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September is an important month for Clarenbridge, Co. Galway. It’s when the native oysters (Ostrea edulis) come to the end of their summer reprieve and are once again pounced upon by gourmets the length and breadth of Ireland and beyond. For a long while I had wanted to document the preparations for the Clarenbridge Oyster Festival in the village next to mine, and last week I got my chance.
The weather was truly exceptional for mid-September. Although the mornings were a little fresh, as each day wore on the sun beat down from a cloudless sky and Galwegians went around in a happy daze. It was more than I could have hoped for.
My first stop was the shoreline at Killeenaran, where the native oysters are harvested. They live on the seabed, wild and free, and are managed and harvested by the Kelly family in Kilcolgan, who have been in the business for nearly sixty years; Michael Kelly started it back in the 1950s, to be joined in the business by his bride Bernadette after their marriage in 1963. Three generations of the family have worked these seabeds, and the oysters found here are regarded by those who know about these things as being the very best in the world. My husband, an oceanographer, tells me that this area is unaffected by naturally-occurring red tides that can wreak havoc with sensitive shellfish – no one is quite sure why. What is sure is that fresh water from the Dunkellin River mingles with the salty water of Galway Bay at Killeenaran, creating the conditions that make oysters very happy. Nowadays, Michael and Bernadette’s sons Mícheál and Diarmuid run the business, together with their wives Mary and Theresa, and are helped out by their children at busy periods.
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