Shuck It and See: Hillsborough Oyster Festival

The long-running celebration of seafood may be miles from the County Down coast, but it's come even further from its modest beginnings

‘Are you going to ask me why do we have oysters when it’s landlocked?’

Sarah Waugh is, as the saying goes, getting her retaliation in first, because she has heard the question many times before. How does Hillsborough, a quiet Co. Down village nestled a dozen miles inland from the nearest whiff of salt water, get to host an annual oyster festival? How did that happen?

For Sarah, a member of the Hillsborough International Oyster Festival organising committee, the answer is simple. ‘There’s nowhere in Northern Ireland that’s far from a coast, so we’re not really landlocked at all,’ she argues. ‘It just so happens we hold it in a village that’s not on the coast.’

This summer sees the twenty-fourth year of the Festival, which has come a long way from relatively modest beginnings, and now extends for five full days from Tuesday August 30 until Saturday September 3. ‘It’s a festival event for all the family’, Waugh says, ‘we’re looking to include the whole community.’

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To that end, numerous activities ar available besides the Turkish Airlines World Oyster Eating Championship and these include the GMcG Chartered Accountants Oyster Masters Golf Day, the Smeg Pop-up restaurant and the Phoenix Natural Gas Soapbox Derby. The Festival is also hosting the 2016 British Street Food Awards: the first time that a heat of the competition has ever been held in Northern Ireland.

On the musical front The Supreme Dream Girls play the Quilter Cheviot Pearl and Oyster Ball, Queen tribute-band Flash Harry headline the final Saturday evening, and, for the second year running, there’s a classical concert - because ‘not everybody wants to go see Flash Harry’, as Sarah puts it, with performances from the Belfast Operatic Company and the Leading Ladies at the ‘Magic of the Movies’ musical evening in aid of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust.

The Festival also has an international dimension, especially in the oyster eating competition. ‘Last year we brought people in from the United States to compete against local favourite, Colin Shirlow, who is the current world champion,’ Sarah says. ‘We’d an entrant who, despite being quite tiny, she nearly pipped him at the post.’

The transatlantic competition spurred-on Shirlow, a Dromore man, to greatness; he downed 235 of the fleshy molluscs in three minutes, shattering his previous world record and taking the Hillsborough title.

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As I do the maths on that – Shirlow averages an oyster every three-quarters of a second – and wonder how such Olympian feats of speed-consumption are possible, Sarah warns that not everybody is cut out for serial oyster eating, and that it has its drawbacks.

‘If you’re eating something at speed, it’s not always going to settle well on your stomach, is it?’ she explains diplomatically. While conceding that some people ‘have been a little poorly’, Sarah is wisely unprepared to dwell in detail on what can happen to those who scoop a shell too many into their unsuspecting stomachs.

Colin Shirlow, though, is an iron-intestined, oyster eating legend, whose digestive system seems to positively thrive on regular bouts of seafood gluttony. ‘He does have his own technique, as to how he eats the oysters,’ confides Sarah, who has seen the champion operating at close quarters.

‘He will give you a few hints if you ask him, though I can’t give them away, that wouldn’t be fair. But I’ll tell you something, he’s not prepared to let the title go overseas either. He’s quite a celebrity, you know.’

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Oysters are available to buy and eat throughout the Festival, but for Saturday’s climactic eat-off a special brand is served up, pre-shucked, to the swallowers on the competition platform in the Fort Field.

‘Across the Festival as a whole, we consume over 6,000 oysters, and the ones that people buy are Pacific oysters,’ Sarah clarifies. ‘But the ones we use in the World Oyster Eating Championship are native oysters, and they come from Carlingford.

‘Now the reason that we hold the Festival in the first week in September, and not earlier in the year, is because, legally, oysters can only be sold from the 1st of September to the 30th of April.

‘And the reason why we use the Carlingford oysters for the competition is because the shells aren’t as sharp, which could be a problem when you’re eating so many so quickly.’

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Like many festivals of its type, the Hillsborough oyster bash depends totally on the hard work and initiative of an intrepid team of local people. And although Sarah pays handsome tribute to the Festival’s sponsors, its charity partners, and those who support it by attending, it’s clear that she and her fellow committee members - twelve in total - are those who do the donkey work and ensure that each year’s Festival actually happens.

‘We’re all volunteers, and we’ve all got full-time employment on top of it, so it’s quite a task for us really,’ Sarah comments. ‘During the Festival itself your feet do not touch the ground until the Flash Harry concert’s over and cleared-up - and then we all collapse in a heap.’

Not for long, though - as Sarah explains, a year is a short time if you are organising festivals, and when Hillsborough 2016 closes, 2017 will already be clearly visible on the horizon.

‘When this year’s Festival finishes, we will start again straight away on next year, which is our 25th anniversary. So we need to think of something big, and do something special.’

The Hillsborough Oyster Festival takes place from Tuesday, August 30 to Saturday, September 3. For the full event programme, ticket booking and further information visit www.hillsboroughoysterfestival.com.