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OPINION: The last butchers in Sligo Town

Photo by Daragh Moller

Meat is not what it used to be and that applies to buying meat too.

Earlier this year, in 2024, I went in search of what I regarded “ordinary” meat ingredients. I wanted various things for cooking and baking. I came away a bit baffled but definitely enlightened. I also learned that changes that have taken place in the butcher trade although necessary are unwelcomed by those in the business.

At one time fifteen (or so) butchers served up the whole animal and most of its organs to the good people of Sligo Town. Those customers knew what they wanted and they knew what to do with it.

Today, sadly, three butchers (or so) remain open in the town centre, one with no meat on display.

Sligo Town, a population of circa 21,000 souls and growing, is proof these changing times for butchers make them a dying breed.

In the first few months when I moved to Sligo Town towards the end of 2023, my settling-in phase involved getting to know local shop producers. I was deeply interested in what was on offer here in the way of green grocers, traditional butchers and bread and cake bakers. I was completely unfamiliar with what was here, having lived for over twenty years in Chinese cities with completely different shopping for food, cooking and eating habits. All that I retained from my knowledge of home cooking in Ireland was that high quality fresh produce was freely available and that included all meat products.

Since I was eager to chat to retailers about what local produce was available and to learn from them what was good and from whom, I went in search with an open heart and plenty of curiosity. I’m not a foodie, I’m not a vegan, obviously, and especially not up on what’s cool in the food world. I regard myself a man my age, with the experience and knowledge that come with that and of cooking for myself in the way that I like over the years.

My curiosity was peaked after I asked for animal fat at the meat counter of my local supermarket in Maugheraboy. I was shocked. Animal fat was not available, I was told. Something along the lines of all our meat arrives pre-packed, a young man looking like a butcher and dressed all in white had said to me.

I had hoped to return home with pork fat that I could use as lard. Lard is a mixture of clean animal fat that was used in cooking and baking at home when I was growing up in Ireland in the 1960s. I had experimented making suet pastry and hot water crust pastry for meat pies and I went in search of the ingredients of what my grandmother called “dripping”, animal fats, including lard, that is melted together from cooking meat that tastes rich in meaty and salty and fatty flavours.

The man behind the supermarket counter was obviously not a butcher and suggested I try margarine. Not the same, I shot back.

I continued my search of animal fat across Sligo Town and went in search of a friendly “local family” butcher.

Sligo Town has two supermarkets in the town centre and in one I asked a woman at the cash register if a butcher was open nearby. She said, ay, across the carpark there, and pointed to Wine Street Car Park through the wall.

Caption Monaghan’s 2023 “Merry Christmas” fare. Photo by Daragh Moller

On my walks from Maugheraboy, a fifteen-minute walk to town, I had noticed a butcher’s premises called Monaghan’s. A single-window premises on the pavement of John’s Street, Monaghan’s had the look of being once a proper well-run local butcher. Proper and well-run I say because although it now seemed idle and the display window empty of meat, the metal trays and racks in the window still gleamed noticeable to the passersby.

One walk in the runup to Christmas 2023 that sticks in my mind, I noticed the door to Monaghan’s slightly ajar. So I stopped and photographed turkeys hanging on hooks in the window, a coloured paper “Merry Christmas” decorating an otherwise not very seasonal mis en scene.

But that day in search of the local friendly butcher, I found Mr and Mrs Kearney at Quality Meats in Wine Street Car Park. Exactly what you might hope for from a local family butcher, Quality Meats appear a dependable husband-and-wife team that at once are attentive, friendly. I told Tom Kearney that day what I was looking for and he told me that the next day or the day after that he would have plenty of pork fat for me. I was delighted. Without needing to ask him why he didn’t have fat readily to hand that day – my mother used to ask butchers for large bones for the dog, as well – and I did want to ask, Tom told me butchers can no longer carry animal offcuts. Regulations now in place for well over twenty years require butchers to stand over the hygiene and quality of the meat they sell, he says, which is fair enough.

Tom reminded me of “mad cow disease” and the Bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE crisis of 1996. Four million cattle were culled in Britain to contain an outbreak of a fatal brain disease in cattle that had found its way into humans. The problem had been it was difficult to spot: it has a four-to-six-year gestation period and lay undetected before the crisis hit. It was also unknown then that humans could contract a similarly fatal brain disease in humans called CJD by eating infected meat. At the time 170 people in Britian died of CJD. The first case of BSE in Ireland was confirmed in 1989, the food authority of Ireland says, when 15 cases were confirmed.

The reason Tom brings it up because experts at the time agreed that BSE most likely spread by cattle eating feed that contained contaminated Meat and Bone Meal (MBM). MBM is a process called “rendering” that converts unused animal products taken from the carcass and cooked over a long time to produce MBM.

MBM was mixed with cattle feed until it was banned worldwide in the 1990s. The food safety authority says evidence shows that cattle contract BSE if they are fed infected brain tissue.

What followed changed the trade butchers had been used to conducting since forever. Animal carcasses were no longer allowed on butcher’s premises. The head of the animal had to be disposed of prior to butchering. Bones were gone. Animal trimmings were no longer in fashion.

The BSE crisis also brought a change in human habits of meat eating.

Tom Kearney is knowledgeable, experienced, outspoken and a bit tough. He has a lot to tell me and addresses my curiosity with enthusiasm. People that drop into the shop also stop to chat, and time is spent leaning on the counter passing the time of the day with laughter. Buying meat isn’t just buying meat, just like it used to be.

Caption: Quality Meats, outspoken critics of the changing times. Photo by Daragh Moller

Tom also told me that meat assumed to originate in Ireland frequently comes from much further afield. Animal offcuts are no longer easy to find anywhere he admits. However, Quality Meats can give you animal fats in the old-fashioned way they used to be sold. The flavour of meat he reminds me is in the fat from the animal you use to cook it in.

Tom told me that changing habits in the kitchen also reflect alterations in the home: no longer is one partner always at home, the demand for more income greater still. Limited time available to meal preparation and thinly spread resources mean supermarket ready-to-heat meals dominate over traditional methods of sourcing and serving food at home. I agree with him and add that youngsters being less interested in meal preparation definitely also contributes.

Caption: Animals fats for making lard. Photo by Daragh Moller.

And somehow, although he doesn’t say it directly, people feel safer eating processed meat from supermarket shelves.

I became interested in the limited number of local butchers in Sligo town after discovering that supermarkets here frequently import meat more cheaply from as far away as Afghanistan. But it’s not as simple as to say that foreign imports are the reason for the changes in retail practices for fresh meat. Tom says that young people have little interest in meat preparation the way he or I would have learned it, in the kitchens of our homes. Maybe BSE is also the reason for that.

With super tight EU regulations on butchering practices in butcher shops and with knowledgeable butchers like Quality Meats, there is no reason for butchers in the old traditional sense I was looking for and found in the Kearney’s not to remain on the streets of small towns and in bigger cities in Ireland today.

Tom tells me he turns sixty this year and that once he retires no one in the family will take the business over and that is how he wants it, he says. He doesn’t need to tell me it’s a physically tough business to be in but he does say he wants his children to use their brains and make money a different way.

I for one am happy Mr. and Mrs. Kearney are still in business in Quality Meats in Wine Street Car Park. If you are after a family butcher, drop into Quality Meats for a chat!

In my search around the town centre, I also found the Clarkes Brothers on Castle Street, standing out with a bright red awning and tiled frontage.

Caption: Clarkes Brothers butchers open on Castle Street. Photo by Daragh Moller

On Wine Street itelf, Michael Quirke shows me a photo of his father standing outside the Quirke’s family butcher shop in Sligo Town.

Caption: Quirke’s on Wine Street tells the story of times past. Photo by Daragh Moller

Although Quirke’s still retains the features of a butcher shop, the machinery, the payment cubicle, the tiled surfaces, all now lie idle. Michael is a poet and sculptor and uses the shop to promote his work. It’s also worth a visit. Visit the YouTube link below and hear me interview Tom from Quality Meats for thecircular and thelistener.org.

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