There is a great vogue lately for poultry keeping even amongst suburban folk. My neighbour here in suburbia has acquired some hens. I think she has had some casualties but I believe one or two have survived. Whether this trend is connected to the recession or is part of the green agenda it is difficult to say. I will not be keeping poultry myself. I am an idle retiree but I have set my face against poultry keeping. I will have no truck with hens.
My female forebears were great poultry women. Above is a medal won for her poultry by my Aunt Nell at an agricultural show in 1956. My mother and her sister also set great store by hens. My mother-in-law kept not just hens but turkeys, geese and guinea fowl. In past times egg money was a big part of the economy of the rural woman. It gave the countrywoman economic independence. A friend of my grandmother used to speak, somewhat sniffily, of the number of ‘egg priests’ in her locality – men from more humble backgrounds whose seminary studies had been funded by their mammies’ egg money. I was told of chickens being sent by train in the 1940s to the Dublin market. Plucking had to be meticulously done. Imperfectly plucked produce was rejected. I am reminded of this every time I see the clumps of feathers still adhering to the supermarket chicken.
In the early decades of the state the county committees of agriculture employed people called poultry instructresses who travelled the countryside advising ladies on poultry keeping. In our area from the thirties onwards this advisor was a lady called Miss Irwin. There was a certain sophistication attached to modern poultry keeping methods and Miss Irwin was the embodiment of this. Farmers’ wives wished to be advanced in their management of hens and turkeys and Miss Irwin’s advice was eagerly sought. She helped in the design of henhouses, promoted the most up to date ideas emanating from the department of agriculture and advised on healthy livestock. There was also a social element to her rounds. Miss Irwin’s visits coincided with afternoon tea and chat of the most genteel kind. She was that rare thing in those days, a role model for young women. She drove her own car. She had a salary. Presumably she had a pension. She had access to nice farms, farms with tree lined avenues.
The idea of a cockerel in the farmyard and a clutch of chickens following a hen around was considered ‘backward’. Farmers’ wives of a certain acerage wished to appear more enlightened. In the fifties one went to the co-op in the spring and collected one hundred day old chicks in cardboard boxes with perforations. Wonderful tweety sounds came from those boxes on the journey home. The chicks were placed under an infra red lamp in the chicken house. I would run home from school on those days to pick up the chicks and stroke their fluff. When the lamp got too hot they backed away from the heat and formed a fluffy yellow circle. Then, invariably, one day, one arrived home to find feathers all stubby and brown where the fluff had been. The chicks were no longer cute. The chicken house became more smelly. End of the fun for another year. There was a whole vocabulary attached to poultry keeping which I can still recall – deep litter, layers mash, Rhode Island reds, White Wyandottes, pullets. I remember children calling to the door saying ‘Missus, Mammy wants to know would you have a clocking hen?’
Eventually, sometime in the late fifties my mother had to abandon the poultry. The problem was we also had greyhounds. Lots of greyhounds. Time and energy went into keeping father’s dogs away from mother’s hens. Occasionally a door or gate was accidentally left open and there was a major emergency. The second massacre sealed the fate of the hens. In any case, my mother’s preference leaned towards the dogs.
My mother would have loved to be like Miss Irwin herself. She even suggested that I should follow that vocational route. There was a place in Cork called the Munster Institute where one could be trained as a poultry instructress. I resisted this suggestion with vehemence. The sixties arrived and so did the battery hen and intensive poultry production. The world of Miss Irwin was gone forever. The very idea of becoming a poultry instructress gave rise to much laughter in later years. Mother came to see it herself as outdated. Other avenues to a car, a salary and a pension were beginning to open.
So I won’t be copying my neighbours with a clutch of chickens following a hen around the garden. The ghosts of Miss Irwin and of my mother and aunts have seen to that. In any case this neighbourhood is full of urban foxes.