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When pigs were more talked of than football


Con Houlihan

Con Houlihan

Con Houlihan

Those of us who are older remember the Maoists and their little red books. They are almost forgotten but wave after wave of pseudo-radicals remind us of them. God love them: they are young people who are convinced that they can make the world a better place. Perhaps a few persevere. Most join their daddies' stockbroking firms or merchant banks or whatever.

All those young people had or have one thing in common: they refer to policemen as pigs. In doing so they are unaware that they are paying the guardians of law and order a great compliment. Pigs are beautiful creatures: they are intelligent and sensitive and friendly. And what some people may not believe they are almost paranoid about cleanliness. A pig will not dirty its bed if it can avoid it. And when the straw on which it sleeps is old, it will kick it away.

The pig has for thousands of years played an important part in the economy of many countries. Young people nowadays in Dublin may be surprised to learn that keeping pigs was once a part of the fair city's culture.

Many people kept them; this was especially true of the area around the South Circular Road. The people there hadn't to go to fair or market: Donnelly's factory was nearby in The Coombe. It used to be said that you could eat Donnelly's sausages on a Friday and even on a Good Friday.


Pigs have the reputation of being stubborn and it isn't unfounded. They tend to do their own thing -- hence came the adjective "pigheaded". There is the story about the man who was driving a pig along the road one day. He met an inquisitive neighbour. He said: "Where are you taking him?" "To Abbeyfeale." "But you have him facing towards Castle Island." "Be quiet or he'll hear you."

The old people in Kerry long ago used to say that pigs can see the wind. I couldn't understand how this could be or how the old people could know -- but it sounds great. I attempted to grow up in a place and at a time when almost every household in our locality kept pigs. This practice went back for centuries: traditionally the pig was the gentleman who paid the rent.

There was fierce competition in our neighbourhood: people who bought bonhams on the same day vied with one another to see who would have them ready first.

My mother looked on herself as an expert in this context and she probably was -- she didn't lack for experience. One day when I bought a litter of 12 at Castle Island market, I had to undergo severe criticism. "What did you pay for those leprechauns?" I told her. "You must be out of your mind. They will never make pigs."

Some of our neighbours -- all experts of course -- came viewing that evening and agreed that I was mad. Time went by. The leprechauns thrived. I sold them after three months. They made a handsome profit. I insisted that the buyer, the famous Cock Reid from Limerick, paid me by cheque -- so that I could show it to the neighbours. It was a little triumph in a rural community in wonderfully innocent times.

Of one thing I am certain: pigs have a very keen sense of smell. There was an era in England when fowling dogs were heavily taxed; a famous Lord trained a pig -- and never used a dog again. I grew up in a place and in an era where there was more talk about pigs than about football -- because of course the women were involved.

Almost every household kept pigs and there was fierce competition, especially amongst the women because they did the feeding. We usually sold our pigs at the Castle Island market -- we tried to have some for every Monday.

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The pig market was very different from the cattle fair -- it was almost a social occasion. It didn't start until ten o'clock and so you had time to enjoy some of the famous Irish breakfast. The cattle fair could start at any time, even four o'clock.


There was another difference: if you didn't get the expected price for your pigs, you could take them home and send them to O'Mara's in Limerick. If you couldn't sell your cattle, you had to keep them for a month or maybe two. It hardly paid.

Most households kept back a pig in every litter for the table. A pig would be killed about every three months. And therein lies a story. It concerns a man who lived up in the mountain and was deemed eccentric. He wasn't -- but he had his own way of looking at things.

Once upon a time he became so friendly with a pig he had kept back that he couldn't kill him. He waited to get one from the next batch. The pig that had been spared was grateful. He followed his owner almost everywhere -- to the meadow, to the bog, even to the creamery. One day a neighbour who couldn't mind his own business said : "Why Tadhg are you keeping that pig so long?" And Tadhg said: "I mightn't get one as quiet as him again".

If you have ever been present at the killing of a pig, it is an experience that you will never forget. When you put a rope on a pig's leg to bring him from say, one house to another, he will squeal in irritation. When he is brought to be killed, he utters a cry from the heart -- as if saying "Brother, spare me". I thought that this was only my own intuition until I read Thomas Hardy's greatest novel, Jude The Obscure.

Most people like to smarten up their bonhams before taking them to the market. And therein lies a little story. It concerns a ten-year-old boy who was on holiday with his grandfather near us. One day he took bonhams with him to the market. Back at home in Cornwall he said to his mother: "Your father is a terrible man. Before we went to the market, he washed the little pigs but he never washed himself."

Fogra: Congratulations are due to Conor Greally on using his wits to win a nice prize offered by 98fm -- a fortnight for two in Mauritius