From 1948, a special scheme delivered thousands of Christmas turkeys from Irish families to relatives in Britain, writes Dr Stephanie Rains, Associate Professor of Media Studies

Media Studies - Stephanie Rains
A turkey has long been the centrepiece of Irish Christmas celebrations, and is closely associated with the conviviality and hospitality of an extended family gathering. Being part of those family dinners was one of the reasons emigrants often made great efforts to travel home to Ireland for Christmas, and for those who could not do so, a tradition developed during the twentieth century of families sending ‘gift turkeys’ to relatives in the United Kingdom.

Packed in straw and canvas, the birds were dispatched by sea in December from all over Ireland to be prepared for the emigrant family’s own Christmas dinner – in an era before most people had refrigeration in their homes, this approach to storing and transporting poultry apparently didn’t cause the anxiety it would now for modern consumers. World War Two inevitably interrupted this tradition and then in the early years after the war ended, the British government was initially opposed to the resumption of gift turkeys because they suspected many of them were being traded on the black market in contravention of food rationing regulations.

In contrast, emigrants to Britain did begin returning to Ireland for Christmas visits again as soon as war-time travel restrictions ended, and from that point on, increasing numbers of them travelled home by air. In Christmas week 1947, the Irish Independent reported that 2000 passengers a day were arriving on the ferry at Dun Laoghaire but that ‘Dublin airport has, in a sense, stolen the limelight of this year’s travel news…More people will come to Dublin by air this Christmas than ever before’, adding that there were at least 6 flights a day from London alone. It’s also striking the degree to which emigrants’ annual arrival home for Christmas was discussed in terms of trading volumes – newspapers commented on how busy CIE, the ferry services and Aer Lingus were in transporting them to Ireland as a kind of seasonal import, alongside other reports about how busy the shops were, and which gifts were proving the most successful with shoppers.

The extra flights scheduled to bring emigrants home obviously risked a structural problem for Aer Lingus, because in the absence of an equivalent number of Christmas travellers from Ireland to Britain, those planes risked making largely empty return journeys. However, when British objections to ‘gift turkeys’ were ended in time for Christmas 1948, the airline saw a way to make profitable use of planes flying back to British airports. They began offering a service by which turkeys sent by Irish families were flown to Britain in the week before Christmas via special Aer Lingus cargo flights, a scheme which would continue for at least the next 15 years.

Just a few months earlier, in June of 1948, the ‘Berlin airlift’ had dominated news headlines as the Soviet forces occupying post-war eastern Germany imposed a blockade of all food and supplies to allied-controlled West Berlin. The only way to maintain supplies to the city was by airlifting them using military aircraft, an enormous operation which lasted nearly a year. This dramatic – and potentially incendiary – moment in the early stages of the Cold War received a great deal of news coverage in Ireland as elsewhere, so it was perhaps not surprising that when Aer Lingus began their turkey delivery scheme that Christmas, it immediately became known in the press as the ‘Turkey Lift’, a term which stuck for future years.

While most birds dispatched to relatives in Britain continued to travel by sea (presumably for reasons of cost) the air service was an immediate success, with 6000 turkeys being transported in just three days during December 1948. Senders could dispatch packaged and labelled birds by rail to any of the Dublin stations from where Aer Lingus would take them to Dublin airport, or via other stations to Shannon airport from where ‘turkey lift’ flights also left. The cost was 8s from Dublin to London, or just 5s 6d to Liverpool, and the maximum weight allowed was 11lbs per bird.

In 1951, the ‘turkey lift’ transported up to 10,000 birds and by this point the airline had opened a special ‘turkey depot’ on Cathal Brugha Street in Dublin, staffed by thirty workers who took in the birds and organised their flights to a variety of British airports.

In 1963, the service was then ‘streamlined’ and instead of operating depots the airline undertook complete door-to-door delivery to any address in the United Kingdom for a charge of £1 per turkey. An Aer Lingus poster from this era depicted an incongruously smiling turkey (wearing a fez hat and carrying a bag) alongside the invitation to ‘send your gift turkey by air’.

The number of birds transported to Britain each year was reported in the newspapers as part of that broader pre-Christmas narrative of crowded streets, busy shops and ringing tills, and as an amusing quirk of a mid-twentieth century Irish Christmas. However, the Cork Examiner’s starkly unsentimental statement in 1948 that the ‘turkey lift’ involved ‘special arrangements for the transport of both live humans from Britain and dead turkeys to that country during the Christmas season’ does remind us that the scheme only existed because of the conditions caused by mass emigration during that era.

Both the emigrants travelling home for Christmas and the turkeys dispatched to those who could not return appeared within cheery reporting on holiday trading conditions, as shadows of a less cheery economic narrative and as spectres at their own family feasts.

This piece originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm

Main photo credit: ​National Library of Ireland on The Commons, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons