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'You can have the best craic at the counter': The stories of Ireland's old-school butchers

Two of Ireland’s longest standing butchers share their perspective.

Durcan's in the English Market
Durcan's in the English Market

ITH NOT LONG to go until Christmas, butchers the length and breadth of the country are rolling up their sleeves and readying themselves for their busiest period of the year. 

But what’s it like working as a butcher in modern Ireland? We decided to consult two of the country’s leading butchers, Tom Durcan and Tim McCarthy, to find out. 

Tom Durcan’s, English Market: 

Tom Durcan has been working as the butcher trade since he was a teenager. As a youngster, he picked up a summer job in a local butcher’s shop to and kept it up after finishing school in order to keep out of trouble.

“I took a shine to it and three years later I opened my own butcher’s shop in Douglas,” he says. 

He ran the shop in Douglas for a number of years before acquiring a shop in Cork’s iconic English market. For a while, he ran the two shops concurrently but eventually he gave up the shop in Douglas to focus on the English Market full time. 

Over the last twenty years, Durcan has established himself as one of the county’s leading food producers. 

“I’m probably the biggest spiced beef producer in the country selling spiced beef through the SuperValu chain, at my own shop here and across Cork’s better restaurants, if you like,” he says. 

A local delicacy traditionally eaten at Christmas, Durcan sells his spiced beef all year round. That said, demand spikes during the festive period. Last year, it was reported that Durcan had sold as much as fifteen tonnes of spiced beef in the lead-up to Christmas. 

He’s anticipating a similar level of demand this year. 

“We have a spiced beef mountain waiting to be attacked at this stage,” he says. “To make spiced beef takes two or three months so it’s sitting in spice and marinade and stir it every day. We do it right so we take our time at it and we sell loads of it, do you know.”

As for what it makes it so special?

“That’s under wraps. I’d have to shoot you if I told you that.” 

Duncan says his customer base is diverse, but loyal. 

“You have old Cork characters, you have people traveling for miles to get here on a Saturday for food. The market is fantastic. They’re trying to replicate it all over the world and they can’t, you know.”

In 2011, Tom Durcan welcomed Queen Elizabeth II to the market and showed her around the place. He says her visit has helped in terms of boosting the market’s profile. 

“The market was always here,” he says. “But a lot of people outside Cork didn’t realise it was there. As soon as it was highlighted with the Queen’s visit, everyone copped it was there and we now have much better footfall obviously.”

However, he notes that increased tourist numbers hasn’t necessarily been “helpful for business”. 

“It’s a trading market. It’s not just a place for tourists to come in and take pictures of monkeys in cages cutting up meat and go back to their ships where they’re watered and fed. That causes a small disadvantage for us, but we get over it.”

Durcan prides himself on sourcing most of his produce locally – think chickens from West Cork and beef from Midleton. That said, he is not averse to traveling out of his way, if needs be.

“If I have to go further afield to get a better quality, I will do it,” he says. “I don’t give a hoot what it costs once the stuff is good, people enjoy it and they come back for more of it.”

He believes this is what separates butchers from supermarkets.

“I can go out and pick out what I want to sell in my shop whereas supermarkets are just getting run of the mill meat. It comes in in packets. The individual supermarket doesn’t have any say over what kind of quality they’re getting. The quality in a butcher’s shop is invariably much, much better.” 

“A butcher can cut exactly what you want. Whereas in a supermarket, it’s in a packet. Lump it or leave it.”

As for Durcan’s favourite part of being a butcher? 

“Christmas Eve when you finish after a busy Christmas and you know you have two or three days off,” he jokes. “Get someone else to drive you home and have two pints before you go home. It’s lovely.” 

McCarthy’s of Kanturk

The McCarthy family have been operating a business in Kanturk, Co Cork, for close to 150 years. Initially the family ran a bakery in the town, but they changed tack in the late nineteenth century and opened a butcher’s shop. 

“The family legend goes that, in 1892, Callaghan McCarthy got a piece of meat he wasn’t happy with and started killing his own and selling his own and opened a butcher’s shop,” says Tim McCarthy.

McCarthy is the fifth generation of his family to work in the business. He started out young. By the age of eleven, he recalls having his “head stuck in the sink washing trays, making tea and helping with deliveries”. 

“I wasn’t very academically minded so when I saw my out at a young age, I wanted to work,” he recalls. “It’s a passion.”

While McCarthy’s serves up a wide variety of cuts, including North Cork pancetta and Ardrahan cheese and smokey bacon sausages, they are chiefly known for their breakfast products.

They have won awards for their rashers and their black pudding has been celebrated by La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goûte Boudin, also known as the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Black Pudding, whom McCarthy describes as being “aficionados and absolute champions of black puddings”.

These days, McCarthy’s supply their black pudding to Aldi. It’s all part of an effort to diversify the business, says McCarthy.

“It’s another string to your bow apart from having your shop, which is your market stall,” he explains. 

Does McCarthy view the likes of Aldi and other supermarkets as threats? Not at all. 

“Some butchers see supermarkets as competition,” he says. “I don’t.”

“I think we’re selling a superior product, a different product. We are masters of our craft. We are innovators. We’re not just selling a product that is sold at a competitive price. You’re selling the best quality product at the best price you can.” 

“Cheap meat isn’t good value. Would you run the Dublin City Marathon in a pair of cheap shoes? Cheap meat isn’t good value but the butcher will give you the best local produce sold at a competitive price prepared by skilled, trained butchers.”

In fact, he says that shifts in eating habits are cause for greater worry. He points to the demise of the Sunday roast and the popularity of takeaway food as something that concerns him.

“I had a piece of roast beef that I would have been selling for eighteen euros. I would have fed six people on that at home. Go into a Chinese and what will you get for eighteen euro?” 

“Look at brunch. It’s not the Sunday fry-up anymore. It’s ‘I’ll meet you for brunch.’ You put a Sunday fry up on the table for four people for eight to nine euro. What will you get at brunch for nine euro? I think our biggest challenge is trying to change people’s eating habits rather than changing where they buy.”

It’s all just par for the course, however.

“We’re quite happy with the way things are going. Butchers have challenges. Every business has challenges. There’s no point us griping about supermarkets or people drifting away to convenience. Everything creates opportunity.”

For his part, McCarthy believes that butchers still play an important role in their local communities. There’s a personal touch that you just don’t get in supermarkets. 

“I love meeting people. You can have the best craic inside the counter talking to people, meeting people, catching up with people. Giving you their news, giving them your news. It’s a very sociable job. Our average interaction with someone could be four to five minutes.You know their habits, you know what they’re into.”

“I don’t call them customers. They’re all my friends coming in.”

With Christmas just around the corner, McCarthy says the turkey queries are coming in thick and fast. It reminds him of a well-worn phrase.

“You know they say, ‘A turkey is for life and not just for Christmas?’ A butcher is there all year round, not just at Christmas.”

More: 12 of the best brunch destinations around Ireland, according to the chefs who should know>

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About the author:

Amy O'Connor

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