By the end of the first month of 2020, Diarmuid Kelly knew that something was seriously wrong. Sales of his live oysters to resorts in the Swiss Alps had taken a sharp downward turn, and he quickly realised the gravity of what was happening to his family business. "We saw the impacts of Covid towards the end of January," he says. "It really started closing down from then on". 

Diarmuid and his older brother, Michael have farmed oysters in a small inlet of south Galway Bay - nestled between the limestone Burren to the south and the Connemara hills on the other side - for decades. They inherited the 62-year-old oyster farm from their father Michael, who started it in the 1950s.

Instead of emigrating, like so many of his friends, Michael took a punt on an opportunity he saw in the market to produce Galway Bay shellfish. Today, Kelly Oysters produce about 100 tonnes of oysters a year.  

In normal years, the Kelly brothers would sell their stock to restaurants in Ireland, with 90% of it exported around the world. But 2020 has been like no other, and when mid-March came and lockdown was announced, restaurants closed overnight.  

As the world grappled with containing the virus, Diarmuid and Michael watched from their Galway farm as the cancellations rolled in. "It was just like someone switched off the light," recalls Diarmuid. "You’re left in the dark, like a rabbit in the headlights. You don’t know what to do, or where to go, or what will happen."

Oyster farming in Galway Bay has gone on for centuries. In the past, it was the wild native oyster - with its delicate, flat shell - that was harvested, but it’s difficult to farm and its numbers have depleted around Irish coasts.

Since the 1970s, the non-native Pacific oyster has been successfully farmed in the Atlantic waters.  With its elongated, gnarly shell, the Pacific oyster is ready to eat within a couple of years; the native oyster takes over five years to mature.  

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There are about 130 oyster farmers in Ireland and the shellfish are grown in sheltered bays along the coast for years before being sent to market. Collectively, Irish oyster farmers produce about 10,000 tonnes of Pacific oysters, and harvest 500 tonnes of natives from the wild.  

Most of the Kelly brothers’ stock is of the Pacific kind, but they have a licence to harvest a limited amount of native oysters from the Bay.  (A joint EU and State-funded project to restore their numbers is in its third year, and hopes to boost the presence of this remarkable shellfish for future generations).

It’s hard to think of a food product more vulnerable to the economic chaos brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic than fresh oysters, and for the Kellys, the economic impact of the pandemic has been huge.  Sales to buyers in Canada, China, Singapore and Dubai plummeted by 70%.

There was no way to get the live oysters out of the country. "There were no flights for a couple of months," says Diarmuid, who added that any passenger flights that were going eastwards were too expensive. "They were asking silly money to go to China -  €5 a kilo, whereas normally we’d be talking maybe €2."

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Diarmuid and Michael’s families - who all rely on the oyster business for their income, along with four other staff - had no choice but to keep going. Oyster farming is demanding of human labour, and every day the oyster beds need to be checked. They relied on the various Covid-related business supports that were made available by the Government, and nobody was laid off. 

But as they now wait for international orders to pick up again, the Pacific oysters in the bay keep growing in size. They’re usually sold at 3 years of age - a size when it’s easy for them to be eaten whole - and there is a diminishing market as they get bigger.

"We’re getting backed up with bigger oysters," says Michael. He says he hopes they’ll find a way to sell all the stock by the end of this year.  But what happens if that is impossible? "We’re in big trouble." 

To rescue whatever business they can, the Kellys have set up a new online business: people from anywhere in Ireland can order their oysters direct from the farm to their homes. "It’s a market that’s going to grow, " predicts Diarmuid. "For the locals here, they can order online and come and collect it.  For anyone around Ireland, they can get next day delivery." It’s a decisive move.

Sadly, Diarmuid and Michael’s father died in May. But his sons say he would be proud of their new online business and how they’ve managed to get through the past few months. "He said to me, 'sure you don’t need any help, you’re fine’," says Diarmuid. "So we’ll manage, we’ll keep it going."

Ear To The Ground returns to RTÉ ONE, 20:30, Thursday 22 October.