How many oysters can you eat in three minutes? Most folk wouldn’t know, but at Ireland’s oyster festivals the competition is the main game. The current Guinness World Record holder (233 shucks in three minutes), Colin Shirlow, has held the title since 2005, so a worthy opponent is needed this year.
And this year is a big one for oysters in Ireland. The delicacy is such a gem of Ireland's food heritage that the island has its own dedicated oyster season when food festivals all over the country celebrate the humble mollusc. September is seafood month and shucking (opening) is the main verb on the island.
No less than four festivals will be celebrating the moreish molluscs with tastings, music, parades and some competitions to break a world record or two. So here's to the salty, seafood-nourishing Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea. We always knew there was something special in Ireland's seawater and the oysters are proof.
Carlingford, County Louth
Cracking open the season a little earlier on 8 August is Carlingford Oyster Festival in County Louth. Carlingford’s Lough (yes, it's called a 'lough' but it's effectively a large inlet with an open mouth to the Irish Sea) is the source of their oysters and cements this pretty coastal town with a reputation for outstanding seafood. The four day festival includes an oyster pearl hunt, a sailing regatta, the world crab fishing contest, street entertainment, an oyster tent, food stalls and artisan craft markets and the famous Carlingford seafood chowder. In short: it's busy.
Hillsborough, County Down
County Down’s 21st Hillsborough Oyster Festival will stretch itself over the 5-8 September. The Guinness World Record for eating the most oysters was made at the 2005 festival, at a whopping 233 in three minutes by the county’s very own Colin Shirlow. The search for the new record breaker is on, but challengers will have to bring their mollusc-slurping A-game in order to beat Shirlow's shuck.
Clarenbridge, County Galway
The next oyster hot spot is the Clarenbridge Oyster Festival, south of Galway City, where a sheltered bay and delicate ratio of fresh and salt water means oyster perfection. Come 13 September the oysters will be shucked and the slurping will begin. This will also be a family affair as Clarenbridge invites back its recent emigrants for family reunions galore. The weekend begins with the Market day, which showcases the town’s traditional wares such as crafts, food, music, song and dance.
Galway International Oyster Festival, County Galway
And last but not least is the 59th Galway International Oyster Festival at the end of September. Galway is renowned for a good party, and it hosts the oysters in its usual cosy revelry style. The headline event is the incredible work of expert shuckers at the World Oyster Opening Championships. Watch, gasp and let your appetite lead you to a Seafood Trail for dinner.
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City of Tribes
Also on the bill of what the Sunday Times called “one of the 12 greatest shows on earth”, is the Tribal Oyster Feast Off. This is part of The Gathering 2013 and sees Galway (the City of the Tribes) calling its tribes’ people home. From the late 12th century, 14 merchant families ruled the city. They transformed the city, creating a golden age of prosperity right up to the mid 17th century – these were the Galway Tribes.
Tribe members can enter a competition to win free tickets to the festival provided you have one of the lucky 14 tribe names: Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D’Arcy, Deane, Ffont, Ffrench, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris, Skerritt. Or if you can prove a link in your heritage/by marriage to one of the Tribes, you are also eligible (spelling variations accepted).
And if you’re not fortunate enough to be a Galway tribe member, fear not, regular folk are still welcome at the oldest oyster festival in the world! So, will you be shucking?