World Championship 2002
Saturday morning, I'm up early as it is the big day. World Championships of Oyster Opening 2002.
Now, I'm used to getting up early, two kids, and a business to run and all, but today was a little harder, than usual. The night was fun under the marquee, and even though I was to bed early, the Guinness I think, got the better of me. Or was it the whiskey?
I'm up before the breakfast service in the hotel, nice nosh as well, but I have no time for that. I'll eat with the rest of the crew at tea time, around 8:00am. "The Irish Breakfast on a bun". Rasher bacon, sausage, black and white pudding, poached egg, grilled tomato on a soft "submarine" bun, and a cup of well brewed tea. Soft, chewey, greasy, salty, gooey goodness. If the Irish are renowned for their "craic", drinking and parties, then this, by God, is the originnal hangover helper. I dream of this moment from mid-July every year.
This is my favorite time of the whole festival, if not the whole year (of the oyster calendar that is). This morning it is up to maybe 15 shuckers to ready 600 dozen oysters before 11:00am. Another 400 dozen will wait until after the start of the event at 12 noon. This is where we get a close look at the oysters that we will be competing with and a chance to get the knives ready and the arms limber. There is always a sence of comaradare in the tent, in the morning. We are not as much rivals befoe a contest, but friends at a qilting bee, chatting, laughing, and watching each other's technique, in awe of what and how tho other opens oysters. Each person in the tent has a great respect for the other's work, Egos are checked at the door.
The sun has poked across the Clare mountains and is cutting the morning fog on Galway bay. It's beautiful, and I've desides to walk the 15 minute disatance, along the Promenade, rather thanwaith fro a cab for twenty. I'm late already, so I hurry along. The boys will be on me and won't let it go. "Good afternoon sleepy..." and al that.
The Marquee is a lovely word the Irish use to call a massively large tent. It is set up over The Claddagh - a part of Galway, and Irish History, where the Claddagh ring was concieved of. They say, in the jewelery stores at least, the if you but a Claddagh ring in Galway, you will always return. It works for me, 10 years running! The marquee is red and white stripprd roof with white, and glass walls, and is installed complete with a hardwood floor from front to back. It is more of a semi-permanent structure, rather than a tent. It is a sight to see. On the end of the marquee is the kitchen tent. It is in there the the oysters await.
As I walk up to the front door, The same security guard is at the front, and it takes a second, but he recognizes me from the year before.
"Op'nin wi'de lads out back are ye, Canada? Nice to see ye, again. They've already started, best be in. Good luck ta ye!" In the west, ye is still used for "you".
Game face. Clear mind, think of the oysters. I draw in the salty sweet scent of the Galwway morning before entering the tent. My eyes are get accostomed to the red hue from the roof and are drawn to the stage where it will all take place later today. It is a long walk to the kitchen tent at the back of the marquee but I can see that there is action already behind the drapes. Mrs. Kelly is organizing the girls, spreading butter on what seems to be an endless supply of Brown Bread.
"Morning Mrs. Kelly!"
"Good morning, good morning, Patrick. Did you sleep well then? Now, Diarmund and Michael (pronounced mee-haul) are inside, we'll have tea up in a bit"
"Thank you mrs. Kelly."
I enter to see the now familliar sight to two massve worktables with a mound of oyster shells 5 feet tall on each, surrounded buy durty-aproned, wet handed, hunched-over shuckers. More oysters are being carried in by Michael and Diramuind, in boxes big enough for two to hold. I'm home.
"Nice of you to join us, Patirck. Is it lunch time already?" chirps one, "too bad we're nearly done you would't want to get your nice hand all messy-like!" sings another. I've only met these folks three time in my life, but in the Shucker's Tent, we've known each other a lifetime.
I grabbed some space in a corner next to Deiter Brener, of Sweeden. He openens in his hand with a double ended knife that he invented and is always improving and training others to use. He gave me one of his knives in 1996 when I first met him. It's always great to join in on the conversation of las nights revelries, but there is a job to be done today, talking can come later, and the job is to plate the Galway bay oyster, 6 to a foam plate with a sprig of seaweed for garnish. Keep shucking and plating, stack the plates on top of each other and a runner will grab the plate-stacks, 10 high an take them to the service area the rack them under the bar. Continue until 600 dozen are neatly tucked away for the day's enjoyment.
I made a pile of about 300 oysters in the corner, laid out my workstation, and set to work. I shucked six at a time and kept at a slow pace to warm up and feel the hinge, of the oyster. Slowly I work into the speed of the layout. still six at a time, paying close attention to the anatomy of this oyster. Deiter is moving at a fair pace I can see through the corner of my eye. He's always been quick but clean as well, definately one to watch. The figur eight movement of knife on shell is very fluid and well thought out. I rarely get to see him open oysters so I pause to watch the master. Shell tops are flying as he works through a couple of plates.
I go back to work, then it is Deiter's turn to watch as he looks over my shoulder. I lay up the six, pop and drop, a bit sticky on the hinges. Set up another, then it happens. I didn't see one shell had some sponge on it, and I was laying into the oyster with too much force. On the third oyster of this plate, the top shell cleaved, the knife blade slipped through, and at the same moment, my eyes came off of the oyster, long enough to have the knife slip. The pain of the cut was minimal. So then I looked down, and there wasn't any blood immediately, I thought that I was lucky, and I only nicked the outside of my finger.
I had cut my self on the left hand, at the base of the middle finger, where the finger meets the hand proper.
The next split second, I pulled the knife out of my finger, and noticed the tip on the opposite side, the point was on my wedding ring. I immediately put pressure on the wound and went to the sink. "Not that bad." I thought. No blood, we're good.
Deiter saw what had happened and came over to see if I was OK.
"I'm fine." I said, and the word went around the room that I had cut myself.
At the sink, still no blood. I poked the skin at the base of my finger and noticed two holes, big holes across from each other. Shit! I put my knife right through my finger! It stopped on my wedding ring or it would have hit another finger I think! It is 10:30 am. Parade starts at 12:00 pm, conteat at two. Right.
Ok,ok, emergency plan. I took a clean cloth that I travel with tighty wrapped my finger and excused myself from the tent. No Irish Breakfast on a bun this year. I thought to my self, no time to go the hospital. Surgical glue and steristrips. I head off downtown to search every pharmacy, and hardware store for gloves to hold it all together.
After 5 pharmacies. with no luck, and running out of time, I decide to head to the Great Southern hotel where the parade is to begin. No panicing, I will bandage tightly, and see how long to "bleed through". I head to the washroom.
I clean the wound again, It's a good one, one of the best I've seen two holes 1/4 inch long each. Two stitches each maybe? Dosen't matter, I break out my "magic bandaids" These are my favorite brand I get from a first aid supplier in Toronto. These bandaids stick well even wet, and do not leave a residue when removed. A shucker should not be without bandaids, at anytime whether shucking or not, you just never know when someone's kid will skin their knee, or you need to wrap a present.
Three bandaids. One on the first side, then the other, then one to anchor around the base of the finger. Nice and tight. Good. I get them wet and wait. Twenty minutes "to bleed through", the first sign of blood. Great, i thought. I have 20 minutes. All I need is four. I will re-bandage just as I get called to the stage, and I'll be fine. 11:45am. I go out tot he lobby to get my apron and flag before the parade.
By now everyone knows that I got cut pretty badly. They were all quite concerned how I was doing but I was fine, not to worry. Time for a pint.
Now, apart from Darts and maybe Curling, Oyster Shucking has to be the only "sport" where partaking in a pint of Guinness is highly recommended. "A good shucker should be able to handle his liquor and a sharp instrument at the same time!" Murph, my "trainer" would say back in Toronto. Not only does it taste good, is socially acceptable, is it by the way what the natives are up to by now, but it calms the nerves as well. I generally like to hit the table at about 3.5 pints in, over the course of 3 hours. Part if "the game" before a competition, back home was to try to buy each other that one pint too much, to throw the concentration. You had to be on your toes several hours before the contest so that you wouldn't get too drunk.
The parade is a nice touch, you are, after all at the World Championships, and flag waving is a big part is this event. We start at the Great Southern Hotel, Galway's grand railway hotel, located in the town square. This is the site where the Galway Oyster Festival started over 50 years ago, as an extention to the tourist season. As the years wore on, the festival outgrew what the hotel could hold, eventually moving to Spanish Arch, and then to the Claddagh where the tent resides now,
Frank Fahey, competition director, is in the lobby making sure all of the openers are present, with apron, and flag. Frank is the nicest guy to run a competition, always calm and collected, but running fast as he has to watch over the the openers like a teacher, with a boys' school outing at a football match. Inevitably, someone is late, missing, of off to the washroom without telling the teacher. Frank asks about the state of my hand.
"I'm fine, just a flesh wound, all taped up an ready to go! Thank you very much", I say. I'm deliberately not telling anyone about the cut, to fake myself out more than anything else, to keep my hat in the ring, and most of all I don't want the head judge to think that I would end up bleeding in the oysters, nobody wants that.
Like a mother duck, Frank moves his fledglings outside to start the parade. The openers are tucked in beind the Norther Ireland Friendship band, as the name implies, a large brass band, dressed in what looks like a royal blue painter's smock, and red keck-kerchief, and black fisherman's cap. Each hat is adorned with pins from wherever they've gone on tour. The concept for the band, is a bunch of folks, from the North, that comes to the South, to keep the peace, and disturb it at the same time! They play a collection of up-beat marching, and jazz tunes, that is guaranteed to rev-up the audience every year. If I hear "Tiger Jazz" on the radio, I think of this band. It is their signature song I believe, as they play it several times to an adoring, dancing crowd over the course of the day. As with everyone els here at the Festival, the Band is known to partake in a pint or five. I still don't know how one can have a couple of pints and play the tuba, but then , they probably say the same about oyster shucking. It takes years of practice.
It feels like everyone in Galway is at the hotel to see us off. The Guinness "gig-rig", a black as stout, 18 wheeler is set up outside, as a portable stage and sound system. The house band wraps up, and the announcements start. The Oyster Pearl is making her way to the stage. Miss Oyster Pearl is a local girl who has won the annual contest that is run weeks before the Festival to be the official representalive, and photo queen. Now, it is a superstition of mine, to have the Oyster Pearl touch my knife every year. You can imagine, thirty-something oyster geek in an apron and flag, with a cracking voice like a pre-pubescent boy, comes up to a beautiful, six foot, just twenty blonde in stilettos, tiara, traditional cape and gown..."Uuuh, hello, Miss Oyster Pearl? Uuh, would you touch my knife?" Classy, to say the least, quite the ice breaker, but don't try this at home kiddies. The Pearl obliges, probably to keep me quiet while she calls securtity with her free hand. Luckily the oyster geek backs off smiling, and re-joins the group.
The stage is packed with dignataries, the Mayor, Chairman of the festival, Miss oyster Pearl, a band, and Michael Kelly, champion shucker and oyster grower. To open the festival proper. Formality is the key to the Irish experience. Everyone must have their turn to speak, from the Pearl, the the Chariman of the Festival, to the Mayor of Galwy, and even the "Teigh-shuck(sp)" the Prime Minister of Ireland is invited for a few words to celebrate the oyster. Who would have thought that practically the whole Nation stopped fro a moment to consider the oyster and what it had brought to the culture. Five point six million euros to Galway businesses for the weekend was one point that was made. Once all of the announcements have been completed, the parade begins.
The shuckers follow a procession of dignetaties in vintage 1920's cars, followed by the Northern Ireland Friendship band, a school band of children in blue kilts and shawls playing tin whistels. The Galway Arts Festival always puts on a great show with their theatrical group, stilt walkers, acrobats, dancer, thesbians, all contribuiting their part to the day's festivities. We wind our way through the town, around the main square, over the cobble stone roads of the High Street, over the bridge at Spanish arch to the Marquee. Lining the streets are patrons and oyster fans alike, partaking in a pint of the black stuff before lunch, to stimulate the appetite for lunch, oysters, debauchery or all of the above. These folks, leave their posts on the route, glass in hand to join the oystyery procession wind its way to the marquee, and enter the tent, flags first 'round half past noon.
I finally meet up with Alison in the tent, and told her of the morning's mishap. "Don't even think about it" she replies, trying to draw my attention away from the injury and towards the task at hand - shucking i the competition.
Generallly I don't get phased by a cut, I just know that it has to heal, and it will take its time. Tape up and get back to work. But getting cut four hours to the big contest is a different situation. Luckily, I thought this through while fixing the wound, and I was in a good state of mind. Better than getting cut during the contest. Tape up and get back to work. "I'm fine" I told Alison, and went off to get some pints.
In the wold of sport, save for Curling, having a social pint while shucking is part of the game. It settles your nerve, lightens the atmosphere, and an focus your thoughts. Many would argue this position, but shuckers are a strange breed.
"The ability to handle your liquor and a sharp instrument!" was Murph's usual answer to the age old question - What does it take to be a good oyster shucker? Murph is my Oyster mentor, and teacher of shucking and opened the door to the Oyster world for me. That makes him a Master. Master Shucker Murph. More on Murph later.
Before the contest there are a few announcements, and a general good time party going on, oysters and a seafood platter being served, washed down with pints of Guinness and lager, wine and champagne. Women in fancy cocktail dress are all prancing around and looking wonderful for the judges of "The Most Elegant lady" contest.
I am most impressed that the drinks are served in real glasswear. In North America, if there are more than 25 people, plastic, and disposables seem to be the norm. Here though, 3000 people, can have a great good time, dancing, cavorting, with real glasses supporting the drink of their choice, and with a minimum of breakage. If there is a dropped glass, the patron will inevetably be the one to clean it up as well. It is as if their mothers were in the room, watching that they clean up the accident. Very civilized.
Three and a half pints of Guinness is what I usually like to have before the contest. By then any nerves are settled, and the shucking will be smooth. There has been many times when I've seen shuckers pacing, smoking, rattling the cage, psyching up before the game. Whatever works for the individual, I guess.
At 1:30 the Oyster Openers get called to the judges tent. This is where the rules are explained, and the head judge will inspect the knives being use. The tent is small, 10' by 20' at best, with a row of tables around the perimeter for the judges to lay the opener's trays, and inspect the oysters. We all cram into the little room, and Frank Fahy reads out the rules and regulations. I noticed that there is an improvement in the room this year. A sole, lonely draft tap, sitting in the corner, waiting for the judges to arrive. I'd better test it to make sure, and several other openers follow suit. After the rules, Frank allows us to draw numbers, which will correspond to a basket of 30 oysters, and your position on the stage. I'm in the second heat. Time to focus on the game. Visualize the tray, the knife placement, breathing and tray placement. Once the first heat was called, I re-bandage my hand, and get ready to go.
As we get called up to the stage, there is a jumble of people in front of the crowd. Announcers, timers, counters, officials, the mayor, Miss Oyster Pearl, and the Northern Ireland Friendship band. Oh, and the shuckers. This year there is a TV crew from Japan, filming their shucker on the stage in my heat. A little crowded to say the least, but that's part of the game.
Once on the stage, the Mcee calls to the crowd to pick a "nom de plume" or a nickname for the so that the judges, will not know the identity of the plate of oysters when it arrives at the tent. Anominity is key for even judging. the annual announcer is Michael----------? with a deep baritone, booming voice, perfect for the job, its no-wonder he's done it for as long as I have been going to Galway.
The non de plume is always picked by the crowd, so if they are co-hearant enough, name are thrown out to the stage, in hopes of naming the horse. "Scappy, The Doctor, Superman, Rambo, are all names usually called out. There are some unwritten rules though, Presidential names, and very Americanized names such as Rambo cannot be used for the US opener, and Waltzing Matilda or Roo, cannot be used for Australia, along with other easy giveaways are regularily refused by the Mcee, When my turn came, "Killer" was called out and accepted by Michael, and thus, my tray was named.
I opened my basket of oysters, and layed them out in front of me, to the right of center, in a checkerboard pattern, a thumb's width apart from each other, fanned out only as far as arm's length, no further. I will be shucking off of the table propper, no board, no cloth. In years past, I was disallowed to use my oyster board moments before we started time. House rules in Galway that only the board provided may be used. Clothes are allowed, in a grey area of thought, so long as the oyster is not supported in any way by the cloth. The cloth will bind up under the competition's speed, and will actually slow me down, so this year, I trained myself to shuck off of the table only.
To finish this contest, a bell must be rung. It is a small, brass "hand bell" that I set, just off of the presentation tray, in the upper right hand corner, to be able to ring it as soon as the last oyster is placed.
The oysters are down, the tray and bell alligned, ready to go. Listen for the caller. Hear nothing eyes focussed on only the one oyster on the spot. hands above the head, Knees bent, lower to the table. The crowd calls out, almost drowning out the the announcer, 5,4,3,2,1 go! The first one is always the hardest. in oystering I'm talking about. All I hear is the sound of the knife on the shell, the roar of the crowd is somehow drowned out, I see, and hear only the oyster. All else fades away. Pick up, place the oyster on the spot, knife on thumb, in the hinge, turn, pop, pull up with the left-index finger, insert the blade, touch the adductor muscle, remove the shell with a flick, spin the oyster 180 degrees, sweep for grit, slide the knide under the muscle, two cut the bottom, place the oyster on the tray, and pick the next oyster in line. 4.77 seconds per oyster. Breath every fourth oyster. focus. feels slow, like plodding through wet cement.
I hear the caller announce that the Scappy has done 6 oysters, Batman has 8, Killer is at 12...that's me I'm ahead, I think don't listen, always wrong. Shuck.
Time slows to a snail's pace for what happened next occurred in the time it takes to open 2 oysters, in retrospect, it is all clear, but at the time, I made split-second decisions, that to this day is hard for me to pathom. Over my left shoulder I noticed a flash of light, nothing much, but then I noticed movement, and just two oysters later I felt a bump on my right elbow, a slip on the oyster shell, and the sharp pain of cold steel in the middle of my palm.
I looked down at my left hand. The knife had pierced dead center, a small but bleeding hole in my palm, trouble. I looked up over my right shoulder to see where the bump came from. Three inches from my nose, over my right shoulder was the black hood of a camera lense. The TV crew heard that I was ahead, moves over to my station, to get a tight shot over my shoulder, and with all of the people on the stage, bumped my elbow, and thus cut my hand.
Now, in the time took to look at the camera, I thought of my next move. Was it A) to put my oyster knife through the lense, into the cameraman's eye, rip his heart out, and feed it to the awaiting seagulls?, Nope too graphic, and I don't think that the judges would approve. B) I could stand up, protest, and get a "mulligan". nope too easy, I don't like the thought of a re-do. C) Continue shucking and hope to god you don't bleed profusely. I chose C.
When competing in shucking, the first six oysters are the slowest, as you find your groove, and set the pace. I had stopped to look at my hand, and therefore, I had to get back into the groove again, this time, with the remaining 15 oysters, I had to wipe my had off each time to avoid any bleeding. I hit the groove pretty quick, and finished the last oysters still ahead of anyone else in my heat. I scanned the oysters in six rows of five. No blood, and a sigh of relief.
I rang the bell and looked towards Frank Fahy, while he was removing the camera crew from the stage. He had seen the whole thing, and was quick in his desision to remove them. All I said was that if there was blood in the oysters it was not my fault, and to take that into consideration please. Frank nodded, and apologized, but I was suprisingly not that upset about the whole thing. The timer showed me the time 2:34. Wow, all that in two and a half minutes. It felt like i was plodding along the whole time. My time was good, and it is in the judges hands now.
I always look at contests like I did exams in university. once you are done, don't look back, no use stressing over the results by looking up the answers in the text book after the test. Off to the pub with you! Relax and enjoy the fact that you have finished a difficult bit of work. Which is why I am an oyster shucker and not a, whatever it is people do if they do not shuck oysters for a living.
So I went off to the bar for a pint and to find Alison to tell her of what happened. Alison cannot stand to watch me open oysters in competition so much that she has to leave the room.
She was a little more upset than me, but I reassured her that Frank delt with the sitiuation as best as possible, and that everything was alright. It wasn't that bad a cut anyways.
The most difficult time I have at any contest is the final decisions and placings called out by the announcer. I always like to hide or pull away from the event as I dred the call of my name. I often catch myself calling under my breath whil the announcements go on. "And in 15th place, with a time of...Patrick McMurray I whisper to myself...New Zealand!" Whew, not me, but I'm next in 14th, 13th, 12...8...4? What's going on? I must have disqualified, not enough oysters. Third... augh, maybe I bled everywhere. Second, is where it comes down to it. At the worlds they call everyone, so by now I've figured, as everyone on stage was this pointing out to me as well, that I was either Second or First. Second was called, ...not me. "and the winner from Canada with a winning time of 2:45, Patrick McMurray!!"
The crowd went wild, but the crowd always does, because, here everyone loves the show and that is what we oyster openers do, is put on a show.
I was elaited, I didn't beleive it at all, but there it was, I stepped up, was offered a bottle of Champagne, which tradition dictates that you sprtiz the crowd, and your fellow competitors. With a new apron and the cup, I took my pint of Guinnes, poured it in, along with the champagne and drank a winners drink from the silver cup, passed it around to everyone else, and looked forward to the dinner that night.