Tuesday 18 December 2018

Timeless tale of politics, survival, love, sex, death, betrayal - and fowl play

March is the traditional auction season for buying up, hatching and breeding stock. But be wary. (Stock picture)
March is the traditional auction season for buying up, hatching and breeding stock. But be wary. (Stock picture)
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

This is a story of love, bullying, pecking orders, post-traumatic stress, betrayal, the abandonment of monogamy - if such a concept ever existed - death itself, and the shortest foreplay ever.

I used to think the reason people liked chickens was because chickens really don't give a s**t.

The keeping of chickens has taken hold of Ireland and we are now eating our own eggs. There's more to chickens than eggs. Chickens, and cocks too, are great characters. Every bird is finger printed with individuality. Each one has his or her own personality. Just like people.

Sane Dave O'Sullivan, who is from Clare and Kildare, is the man with five cockerels and only two chickens. His dogs spend the whole day watching the carry-on at the hen and cock show. Sane Dave calls it HenTV. One of the five cocks has been ostracised by the other four and has been bullied.

Chickens are not exactly loveable little rascals licking your fingers and giving the paw. They have mad, cruel-looking eyes like serial killers and pointy beaks for pecking at you, but the chicken people tell us the hens and their owners bond in a unique way. Indeed, the most excellent Mary Cogan in her 'Listowel Connections' blog tells us: "A black crepe ribbon was attached to the henhouse door. This custom was called 'telling the hens'."

Chickens are the new cats and cats don't care. Cats don't lay eggs either, so chickens have a big advantage. But chickens can get broody and aggressive.

I'm sure many chicken people are upset over the chicken factories. There are 17 billion chickens in mass production units in China alone. The bird flu problem has had major repercussions here for the free-range egg producers, who have been told they have to take the label "free range" off their egg boxes, as the birds spend more time indoors.

But at the small end, the keeping of chickens in grand rearing houses has taken over from the building of sun rooms and gazebos as the mark of the successful man or woman. There are expensive chicken houses with doors that open and close electronically and self-feeders that drop food when the chickens stand on an electronic pad.

But it's not as easy as it seems. There was some sort of cow medicine a few years ago and it was for killing sarcoctic mange mites. The farmers nearly went out of their minds with the worry of pests they had never even heard of until it went on TV. The chicken magazines are full of ads for the red mite. May the Lord preserve us from Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump and the red mite, even though I've never met any of the three.

And then there are foxes and stoats. The stoats are murdering b******s and they kill for fun. The chicken feed can attract rats. I'd rather face a tiger than a rat. I read a story of man from Offaly who suffered terribly when a rat ran up the leg of his pants.

I'll savour the savoury omelettes, though, the buttery pancakes and the boiled eggs mashed up in a cup. The day will come when I will bring the lads in the pub the few eggs and say "dems my own eggs, boys".

The disastrous terrapin experiment will never be forgotten in our house. They were the filthiest little feckers you ever saw. Worse than a herd of 50 cows in high summer. I'll have to clean out after the chickens. I'm not man for husbandry. Unlike turkeys, chickens aren't just for Christmas.

March is the traditional auction season for buying up, hatching and breeding stock. But be wary.

Sane Dave's family brought home two male birds by accident from a fair, thinking they were chickens. Then three more chick purchases turned out to be cocks. I'm not sure if the Sane Daves were being fooled or not by an unscrupulous chicken seller who was passing off cocks as chickens. It's a well-known fact cocks can't lay eggs. Cocks, therefore, are not as popular as chickens. Even though they are handy for making the chickens pregnant and as alarm clocks.

Elaine Dee Worts works with me in the bar and she has three chickens left. The fox got a good few but Pamela came back after 10 days hiding by the stream at the back of the house. Pam was never the same after the fox and is suffering from post-traumatic stress. She is very cranky.

Elaine prepares homoeopathic feed for the chickens with stuff like cider vinegar passed through the mulch. She's opening her own health food store for humans in Listowel next week. It's called Halo, and you'd want to be a saint to mind chickens.

They didn't like me. Pamela, a Black Rock, is the biggest chicken, and she charged at me like a rhino. She's the boss of the coop. Elaine and her husband Pat explained how it is so many chicken expressions have found their way in to everyday talk. There is a pecking order. Pamela eats first and then the other two Rhode Island Reds eat after that. A fourth bird was banned from the hut by Pam and was carried off by a sparrow hawk.

The expression "having your wings clipped" is when one of the flight feathers is severed and when the poor chicken tries to take off, she falls over lopsided in a heap. Elaine and Pat let Pamela fly up on the trees. "If the wings are clipped," explains Elaine, "the chickens have no chance of escaping the fox."

My favourite expression, though, was coined by the late Jerome Murphy. It was "if the hens don't lay, change the cock" and the expression can be used to describe a losing football manager or an under-achieving political leader who has lost an election.

Irish Independent

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