Stories from Waterford in the 1920s.. a different time and one that was filled with characters and practices long since disappeared.
Currants from Turkey, sultanas from Crete, seedless raisins from California and muscatels from Greece – these were some of the ingredients used in the production Cronin’s Bracks. The currants came in white wood boxes with wire straps on them; sultanas came also in white wood boxes secured with nails. The seedless raisins came in cardboard boxes and the muscatels arrived in nondescript wooden boxes.
And then there were the Californian raisins, which came in the very best boxes of clean wood of a pinkish colour. The wood was straight grained and clean and the lids were secured with nails.
These boxes, when empty were sought after by a particular type of customer coming to our shop, namely the bird catchers and my father gave them for free to anyone who asked for them.
The keeping of cage birds was a popular hobby in Waterford in the 1930s and ’40s and the same was true for a lot of the towns around Ireland. People of means kept canaries and there were several varieties to be seen- and heard- pale yellow Yorkshires which were long and slender; German Rollers which were prized for their soft purring song; green canaries which were I believe a cross breed and had a powerful song, and Norwich canaries which were deep yellow in colour and had a ‘chubby’ appearance.
Incidentally, a fancier once told me that if you put a little cayenne pepper in with his seed a Norwich canary would gradually turn orange in colour, apparently this was a trick used on birds kept for show purposes.
So much for the people of means, who bought gilded cages for their birds, but if you wandered off into the back streets of the city – Jail St., Alexander St., Doyle St., Brown’s Lane, Castle St, etc. – you would see hanging on the wall outside many a front door a home-made cage which housed a gold finch, a grey linnet, a green finch or a brown linnet.
It would be clearly evident that many of the cages had been in another life, raisin boxes from Cronin’s Bakery in John St. These finches could be heard singing away, each trying to outdo his neighbours, especially on a sunny day and they served to lift the spirits and brighten the day of the people in those streets who did not have a lot of this world’s goods.
In addition the flash of colour as the birds fluttered in their cages was a sight to behold.
In case you, dear reader have never seen a goldfinch up close, I should tell you that his beak is black, his face is bright red, his wings have a broad flash of yellow and his tail is black with white circles (in the cock’s feathers) – surely a most handsome fellow.
As a boy, I wondered how they got a wild bird into a cage and I used to see small family groups – usually a father and two sons – walking out the roads on a Sunday morning, carrying a cage with a bird in it and returning late with two or three birds in the cage. When my curiosity got the better of me, I stopped one such group and politely asked their leader where they were going and was told, “Out the country to catch FLINCHES!”
I learned later that bird catchers and fanciers alike referred to goldfinches as FLINCHES in fact this terminology was applied to all kinds of finches. This however, did not explain exactly how the ‘flinch’ could be caught and when I was guardedly told you had to have ‘birdlime’ and ‘sprigs’ and might even need a ‘call bird’ or a ‘brace bird’, I was completely baffled. It took an older, kindlier man who was a baker in my father’s bakery to unravel the mystery for me.
Birdlime, he told me is a sticky substance made by boiling linseed oil and holly bark together, but you can buy it for four pence a tin at Parker’s the oil and colour shop in Michael St. Sprigs are straight twigs of hazel or privet or any wood which runs straight for 12 inches or so and is not more than a quarter of an inch thick. The tip of the sprig is dipped in the birdlime and twisted round until it is covered in the birdlime. It is then placed in a bush where you hope the flinch will land and his feet will stick to the sprig long enough for you to come out of hiding and grab him. Now you have to understand that all flinches are seed eaters and they travel in groups around fields and old meadows where thistles and such like are showing seeds. Having established where the flinches are feeding you place your call bird – a flinch in a cage- beside for instance a stand of thistles and place your prepared sprigs so that they merge in with the thistle stalks.
Now then you hide nearby and wait till hopefully the birds come to the call bird and land on the sprigs when you can take your flinch. Now his feet will be all sticky so you carry a little tin of ashes and you can put his feet in that to ‘unstick’ them. In the old days they used to use a ‘brace bird’ to call the flinches. He was just a flinch secured to a string with a little string harness and he could flutter and call his mates to the sprigs. His string would be fitted to a peg in the ground, but that system was made illegal in recent years and is no longer used.
Bird catching faded out in the early ’40s and partly due to the efforts of the society for the prevention of cruelty to animals; it became unpopular to cage a wild bird. Also the fact that people became better off about that time meant that what had been for the most part a poor man’s hobby became more or less redundant. That is not to say that keeping cage birds as a hobby died out, not at all. There were still canaries of various kinds and budgies were being imported and home bred and all kinds of foreign birds were imported and exhibited at shows etc.
Also there were several issues of cigarette cards depicting all kinds of birds. These cards were really works of art and helped to stimulate interest in cage birds generally.
Because my family went to live in Woodstown in 1928, my life changed radically and I lost sight of the flinch scene for many years. Imagine my surprise then when on visiting the Strawberry Fair in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in July 1965, I found that one of the main attractions was “A FINCH SINGING CONTEST”.
This took place in a meadow field just outside the town and I couldn’t wait to introduce my two travelling companions to this unique event. The attendance consisted of more than a hundred people, all listening intently and making comments in hushed tones.
A flinch – the old word was still used – in a cage had been placed in the middle of the field and competing birds were brought one at a time and placed nearby. The judges listened while both birds sang and awarded marks on the quality and duration of the competitor’s song. We didn’t have time to see the competition to the end but I recall some of the conversations on the sideline which went like this…
“Well Johnny, are you singing today?”
“Ah no, I didn’t bring a flinch with me, in fact I only came to hear that flinch singing now.
He’s from Ross ye know and they say he was WIRED!”
Here I should tell you that if a fancier found a flinches nest with chicks in it he would place a piece of wire netting over it so that the chicks couldn’t escape but the mother could still feed them. When they were fully fledged the fancier would take the strongest and cage them.
The conversation resumes… “Well what do ye think of his song?
“Ah I don’t think much of it, sure he’ll never turn that song ’cos he has only a couple of TATATS and a rattle!
At this point one of my companions ventured a question –“What happens if one bird ‘sings down’ (overcomes) the other?”
“Sure then the one who is overcome could lose his TREAD!” (I.e. become temporarily impotent!)
This was the last time I had contact with the community of bird catchers and their ‘flinches’ and it awoke in me fond memories of my childhood.
I was intrigued to think that notwithstanding all the enormous changes which had taken place in the previous forty years, the art and love of catching flinches was alive and well in Enniscorthy.
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How to distinguish between crows and rooks:-
Firstly note that the crow is a solitary bird while rooks flock together.
Therefore, if you see a lot of crows together they’ll be rooks; and if you see one rook by himself, that’ll be a crow.
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.
Thank you for dropping in today and you can read the previous chapters of The Colour of Life in this directory: