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Con Houlihan: Bringing home the bacon

There was a time in this country when every poor man, and some men who weren't poor at all kept two pigs -- two because they thrived together better than on their own. One pig would go to the market and the other would be kept for the table.

Those pigs would be kept for up to eight or 10 weeks and they would become part of the family. When one pig was sent to the market, the other became even more part of the family.

Pigs are very friendly creatures and very intelligent. And to kill the pig that remained behind was a painful exercise. We had neighbours who were so fond of their pigs that they couldn't bear to be around when one of them was being killed. They would go down to the river about a mile away and not come back until they were certain that all was over.

There were four of us who killed the pigs for most of our neighbours. We never enjoyed it, but it had to be done.

Now I will tell you a story that you will find in Emile Zola's great novel Germinal, based on the cruel conditions of the Belgian miners in the early 19th century. The hero of the book is a miner and he is lodging with a fellow miner. They have a pet, a wild rabbit called Poland, and the miner and he become the greatest of friends. One evening, after the hero has eaten his dinner, he asks the woman of the house: "Where is Poland?" She turns away and then the awful truth dawns on him.

Pigs speak a language all of their own: when you move a pig from one place to another, he grunts in irritation; when you put a ring on his nose to stop him rooting too much, he squeals; when you put a rope on his leg to bring him to the killing table, he utters a cry that you will never forget. It pierces your heart. He is saying "Brother, spare me."

For some time I thought this experience was confined to my imagination until I read Thomas Hardy's novel Jude The Obscure. There I discovered that the hero, Jude Fawley, had known the same experience. So, of course, has anybody who has ever heard a pig pleading for his life. The pig's mental suffering is soon over. He is lifted on to the table. The strongest man (according to himself) holds the hind legs. Two men hold the legs in front. A woman holds a very wide tin pan to catch the blood. One swift incision and the blood comes. The pig gives a final shudder and all is over. Then the strongest man stands up on the table and holds the pig by his hind legs and dips him up and down in a barrel of scalding water so that every square inch of the body is ready for shaving. It doesn't take long.

Then the pig is suspended by his head from a cross beam. He is cleaned out. The guts are put into another big tin pan, the vital organs are put into a bowl. For the time being, the day's work is over.

Then the four men sit down to the traditional Irish supper never mentioned in the tourist guides. It consists of tea and sausages and white bread and butter. Ultimately the little band of four sit around the fire and talk about many things, but almost always the conversation comes round to the different pigs that we had killed in our time and to the different kind of bacon they had produced. And we almost all agreed that the best feeding for the last two weeks of the pig's life is boiled potatoes and crushed barley.

The next day we cut the pig into the logical parts and salt them. There is no hurry now and it is a great occasion for craic. Then we will adjourn to the fireside again and there is usually a bottle of whiskey and the traditional bottles of stout.

In the country long ago there were occasions when you uttered a certain prayer. Before sampling the first dish of new potatoes, somebody was bound to say "Go neiri beo ar an am seo aris" -- meaning that we will all be alive this time next year. That prayer is uttered, too, before partaking of Christmas dinner and on the night around the fireside when the drawing home of the turf has been completed.

It was rather strange to hear this prayer uttered after the killing of a pig, because the principal in the little drama wouldn't be around again. The filling of the puddings is a ritual. There are neighbours always in and there are small boys lurking around the pot with their spoons to partake of the scum.

It's funny that "scum" in the real world has a bad meaning whereas when you are making jam or filling puddings, it has a good meaning. We are told that your neighbour is mankind of all description but when it comes to distributing little parcels of black pudding and pork steak, your "neighbour" takes on a new meaning.

Those little presents are given only to people who have given those little presents to you. It may seem a harsh rule, but it makes sense. Your neighbour next door might not be your neighbour at all, but your neighbour two miles away would be. It is doubtful if pigs are killed at home in the country anymore. The pig is now sent to a butcher in the town and the parts come back all ready. That was one of the reasons why the black pudding fell out of favour. It is back now, more fashionable than ever. There is a delicacy called the Clonakilty Black Pudding and seemingly at almost every wedding in Cork it is the first course.

The pig in Irish folklore is deeply imbedded and about him there are stories of his intelligence and his friendliness. A neighbour of mine one day was taking a pig to the boar and a friend said "Where are you taking that pig?" The man said "I'm taking him to Castle Island" and his friend said "But you are facing towards Abbeyfeale?"

The man with the pig said: "Keep your voice down, he'll hear you."

Fogra: A special thanks to the young gardai from Kevin Street Station who were so helpful to me recently. Fogra Eile: Well done Frank Greally and all the other good people who organised the big race in The Phoenix Park on Saturday. It was a towering success.