The killing of the pig was an event, which occurred twice a year on our farm in Clerhane, two miles north of the village of Shannonbridge, during my childhood. The particular event I am going to relate happened in the early 1950s, certainly no later than 1953. I remember this because reports of the Korean War, were perpetually on the wireless. My grandfather Michael Claffey took a keen interest in that war, which was very remote to the folk in Clerhane.
So I was about eight or nine years of age when this happened. We are very much talking about the pre iPhone/iPad era. Back then it was not possible to take instant photos, which one could post to some social media platform. One can only imagine in today`s world how the image of the killing of a pig would horrify the viewer, and would no doubt release a stampede of trolls. The outrage would be immense.
Gussie Claffey, from Crevagh tells me, that the domestic slaughter of pigs ceased about twenty-five years ago. Back in the 50s the slaughter of pigs was governed by the Slaughter of Animals Act 1935, however under Section 2(3) of the Act an exemption was provided for occasional domestic slaughter, which of course covered the average farmer killing the odd pig for family consumption. I reckon that back in the 50s vegetarians and vegans were pretty thin on the ground, and would not have loomed large in the mind of the average farmer in west Offaly. Though having said that, we consumed a large array of vegetables, which we grew on the farm, and of course my grandfather had a large orchard with a huge variety of fruit.
I know this has changed a lot, and indeed eating meat of any type today can put one beyond the pale. Apart from vegans and vegetarians, there are indeed a sizeable section of the population who would not eat pork out of religious conviction, however back in the mono culture of the 50s this did not arise, apart from the small Jewish population.
The pig in food history
Pork as food has a long history on this island. Maria Delaney in her 2013 piece `A total boar or pedigree`? tells us there was evidence of wild boar consumption dating from as early as circa 7,000 BC. When the Newgrange site in county Meath was being excavated, they found that pigs were a primary food source around 2,000 BC.
The Irish word for pig muc is not unlike the Welsh equivalent mochyn. The wild boar was part of Celtic iconography and myths. An example would be the tale/story of Diarmait and the Boar of Benn Gulbain.
Indeed the coming of St. Patrick is not without its swine connection, as it is believed he was taken into slavery to herd pigs and sheep on Slemish Mountain, county Antrim.
The Brehon Laws, which of course was the legal system in force, before the English ousted the Gaelic way of life, had provisions dealing with pigs. The potential damage wrought by pigs, was recognised as the most serious of all farm animals, and for example `for the trespass of a large pig in a growing field of corn the fine was one sack of wheat.`
Even that Norman propagandist Giraldus Cambrensis, noted our friend the pig. For in his `Topography of Ireland` he writes `In no part of the world are such vast herds of boars and wild pigs to be found`. It seems he was not very impressed by our greyhound pig then prevalent, describing them as `a small, ill-shaped and cowardly breed, no less degenerate in boldness and ferocity than in their shape and size.`
We often come across instances of Town Council bye-laws regulating the keeping of swine. For example in 1382 A.D. the citizens of Waterford agreed that any pig found wandering of the streets could be immediately killed by the specially appointed pig warden.
Of course during the 19th century elements of the British press used the image of the Irish with the pig in the parlour as a way to denigrate the Irish. Punch magazine with cartoons of Paddy with a pig under his arm mouthing `sure that is not a pig at all, but he`s the man that pays the rent`, were less than flattering.
The well-known British artist Charles Hunt executed a painting titled `Irish Cottage interior with figures and animals`, which has a pig on the table. Alas even great Irish writer James Joyce deals with our friend the pig in the Calypso chapter of Ulysses `And a pound and a half of Denny`s sausages – The ferret eyed pork butcher folded the sausages he had snipped off with blotchy fingers, sausage pink.`
Of course crubeens, that is boiled pigs feet are regarded highly by some, and can be seen at football venues as the fans chew their way in to a game. In this regard I recall Touhy`s pub in Connaught Street, Athlone sold `old pigs feet` on match days.
Later in life after I had come to Dublin, I heard the poor pig feature in a piece of Dublin wit. It was at an international soccer game between Scotland and Ireland in Dalymount Park. One Irish player George Cummins was having a real stinker of a game and the fans were getting at him. One punter nearby said `hey Cummins your only a ham`, to which another fan nearby retorted `no he is not, at least you could cure a ham.`
There is no doubt that pork was a mainstay of the diet in ancient Ireland, and of course it still forms a substantial portion of our diet.
Back in the 50s the domestic killing of a pig was routine, and certainly one did not have to concern oneself with the niceties of the modern age. I recall it was believed that one should only kill a pig when there was a `r` in the month. I reckon this was because it was cooler, and would therefore reduce the chance of the meat going bad during the curing process.
In those years I recall my grandfather returning from Mass on Pattern Sunday, broaching the subject, as he opened the half door and came into the kitchen. Interestingly, one rarely sees a half-door these days. They were quite functional, for they kept the children in and the fowl out, and provided ventilation. He sat down, and began to fill his clay pipe with tobacco, ‘ah it must be time for us to kill a pig’, he said. ‘Aye, you should’ my grandmother responded. My mother was instructed to get in touch with the ‘butcher’, to make the appropriate arrangements. Now when we say butcher, these were not fully trained and qualified butchers, but rather men who picked up the knowledge from previous generations of ‘butchers’. They were extremely good and efficient at the job. They obviously received a payment for their services, unfortunately I am not aware of what our butcher`s fee was. There may well been an element of barter in the transaction, perhaps he was allowed to have portion of the pig, or some other service in lieu.
Gussie Claffey from Crevagh explained to me, how his family dealt with the matter of their butcher`s fee. Gussie`s family had a boar and a bull, while Jack Flannery, their `butcher`, had a sow and cows that needed insemination from time to time, so such services which were provided in exchange for Jack`s butchering service.
Tom Reid from Shannonbridge was the man who used to come to perform this task for us. Tom and his brother Michael Joe were good friends of our family. Michael Joe Reid was a very accomplished musician. I recall Michael Joe chatting in our house one evening, explaining that he would go down to the Rocks, now called Clorhane Rocks, to listen to the birds sing, and he could isolate some notes which he found helpful. Sadly both the Reid brothers died at a very young age.
Tom also attended to the `cutting` that is the castration of young calves and male piglets i.e. bainbh. Gussie Claffey informed me recently, that Jack Flannery from Augeninacabe carried out these functions in his area.
The following Friday my mother was going in to Shannonbridge to, as we used to put it, `do the messages`, i.e. the shopping. She arrived back and gave us the news, Tom would come the following Saturday week around dinner time, which of course back then was 1.00 p.m. Our pigs lived in what we called the `pig house`, a stone structure out beside the haggard. Interestingly stones from this pigsty were later used in the construction of the Visitor Centre in Clonmacnoise. The breed of pig we kept was the Large White, any American readers will be glad to learn the Large White was the progenitor of the American Yorkshire pig. A few of our neighbours had the saddle back breed of pig, but most folk had the large white. The wild boar lost its habitat during the deforestation of Ireland, being the period 1,500 A.D. to 1,800 A.D.
The pig, shall we say whose goose was cooked, was generally selected two days in advance, then separated from the other pigs, put into a different shed, and was made fast until it was being killed.
My grandmother took charge of operations and set in motion the various processes that had to be dealt with prior to the day of the killing. My grandfather was advanced in age, therefore my uncle would need a few able bodied men for the day to hold and control the pig. So emissaries were sent out to Sonny Keena, Pat Gaffey, Joe Egan, Kieran Daly and Kieran the Yank Egan, who having spent time in the U.S.A was called the Yank and he referred to pigs as hogs. Positive replies were received from all, so the manpower element was in place. On this matter of recruiting help, in Ulster there was a superstition, which said it was unlucky not to have at least one neighbour present at the slaughter.
My grandmother issued instructions for the purchase of loads of salt, which was of course essential to the curing of the pork, and for the preparation of the tub of brine which was needed. She instructed my uncle to prepare a big clean bench on which the pig would be laid. She wanted to ensure that the proper hooks were in place to hang the carcase, while it was being cured. This was actually done inside the house, with sackings placed over the pig. She also insisted that a number of enamel buckets were available to catch the blood from the pig as it drained. We also had to have a number of old cut-throat razors available, as these were needed to shave the hair off the surface of the pig.
Tom Reid sent his bag of tools in advance with Brendan Flannery who had a car, that shall we say worked `sometimes`. That was always an interesting feature of rural life back then, how lads would tinker with cars that did not feel like starting, and somehow or other would get them going. Brendan, who had spent some time in Australia, was a lovely neighbour, duly delivered the bag of tools and said Tom would be along next Saturday. Needless to say my curiosity got the better of me and I had to look inside. It contained a few long knives, a mallet, a couple of hooks of differing sizes, and a whet stone. We were now ready.
On the Thursday the `condemned` pig was removed from his companions and placed in a separate outhouse.
Saturday morning we were all up at cockcrow, all last minute preparations being attended to. Around noon, the promised helpers began to arrive to form a kind of meitheal. I recall the late Con Houlihan describing such a meitheal in county Kerry, where there seemed to be mini caste system in play, the woman of the house issued the following instruction when refreshments were to be served `Farmers and farmer`s sons in the parlour, servant boys in the kitchen.` We were a tad more plebeian in Clerhane.
About ten to one, we noticed Tom Reid coming along the road on his bike. At this late moment, my mother upset my applecart somewhat. She announced that she and I would be going fishing in the Shannon. This caught me by surprise, but I reckon she thought I would be frightened by the noise the pig would make, while Tom was doing his business. My objections were overruled and we headed off to the Shannon.
As I did not actually see the slaughter, the following description which is from `The Pig in Irish Cuisine past and present` by Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire, will help describe the slaughter. `The local slaughterer (buisteir) a man experienced in the rustic art of pig killing, was approached to do the job, though some farmers killed their own. When the buisteir arrived the whole family gathered round to watch the killing. His first job was to plunge the knife in the pig`s heart via the throat, using a special knife. The screeching during this performance was something awful, but the animal died instantly once the heart had been reached, usually to a round of applause from the onlookers. The animal was then draped across a pig-gib, a sort of bench, and had the fine hairs on its body scraped off. To make this a simple job the animal was immersed in hot water a number of times until the bristle was softened and easy to remove. If a few bristles were accidently missed that bacon know as `hairy bacon`. During the killing of the pig it was imperative to draw a good flow of blood to ensure good quality meat. This blood was collected in a bucket for the making of puddings. The carcass would then be hung from a hook in the shed with a basin under its head to drip, and a potato was often placed in the pig`s mouth to aid the dripping process. After a few days the carcass would be dissected. The body was washed and then each piece that was to be preserved was carefully salted and placed neatly in a barrel and sealed. Whilst the killing was predominantly the men`s work, it was the women who took responsibility for the curing and smoking. Puddings have always been popular in Irish cuisine. The pig`s intestines were washed well and soaked in a stream, and a mixture of onions, lard, spices, oatmeal and flour were mixed with the blood and the mixture was stuffed into the casing and boiled for about an hour, cooled and the puddings were divided amongst the neighbours.`
Gussie Claffey from Creevagh, remembers his `butcher` Jack Flannery from Augenacabe having a bag of tools, which included a peculiar looking 3- inch spike made by Jack Butler who ran the forge in Shannonbridge. Incidentally the forge was a great place for men to assemble, chew the cud and talk things over, very much like what we call a Men`s Shed today. The purpose of this spike was to stab the pig between the 3rd and 4th rib where the coarse hair started, thus making the killing as quick as possible.
When my mother and I returned from the Shannon, with our catch of two perch, the deed had been done. The sides of bacon were being salted, and when sufficient salt had been rubbed in they were hung up to cure. My grandmother was busy getting the makings of the puddings assembled. I recall not being too comfortable with all the blood around, and various bits of the pig which were to be disposed of. My uncle Joe Claffey, told me he had a present for me, which turned out to the pig`s bladder inflated which I could use as a football. I recall the feel of it as being slimy and wet, certainly not a football as I understood it. I was somewhat underwhelmed by my gift. The bladder had been inflated using a goose quill, and the neck of the bladder was knotted.
That evening, when things had settled down, the `volunteers` having gone home, an odd thing happened. A travelling woman, then called a tinker-woman, arrived begging for stuff. My grandmother was furious, `bad cess to that tinker-woman, how did she know we had just killed a pig?` Not very P.C. but she went on and on about how the travellers always arrived after we had killed a pig. She seemed to feel they were clairvoyant. I am not sure if her assertion that they always arrived after the slaughter of the pig is accurate or not, but it certainly got her going. Anyway she gave her a piece of the pig. After the woman had gone, she continued to mumble.
So there you have my recollection of our killing a pig in west Offaly. I can think of no better way to finish than with the poem by Ireland`s Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney entitled Anahorish 1944, which sadly was also the harbinger to more killing.
“ We were killing pigs when the Americans arrived.
A Tuesday morning, sunlight and gutter blood
Outside the slaughterhouse. From the main road
They would have heard the squealing,
Then heard it stop and had a view of us
In our gloves and aprons coming down the hill.
Two lines of them, guns on their shoulders, marching.
Armoured cars and tanks and open jeeps.
Sunburnt hands, and arms. Unknown, unnamed,
Hosting for Normandy.
Not that we knew then
Where they were headed, standing there like
As they tossed us gum and tubes of coloured sweets.`
[Killing the pig at home is still done in places in Europe such as Galicia in the north of Spain and is a great ritual in preparation for the jamon so loved now across the world. The best jamon derived from free range pigs fed on acorns.]