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GALWAY OYSTER FESTIVAL CHAMPION'S
WEST IRELAND TOUR

Story and photos by

Galway City has hosted the Galway International Oyster Festival every year since 1953. The four-day culinary festival, held in late-September, draws thousands to County Galway Ireland.

Patrick McMurray shucks oysters behind Galway Oyster Shucking World Champion trophy.
Patrick McMurray shucks oysters
behind Galway Oyster Shucking World Champion trophy.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Patrick McMurray is the first and only Canadian to win the Guinness Oyster Opening Championships at the Galway festival. "I won the world championships in 2002," says the oyster shucker and founder of Starfish restaurant in Toronto. "It took me two minutes, 34 seconds to finish 30 Irish flats." The scientific name for these Galway Bay oysters is Ostrea edulis.

Galway Oyster Festival

"There were 18 competitors, one from each country," explains McMurray, whose grandparents came from County Antrim. "To compete in the Galway Oyster Festival, I had to win the Canadian Oyster Shucking Championships, held in Tyne Valley PEI, in August."

Patrick McMurray competes in the Tyne Valley oyster shucking championships every year. "If I win, I compete in Ireland. If I don't win, I go to the Galway Oyster Shucking Championships anyway, 90 per cent of the time, to help the judges."

With two other past oyster shucking champions, McMurray formed the "has beens club." Members time the oyster opening competitors and help run the stage.

Galway Oyster Festival world champions win a crystal trophy. "It holds three and a half pints," notes McMurray. "The first thing I do, if I win the oyster shucking competition, is ask the bartender to fill the trophy with Guinness. I pass it around and everyone drinks from the cup. It's a tradition."

Guinness Oyster Shucking World Record

Bringing the world championship trophy back to Tyne Valley was like bringing the Stanley Cup back to Toronto, according to Patrick McMurray, who also holds the Guinness World Record for oyster shucking.

Shucking Irish flats (Galway Bay oysters)
Shucking Irish flats (Galway Bay oysters)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"I opened 33 oysters in one minute on the Christine Cushing TV show in 2002," says the four-time Canadian oyster shucking champion. "I tried to break my shucking world record, but I haven't been able to do it."

How to shuck an oyster

"You learn to shuck an oyster by watching others," says Patrick McMurray. "It's an apprentice type of job, where you're taught by your peers and you learn by trial and error. By watching other oyster shuckers and competitions, you come up with your own technique.

"It's easier for left-handed people to shuck oysters because they have one less turn to do," explains McMurray. "I developed a really good technique, which uses both hands independently, so I can shuck an oyster in 4.5 seconds. That's what you need to shuck 30 oysters in 2.5 minutes at the Galway Oyster Festival."

West Ireland tour

There are lots of things to do at the Galway International Oyster Festival, besides watching the Oyster Opening Championships. Eating fresh seafood, ranging from chowder to smoked salmon, is a highlight. Parties include the Oyster Festival Gala Ball.

Galway City (population 70,000) offers lots to see and do. On a Galway walking tour, you can shop for Claddagh rings. The design, which dates back to 1750, depicts two hands supporting a heart with a crown. (Wear it with the crown pointing to the fingertip if you are in love or married. Wear the Claddagh ring pointed in the opposite direction if you are looking for a partner.) Other Galway City attractions include the Druid Theatre and the Galway Atlantiquarium. Exhibits range from sea horses to an 18-metre-long fin whale skeleton.

After the Galway Oyster Festival, Patrick McMurray does what Tourism Ireland recommends: Go Where Ireland Takes You. "I'm a foodie, so I travel around West Ireland looking for artisanal foods and enjoying the history," he says. "West Ireland is a wonderful place with stone-built houses, thatched roofs and stone walls that were built centuries ago."

Ashford Castle

McMurray drives from Galway City to Cong, County Mayo. "I like to stay at Ashford Castle. If you're going to splurge, the gorgeous castle hotel is the place to do it. The food at Ashford Castle is fantastic," he says. The 13th-century castle opened as a hotel in 1939.

"I enjoy cocktail hour on Ashford Castle's boat, with musicians playing onboard, before returning to the castle for supper. Ashford Castle has lots of things to do, from golf to falconry," he notes.

"The Quiet Man was filmed here in the early 1950s and they're dreadfully proud of it. The movie runs everyday at 5 pm on TV in Ashford Castle. They even organise fantastic Quiet Man tours."

Connemara Ireland

Following his stay at Ashford Castle hotel, McMurray likes to take a one-day driving tour of Connemara. "I see mountains, peat turf cutters and sheep as I drive through Connemara to Clifden, on the coast, for lunch. I then follow the coast road back to Galway, past Kylemore Abbey and garden."

For dining in County Galway, McMurray recommends Moran's Oyster Cottage Restaurant, on The Weir, Kilcogan, near Clarenbridge. "It's a 200-year-old whitewashed thatched roof cottage that's been an oyster house for six generations," he says.

"The restaurant is fantastic. Moran's seafood plate is second to none, with smoked salmon, crab and all the treats from the sea. Father and son, Willie and Michael Moran, have both won the World Championships at the Galway Oyster Festival."

How to shuck an Irish flat
How to shuck an Irish flat
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Patrick McMurray also likes Paddy Burkes in County Galway. "It's a wonderful place to eat in Clarenbridge proper. It holds the Clarenbridge Oyster Festival every year, two weeks before the Galway Oyster Festival. There's another oyster festival in Hillsborough, County Down, near Belfast, in early September."

Aran Islands Ireland

McMurray also recommends that people visit the Aran Islands, just off the west coast of Ireland. "Most people take the two-hour ride on the Aran Islands ferry," he says. "It's better if you take the eight-minute flight to the Aran Islands, because you'll get there before all the ferry passengers.

"Alison, my wife, and I rode a pony trap (cart) to Dun Aengus [a prehistoric fort 100 meters above the Atlantic Ocean]. We had the fort to ourselves, under sunny skies, and left just as the hordes from the Aran Island ferry arrived."

Shannon Ireland

Galway is just 57 miles (93 kilometers) north of Shannon Airport, which has direct flights from Toronto, Boston, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago.

Patrick McMurray also recommends several things to see between Shannon and Galway. "You have to see The Burren." The 100-sq. mile (160-sq. km) -rock garden is a National Park in County Clare. "You also have to see the Cliffs of Moher." They rise 700 feet (215 meters) above the Atlantic Ocean.

"A light mist rises up vertically and horizontally from the Cliffs of Moher, while the sun shines in the background. It reminds me of the lighting in those massive oil paintings from the early 1800s," he says.

Tray of Galway Bay oysters
Tray of Galway Bay oysters
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Even in summer, you can still get away from the tourist crowds in the city and escape to Western Ireland to enjoy the pleasant people, the gorgeous countryside and the weather of all shapes and sizes."

Galway hotels

Ireland's Blue Book is a good place to find Irish country houses and historic hotels and restaurants in Galway County and Shannon Region.

Galway hotels include Glenlo Abbey Hotel, a country house and restaurant two miles (four kilometers) from Galway City Centre, and Currarevagh House in Connemara, County Galway.

In Shannon Region, Gregans Castle, a country house and restaurant, is in County Clare, between Shannon and Galway. Another country house in County Clare is Mey House, in Lahinch.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Tourism Ireland: www.discoverireland.com

Starfish: www.ceilicottage.com

More things to see and do in Ireland:

Irish Breakfasts at Ireland B&Bs

Irish Folk Tours Dublin - Food, Folklore and Fairies

Lakes of Killarney National Park Boat Tours

Kerry Way or Ring of Kerry Ireland Tours?

Bray Head Hiking Trail - Valentia Island Ireland