Martin Calvey is a farmer of Blackface Mountain sheep on Achill Island.
Let’s set the scene, it’s been a long summer’s day, and you have been exploring Achill Island in County Mayo. You’ve walked, cycled, or maybe even gone horse riding and played a round of golf. You’ve breathed a fresh, purer, air than you ever have before. You’ve even managed to sup a pint of the black stuff in a quiet pub somewhere. Extra points if you’ve had a chat with one of the locals. It’s been a nigh-on perfect day and now you’re hungry. You’ve maybe had a few local oysters, they are the best in the country after all, clear and not too salty, but they’ve only served to sharpen your appetite.
No need to be sheepish
Everywhere you went today, you saw the recognisable Achill Mountain sheep and you wouldn’t mind trying some for your dinner. They are the 100% purebred Mayo Blackface Mountain breed and they have been in west Mayo since the second half of the nineteenth century. Did you know that this local sheep has been farmed by the Calvey family since 1856 and, 165 years later and seven generations down, they are still farming and breeding ewes descended from the original flock? How’s that for history? Mayo is steeped in it.
Today, behind Achill Mountain lamb, you will find three generations of the Calvey family working side by side. Martin and Angela Calvey (the parents),
Martina, Grainne, Helen, Edward and Martin Calvey (children of Martin and Angela) and Peter (Grainne’s son) who is still going to college but has started working in the company.
The Calvey family values are simple and somehow very Irish. They live close to the land and have a deep respect for it. It has provided for them for generations and by treating it well, it will keep on giving them what they need for the farm. This is why sustainability for the farm and for the island is at the heart of everything the Calveys do. This is particularly noticeable when you look at how the ewes are left to roam free and eat their way around the island. Natural foragers, the gorgeous fluffy flocks can be seen rambling the purest of lands and grazing their way through wild, heathery, unfertilised greeneries.
While the sheep are out in the wild, farmers flock to the farm, which is a bit of a social hub. A great number of the sheep on the island are processed here and it is not an unusual sight to see an old-style farmer walking his flock of sheep gently towards the farm. There is a less-hurried pace of life on the island and there is always someone at the farm to have a chat with. This is where you will get your community news from, along with finding someone ready to listen to and advise on your new idea. Maintaining an open door throughout the long winter months is particularly valuable as life can be lonely without the people who visit the island during the rest of the year. Community is very important is the Calvey family, much like it is for Seán Kelly and Hugh O’Malley.
You’ll notice this community spirit in the way locals support each other. The Calvey’s meat is on menus of many a local establishment including Frankie Mallon’s An Port Mór in Westport and Myles O’Brien’s The Tavern in Murrisk. Speaking of which, let’s get back to that dinner of yours. You must be starving.
So, you’ve found a local restaurant and now you need to decide if you should you have the lamb, the hogget, or go all out and try the mutton. But what’s the difference between them all?
Well, the lamb can be up to twelve months old, the hogget will be anywhere between one and two years old and the mutton is any animal over two years old. The older the animal gets and the deeper and darker the colour of the meat will be. If the animal is young, there is a natural milkiness that comes with it. The taste is mellow and creamy, it evolves with the age of the meat.
As you tuck in, you will taste the island grass, the heather, and the seaweeds in every bite. The clear streams of the island the ewes drink from keep them fresh and keep the flock healthy and this transfers to the freshness of the meat. The seaweeds and sea spray give a savoury taste to the animals, which is incomparable. Truly, whether you are eating lamb neck in a traditional Irish stew, a gorgeously slow-cooked hogget shank, a lamb shoulder baked in a crust of the local Achill salt, or even if you are feasting on a floury baked potato covered in salty butter with a rake of grilled lamb chops on the side, you will know what it is to eat the best of our island. You will know what it is to taste Mayo.