IT is a trade that has the most visceral reputation. The language of butchery cannot be softened for the sake of our sensitive dispositions, but never have I met a butcher that wasn’t softly spoken with a gentle way about them.
Ger O’Callaghan, Head Butcher at Drinagh Co-Op, is no different. The 27-year-old is a Master Butcher who has been in love with his trade since the tender age of 14.
Meat consumption is on the rise globally, but in Ireland butchering is a trade in decades-long decline. Ger believes re-establishing the important connection between farmer, butcher and consumer is crucial: that the animals we rear for food must be treated with nothing but respect at every stage of their life, which is essential in producing the best quality meat.
The industry is under the spotlight more than ever, but Ger views this as a chance to educate.
What is the role of a Master Craft Butcher, and how can this trade ensure animal welfare (a paradox that is often difficult to square away in animal agriculture) whilst positively impacting on farmers’ and consumers’ choices?
“My careers guidance officer asked me before my Leaving Cert what I wanted to be, I said a butcher and he laughed in my face,” said Ger. “He came up to me on the day of my graduation as a Master Butcher, it was in the middle of the recession, he shook my hand and said ‘I admit, you’re the only man that’s still going to be employed in 20 years’ time.’”
That was in 2012 when Ger was 21. By then, he had been working in the trade already for six years. A part-time job at 14 on the meat counter at Fields’ Supervalu (the store owned by John Field, probably the most visionary grocer of our time) was only the beginning.
“I went straight into it, working after school, holidays and weekends. For the first few months it was a means to an end, but then the trade grew on me, I liked it, took an interest in it and made my mind up that butchering was what I wanted to do.
“I’m not sure whether Christy Dempsey, the head butcher in Fields, saw something in me, but he gave me my first start and I learned so much from him. I was lucky to work under a man with such stature and skill.
“Before my exams, I went to Dan Moloney, one of the finest Master Butchers in Ireland and based in Bandon. Straight away he said, ‘Finish your Leaving Cert and come on away’. I was delighted. Through the Association of Craft Butchers of Ireland, I served my apprenticeship under Dan and qualified with a Distinction. I was one of only three people in Ireland to qualify as a Master Butcher that year: two of us were based at Dan Moloney’s, and the only other fella was in Kerry.”
A lack of opportunity to enter into the craft, coupled with a degraded understanding about the value of it, means the majority of qualified butchers in Ireland now are in the age range 50- plus with too few newly qualified butchers to pick up their mantle.
“It’s not a job that you can just jump into and there is a difference in the type of butcher you are too. I am a Certified Master Butcher, I wanted that title because a Master Butcher is qualified to do everything from slaughtering; understanding anatomy, boning, breaking down the animal into all the different cuts and making products. A straight down the line butcher just handles the meat when it comes in. There’s a big difference.
“Dan would take me to Bandon Mart and put me outside a pen of heifers and say ‘Right, pick one — you tell me which I should buy’. I’d pick maybe three or four and he’d agree with me. There was pressure: Dan is so well respected in the trade, I didn’t want to let him down.
“I learned from Dan why the supply chain is hugely important. Farmers are brilliant, they mind the animal from day one, treat it with care and respect, so it’s our job as butchers to take it to the next level. It’s too easy to spoil the animal and its meat, even right up until the last stage, so it’s up to us as butchers to show up with our craftsmanship, with our pride and put it into the counter. Selling good meat is easy when you can stand over its quality.”
The meat industry is being watched like never before through the lens of social media. And it’s not always supportive.
“Social media is constantly beating down on butchers, and slaughtermen in particular, but what I find is that there is a lot of ignorance — not in a bad way, just a lack of knowledge.
“Slaughtering and butchering are like two different trades with completely different skillsets, but there’s almost no young people coming through.
“The small abattoirs are getting fewer so there’s less access to training and factories are getting bigger. In a factory, a guy stands in a single position doing the same cut over and over again, so finding someone who can slaughter an animal and dissect it all the way through are few and far between. Put a full carcass of beef up in front of a modern butcher, they’d look at ya and wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
Drinagh Co-Op, where Ger is now Head Butcher, is one of the big farmer owned and run co-operatives with a proud history. The heart of Ger’s clientele here is the farming community in West Cork, very traditional and very true to their heritage.
“Because I’m buying from a local farmer, they’ll come in and be proud about the fact their meat is on the counter. They’ll tell their neighbours, and people will ask ‘Is that Johnny’s cattle from down the road?’ — it’s a community.”
There’s a lot to be said for being humble about your craft; not afraid to challenge yourself, ask questions and maintain a desire to keep learning and improving.
“That is the essence of craft. You don’t get to a point and then stop, you have to keep moving,” says Ger.
“I was haunted to work alongside Christy then Dan, butchers of that calibre. And it’s only now looking back I realise it.
“The whole time, I’m thinking how can I do better and that’s all down to training and working with the right people.
“The support I receive from Gordon Benn (Drinagh Co-Op Manager) has been huge. Taking leaps of faith, seeing that something has worked and encouraging me to just do it. It’s great to have that freedom.”
Ger tells me he’s training for a Green Cert in Agriculture with Teagasc.
“I know what I want from a butcher’s point of view, but to understand what the farmers want of an animal from their point of view is where we’ll find a happy medium to rear the perfect animal.”
The connection between farmer-butcher- customer is thankfully thriving here, but all too rare in general. Whilst an apprentice, Ger was told to open his eyes and ears, take in as much as possible and ask questions always. Now his craft is a life-long mission: always learning, always asking questions and always striving for the best.
Next week we interview Barry Walshe and Dave Finlay of Kilahora Orchard — cousins reinvigorating a lost 200-year-old orchard and producing apple champagne, perry, ice wine, apple brandy and award winning ciders.