wanted to know more about how Michael Kelly got to where he and his family are now, so one morning I sat with Michael and and his wife Bernie to hear about how he turned fishing for a few oysters with his father into an international business. Here’s his story.

“When I was a youngster, lots of families in the area fished for oysters. There could be 200 boats in the bay, as every house had about two boats. And there were no engines – the oysters were gathered by dredges on ropes. I left school at fourteen in 1948, and I joined my father fishing for oysters. In the early days, it would have been ’51 or ’52, I thought it was a shame that all the oysters were leaving the country, going to France and Holland, where they were marketed as French and Dutch oysters. There was no talk of Galway oysters. That’s the way it was at that time, in the early 50s. I wanted to sell oysters myself, but in order to have markets, you had to know people, and you had to have enough money to buy oysters from other fishermen; I had no money, other than that which I made from the oysters. So I went in to the bank manager with my idea – to sell oysters not just within Ireland, but outside the country too.
“What would you do with the oysters?” asked the bank manager.
“We have an area of ground ourselves,” I said. “I’d put them there.”
“What if someone came along in the dead of night, and took them?” he asked.
“That’s a chance you have to take,” I said. “There are a lot of honest people around. They wouldn’t take them.”
The bank manager tapped the side of his head. “You’re crazy,” he said.
That was the end of that. He wouldn’t give me any money.”

This is the house where Michael grew up – literally two minutes’ walk from the oyster beds…

Sunshine at Brandy Bay at low tide, watercolour by Roisin Cure

…and this is the stretch of shore that belonged to Michael’s family. It’s near the quay, can be accessed by vehicles and is perfectly positioned to benefit from the mix of fresh and saltwater afforded by the proximity of the Dunkellin River, which opens to the sea here.

Killeenaran Oyster Harvest, watercolour by Roisin Cure

I asked Michael how he got over that initial setback.
“I started to market the catch from our own boats, and our uncles’ boats, to try and get markets within the country. At that time, Paddy Burke in Clarinbridge was selling some oysters – not a lot – as well as running a pub and a filling station. I told Paddy what the bank manager had said. “Don’t be stuck,” he said. “I’ll help you.” But I didn’t get stuck. I started small, and I put the profits I made each year into expanding what I had – I started with one boat, then two, and so on, and then in 1954 the Oyster Festival started in Clarinbridge.”

This is a painting I did a while back of Paddy Burke’s. It’s still a thriving restaurant and bar in the heart of Clarinbridge.

Paddy Burkes, watercolour by Roisin Cure

Michael explained to me why supplying Paddy Burke’s made such a difference to his fledgling business.

“All kinds of people came down from Dublin to Paddy Burke’s – film stars, restaurateurs, oyster bar owners. They were all asking him where he was getting the oysters. I picked up lots of customers that way. My first big customer in Dublin was Jammet’s.”
Jammet’s was an haute cuisine French restaurant on Dublin’s Nassau Street from 1901 to 1967.
“There was an oyster bar in the restaurant too,” continued Michael. “With the help of Paddy Burke, I got into Jammet’s, the Dolphin and the Red Bank, the three famous places in Dublin. Paddy had a sports car and we’d go up to Jammet’s together in that car. There was an oyster opener there called Eamonn Preston. He’d been a fighter pilot in the Second World War: Paddy Burke gave him a five-pound tip once. In the 1950s a five pound tip was like giving someone about two hundred euros now. We became good friends, and he spoke about that tip many times over the years – he never forgot it.”

Everyone who was anyone dined at Jammet’s – writers, artists, actors, celebrities and people of means… Here’s a painting I did that was inspired by the cover of a gorgeous book, ‘Jammet’s of Dublin’, by Alison Maxwell and Shay Harpur. I read in the book that an Italian named Bossini had run up a sizable debt in the restaurant, and produced some murals for the restaurant in lieu of payment. The one in this picture, called The Four Seasons, became the iconic image of the restaurant.

Jammets, watercolour by Roisin Cure

Back in Galway, Michael’s business, Kelly’s Oysters was evolving.
“I sold a dozen oysters to Paddy for two-and-sixpence. He sold them over the counter for three-and-ninepence. I thought he was making a fortune. At that time a day’s labour paid ten shillings, so if you went into Paddy Burke’s you paid a third of your wages for a dozen oysters. So they were expensive then too. Not like in old times – they were referred to as the poor man’s dish.

“It took about five or six years before I got established and people got to know about the oysters. Everyone was talking about the flavour. Whatever it was about oysters from our area, once someone tasted them, they wanted more. I was sending oysters all over Ireland – to Cork, Wexford, as well as Dublin. But transport was a problem. It took hours to get anything anywhere – and there were no couriers, so there was little in the way of means to get things delivered. The restaurant would have to pick up a delivery from the station. But an oyster will survive quite happily in its shell for a week, so it worked fine. Then in 1954 I bought a Morris Minor, and put a trailer on the back. You’d get a telegram from Jammet’s or the Dolphin, saying they wanted 30 dozen oysters, or 50 dozen oysters, and I’d arrange the delivery.

But the best thing that ever happened was the Oyster Festival. We got more publicity all the time, and when the World Oyster Opening Competition started, there were people from other countries, competitors, and they were bringing their bosses in with them as well. Once they tasted the oysters, they wanted to get more. That’s how we established our export market, to all those different countries.”

Here are some paintings I did of participants in the Oyster Festival. I couldn’t resist trying to capture the beauty of the little girl carrying a basket of oysters, and the two old ladies were beautiful too, in their shawls and smiles.

Little girl with oysters, watercolour by Roisin Cure

Old ladies at festival, watercolour by Roisin Cure

Back to Michael’s story.
“In 1963 Bernie and I got married, and we built our house. By the end of that year, we had electricity and a phone line. There were five phones in total: the guards, the priest, the post office in Kilcolgan, the vets…and us. We were the last on the line, and we had to wait for the fifth ring, in order to be sure it was for us. Everyone could listen in if they chose, but it could be quite handy if someone wasn’t available to take a call: we often made calls for the doctor and the vets, or the post office would take an order for us. But in general it meant that things began to move a bit. I was lucky that Bernie was able to help so much – answering the phone, keeping accounts, taking orders and making transport arrangements.”
Bernie added,
“I worked out a way to shrink-wrap the shellfish – I wrapped them in cellophane, then I put a tea-towel on the basket, and used a hair-dryer to melt the plastic a bit. When I think of it now…”
“It meant I could spend more time over at the sea,” continued Michael, “and it was hard, but we built it up together slowly. Our first big export market was to Germany, with the Swiss company Movenpick. That came about because we were selling them urchins, and one of the managers came to the festival. He tasted the oysters, and when he realised how good they were, he wanted more. He had huge photographs done of myself holding baskets of oysters and he put them up in his hotels and restaurants out in Switzerland and Germany. It went so well in Germany that we used to go out and run a festival there, every year for fifteen years. They owned 250 restaurants all over the world. On one of my visits there, they had a surprise for me: I rounded the stairs, to be confronted by a life-size cardboard cut-out of the photo of myself and my basket of oysters! And they visited us too: the head of Movenpick at the time, Ueli Prager, his wife and a group of their top chefs flew into Shannon by private jet, and I went to meet them and took them back to Kilcolgan, to the oyster beds. They wanted to be able to say to their people that they’d seen where they came from, that they’d eaten these oysters straight from the sea. It was a cold day, but they were delighted.”
Afterwards, Michael took his visitors back to the house, where Bernie had made a big pot of chowder.
“They loved that,” she said. “One of them rooted around in the pot to see how I’d made it. It was the first time I’d made it. I borrowed a big saucepan and got the recipe and whatever ingredients I didn’t have from Mary McDonagh, who ran a fish restaurant in the city. That was in the early seventies. The owner of those 250 hotels, his wife and all their top people, sitting in our kitchen…”
Michael took up the story.
“I was an international judge of oyster opening at the festivals at the time,” he said. “They used to invite us out and give us a suite in their top hotels. They treated us like royalty – flowers, the whole lot. For fifteen years we went to Berlin before and after the wall came down, to Leipsig, Munich and elsewhere. I remember the burgomeister in Munich at the time was the son of Rommel, one of Hitler’s generals in the Second World War. We went to Zurich, to all the places where our oysters were served…we were taken to the kitchen in the Savoy Hotel – the chefs couldn’t believe they were meeting the man who produced the oysters on the menu, and they were very happy to shake my hand.

“And so it went on. In time, BIM (Bord Iasca Mhara) came to me for information on looking after oysters…then five or six years later they came telling me what to do. Sure that’s life, that’s the way it goes. It was trial and error. I made lots of mistakes, suffered, but I never made the same mistake twice. One thing that stood to me was that I was always fair and straight with my suppliers – I always paid them. No one ever left me unpaid, so no one was ever afraid to give me whatever I needed. You had to keep the fishermen with you too – the amount we produced by ourselves was not enough. Sometimes we worked day and night, particularly with the urchins – they have a very short shelf life. For a while there it was madness: myself and a friend would drive from Galway to Donegal, collect the urchins when the boats came in about one or two o’clock, then drive to Dublin airport where there’d be a plane waiting to take them to France – then we’d drive home to Galway again. We’d stop at Tyrrellspass for a wash at a pump – that was the best way to wake up, at a time when there were no restrictions on the amount of time you could spend on the road. The entire trip would be 24 hours – without a rest. But when the boats came in, we had to be ready. I remember we had a French customer – he was a very contrary kind of fellow. We’d be in bed, and the phone would ring in the early hours of the morning.
“Where are my urchins?!” he’d say. He worked in Rungis market in Paris. It opened at five in the morning, which is four in the morning here. At Christmas time it opened at one a.m. The urchins might be ten minutes late, through no fault of our own. I wouldn’t answer the phone – I left it to Bernie!”
“He ran for cover,” said Bernie.

The family came up against many obstacles over the decades: the business came perilously close to annihilation. In the 1950s one of the members of the St. George family, long since departed from Tyrone House – now in ruins – took a case against the families of the area for “poaching” as she would have it, in her family’s historical oyster beds. She had lived abroad in the UK all her life, but perhaps she now wanted a piece of the action. The oyster fishermen lost their case and representatives of the twelve families were obliged to spend a week in Limerick Gaol. They returned to a hero’s welcome to the village of Ballindereen, continued to defy the law – they felt they had good legal grounds and rights to fish for oysters there – and thus the business continued. Things became much worse in the 1980s when the government sold the precious oyster beds to a consortium of French fishermen. It’s unbelievable – can you imagine what would happen if the same thing were to happen in France? – but happen it did, and it was only through the passionate determination and some very carefully managed actions of Michael Kelly that it the beds were returned to the families of the area. At this point I am not at liberty to tell the story of how that came to pass, as the family would like to tell it themselves – understandably – so perhaps one day the full story will become more widely known.

There’s a rule about taking young oysters: if they fit through a three-inch ring, they must be returned to the seabed. Here’s what the ring looks like:

Oyster ring, watercolour by Roisin Cure

Michael is retired now, and his sons and their families have taken over.
“Mícheál and Diarmuid had been part of the business with us all the time, since they were children. Their two wives, Mary and Theresa, are fantastic. They have great skills – you’ve never seen bookkeeping like Theresa’s – and they’re very organised. In 1980 we formed a company, and until fifteen years ago, we ran the business from an office inside the house. Now that the house is separate from the business, and the boys have taken over, we’ve a bit of time for ourselves now…about time too.”

The family has taken part in oyster festivals over the decades, both as judges and as participants in the oyster opening competitions: Micheál and Mary’s son Micheal Jr. recently travelled to the 2014 Ontario Oyster Festival in Toronto, where he took part in the Oyster Shucking Championship, and defended himself well.

I asked Michael what his tip for success was.

“Be nice to people. Always be honest, and no one can say anything to you. And I couldn’t have done any of it without Bernie by my side,” he continued, smiling at his wife.
“You know what they say – behind every great man… We’ve come a long way. We’re very proud of our family: they’re very interested, very committed. No one ever argues. I never in my lifetime heard an argument between the two boys.”

Long may the harmony, and those fantastic oysters, continue.

Art Materials I Use and Can Recommend

My favourite watercolours are made by Schmincke. I use a very small set when I am on the move, or this set of 24, which is available to buy here from Utrecht Art Supplies (in the US):-

Set of 24

Set of 24

or in the UK and EU :-

Jackson’s Art Supplies
Schmincke : Horadam Watercolour : Metal Set : 12 Half Pans

I also use Escoda Versatil brushes (available from Dick Blick in the US) :-

Escoda Versatil Brushes

Escoda Versatil Brushes

or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-

Escoda : VERSATIL Kolinsky Synthetic : Series 1540 : # 8

There are three pens I always use. The first is the Platinum Carbon pen, which can be used with cartridges or a converter. A converter is useful when you are choosing your own ink. The Platinum has never let me down: they tell you to use it every couple of days to avoid clogging, but I have left it longer than that and I have never had a problem in many years of use. It is also very reasonably priced and is available to buy from Amazon :-

The second pen I am never without is the Kuretake Brush Pen. I always use waterproof Platinum Carbon ink cartridges in my brush pen. This is available to buy here from Dick Blick in the US :-

Kuretake Brush Pen

Kuretake Brush Pen

or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-

Kuretake : Bimoji Fude Pen : Black Medium BRUSH : Maroon pack XT5-10

The third pen I really enjoy using is more expensive, but I chose it for its flexible steel nib, which gives a lovely variable line thickness. It’s the Namiki Falcon and is available here from Amazon :-

I find that grey ink gives a softer line than black – it’s more like a pencil line – and I always make sure at least one of my fountain pens contains grey ink. I use Lexington Gray by Noodler’s, which is waterproof when dry, also from Amazon :-

I use various types of watercolour paper, but one I come back to a lot is by Langton, available here from Dick Blick :-

Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige Watercolor Blocks

Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige Watercolor Blocks

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1 Comment

  1. Pete lyons

    September 18, 2015 at 10:52 am

    Hi,My name is Pete from Cave where those very oyster beds are very close to,I know Michael from years back,Run a group all about Cave,Your very welcome to join,There are stories in there about Michael and Paddy Burke,

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