Over the coming weeks I will be serialising my father-in-law’s books that are out of print. The first being The Colour of Life which is a memoir and a raconteur’s recollections of life in Southern Ireland during the 1920s onwards.
The Colour of Life – Pigeons
In my early childhood, my family and I lived over our Bakery Shop at number 12 John Street, Waterford, which my father owned. Being the beginning of the city’s main street, it was a busy place, and one of the features of it was the Apple Market. This took place in a large open area, bordered by small shops, where the apple farmers who were mostly from the Kilkenny side of the river Suir, assembled every Saturday morning.
Their horses would be tethered around the Fountain Clock, at the north end of the area, and their carts, full of apples, would be “shafts down” along the edge of the street and around in a long oval shape to face the shops on the far side. The carts would be divided internally into boxes where the apples would be displayed – Honeyballs, Pippins, Woodcocks and Ladies Fingers for eating, and cookers like Bramleys, hard, green and sour, all shining in their nests of clean hay and presenting a truly Technicolor picture of a market place.
Local children, including myself, delighted with this cornucopia of deliciousness would wander in and out between the carts “admiring” the displays and buying the odd pennyworth of those deep red Honeyballs which oozed the nectar of red ripeness – they sold for ten a penny – and many a feast would ensue as groups of us gathered in the archway which led off the market and into Hartrey’s sweet factory.
The conversations on these occasions were not at all like those that children of today would have, for many of these children would be in bare feet, as indeed were some of their parents, and they lived in the lanes and tenements which surrounded the area at that time. At age six, I knew all these places and I played and chatted with kids from The Model Lane, The Back Lane, Newports Lane, Spring Garden Alley, Little Mickle Street, The Tanyard Arch, and New Street Tenements, which were four-storey Georgian houses, where families of six to ten people lived in each room, with no running water and no electricity and one outside toilet. On the stairways there were neither banisters nor handrails because the tenants would have used these as firewood. There was no class distinction among the kids, who were “just kids” after all.
Topics of conversation at the apple feasts would be about cage birds, finches and linnets, dogs, ferrets and the favourite was Pigeons. There were thirteen corn stores in the city at that time, and the men employed there had access to the screenings and sweepings of the store and this meant they could keep a few pairs of pigeons for very little money, and the children learned all about pigeons quite naturally.
In addition, there was a magazine “Pigeons and Pigeon World” price threepence, which came in from England and had about forty pages of nothing else but pigeons – Homers, Tumblers, Tipplers, Rollers, Nuns, Turbits, Fantails, Pouters, Booted, Bare Legs, and of course the Feral Pigeons, called locally “Rogs”, which were good for nothing but scavenging.
The more I learned the more fascinated I became with the whole pigeon scene – and the descriptions of how the birds were coloured enthralled me. I very quickly learned the jargon, and could describe any bird I saw. There were Blue Barred, Blue Check, Red Mottled, Black Badged, Blue Baldhead, Snow White, Jet Black, Red Check and top of my list, the one that really fired my imagination, was Silver Dun.
By the time I was eight, I had acquired many a Rog, because that was all the local kids had to sell for three or four pennies. Mind you, I never managed to get a Silver Dun, but by then I knew that the colour of a bird did not make him truly bred to a particular breed. I had watched every pigeon I could see, and I knew a racer from a tumbler or a roller, but then other things were happening in my life at this point.
My family was moving to live in Woodstown, a seaside location eight miles from the city, and while it was quite a change from John Street and the apple market, the freedom of actually living on a beach was truly wonderful. A further bonus was that I now had a shed in which I could keep pigeons properly.
My own pigeons outside their shed
I wasted no time in acquiring a pair of Blue Barred racing (Homing) pigeons, which I installed in my shed. It was ill appointed for the purpose of accommodating a pair of breeding birds, and I was flat broke having spent my entire savings buying them.
When I noticed the hen collecting straws and carrying them to a corner of the floor I realized that she was nesting. I ran to tell my mother the news, and to ask her to advance me five shillings to buy a nest box I saw advertised in my pigeon magazine.
“No,” she said, “Make one yourself, there’s wood and tools in the garage.”
“But Mother,” I said, “I don’t know how.”
“Come on boy,” she answered. “I’ll show you how” and she did just that.
The measurements were taken from the magazine, and the wood marked out, and then I was left to get on with it. The job was slow and painful, and I had two black and bruised fingernails at the end – my aim with the hammer was unpractised – but after a day and a half I had succeeded and I took my handiwork to show my mother.
“Well done,” she said, “now paint it,” and before I could protest, she took my arm and said
“Come on boy, I’ll show you,” and she did.
When the paint had dried, I took the box to show her, and after examining it she said “Very well done boy, it’s just as good as the one in the magazine and you must see if the hen will take to it.”
I turned to take it to the shed when she called me back and put five shillings into my hand saying “That’s what you earned by doing the job yourself. Never forget that anything you can do with your two hands is money.”
Well, the hen took to the box and nested in it and in eighteen days her two downy chicks arrived and grew into fine strong birds, and thus began a life-long passion for all kinds of pigeons.
And I never forgot the lesson my mother taught me.
Claire Spencer-Cronin circa 1918
©Geoff Cronin 2002
About Geoff Cronin – 1923 – 2017
There were few jobs that Geoff could not turn his hands to, and over the years he mastered an impressive number of professional undertakings. Master baker and confectioner, mobile cinema operator, salesman, band leader, senior executive and master wood turner, storyteller and writer.
Geoff Cronin published his first book in 2005 at age 82. The Colour of Life is a collection of stories of life in Waterford during his childhood and early adulthood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. This was followed by two further books that related tales of further adventures in Waterford and Dublin.
I hope you have enjoyed this story and over the next few weeks I will be sharing the rest of The Colour of Life on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Thanks Sally