Pigeons, and I don’t mean the meat and rice wrapped in cabbage variety, are loved dearly by many a grumpy oul’ fella up and down Poland and Ireland. These unassuming folk, while varied and many, all share a passion that outsiders often see as daft, or simply don’t see at all. It’s not a glamourous endeavour, nor is it a wealthy one, but it is an ancient practice that even the Pharaohs and Charles Darwin shared. And while there is currently a huge surge in pigeon fancying in China, Europeans, in particular the Dutch, have crafted the breeding and racing of pigeons since 1938 and the first Pigeon Olympiad. After their use in World War I and II, the breeding of these underrated creatures was championed by various militaries and once a recognised system of rules was established racing, ahem, took off.
I knew a fancier when I was a child, a parent’s friend, and even then I found the loft fascinating I didn’t understand the value of it. Then, four years ago, out of absolutely nowhere, a friend of mine decided that he wanted a loft, and in true John-style a week later he had a flock lofted. And there began my education. First, when a pigeon hatches from its egg it’s an ugly, hairy, pink, slug-like thing but in a couple of weeks it grows from a horrid abomination into what you and I know as a pigeon. Everything about them is fast, from their maturation to their land speed, over 90 miles per hour and even the way that they eat, think shark tank filled with kittens, note: never get between a pigeon and its dinner! As it happens I live fifty kilometres from John and work near his house so I often take birds home with me after work and “liberate” them from my house. A phone call to time them usually gets returned in twenty minutes. And those are only “young birds”, under one year old – you do the math. Also, there are well-documented therapeutic benefits to keeping pigeons. There is a strange calm to a loft that needs to be experienced to be known and many known aggressive personalities have benefited from keeping them, including one former heavyweight champion of the world.
More than the racing though, for these fanciers, these odd creatures in themselves, there is a love of their birds that transcends everything else. John has four generations of racers but many fanciers have been breeding for over thirty years. And with each generation comes more knowledge and a deeper understanding both of their birds and of themselves. Like any art, and Darwin can attest to this, there evolves an understanding that is both quantitative and intuitive. The old timers have already forgotten more than the newbies know and the newbies have access to medications and technologies, such as digital trackers, that didn’t exist when the old timers were starting off. And yet pigeon racing is not recognised as an official sport in Ireland, but there are many people who would like see that change. And I am one of them, if not for the heritage and the educational benefits, but for all the care and work that fanciers put it. They deserve the recognition. Training alone involves hundreds of miles each week in diesel. Not to mention food, grit, bedding, fees, meds and optional extras which all add up. Especially considering the fact that most fanciers are working class people.
Money aside, in keeping with the fanciers’ unspoken ethos, the passion for breeding and racing pigeons that so many enjoy is so widespread that most all of us will know or have known someone involved in it. And it is now becoming even more popular with younger generations, of humans, opening lofts. John, as it happens is heavily involved in the South Road Federation and recently completed filming a documentary with our first national television channel and it will air in the next two weeks. So keep your eye out for it. You’ll learn something while getting to see a little the magic that has been a part of Irish and Polish heritage literally for centuries.
Stephen Fahey – [email protected]