Catch The Pigeon
Dublin may not be famous for its pigeons, but for a select band of fanciers the birds are almost a way of life, says Conor Creighton. Photography by Con O'Donoghue
Finding a pigeon (or “flying ashtray” as they are sometimes known) in Dublin is not hard. All you’ve got to do is locate a fast-food outlet, a stretch of water or a statue of a patriot and there you’ll see them in their thousands. Finding pigeon fanciers, the men who breed, train and race the birds to Olympic levels of athleticism, is a lot harder.
There are about 4,000 fanciers in the city today, yet 10 years ago there were double that amount. The preferred sport of taxi drivers, gangsters and the working classes is entering its twilight years but, as we discovered on a recent weekend, there’s life in the old bird yet.
Pascal Mulcahy, 74, is secretary of the Dublin Homing Club. A short, chirpy man – not unlike the birds he keeps – he’s been running the pigeon show in Ireland for longer than most
people care to remember. “In some quarters of Dublin I’m the biggest b**tard there is,” he says, dunking a digestive biscuit into a cup of very milky tea. Pascal feeds his favourite birds from his mouth, and never misses an opportunity to talk about his grandchildren – his “mini pigeon fanciers”. It’s hard to see how anyone could see anything mean in his character. “Well, I’ve had to step on a few toes to keep people in their place,” he says. “Fellas want to win. There’s a lot of emotion involved in bird racing.”
Pascal is the oldest pigeon fancier in Ireland. He’s been racing for 64 years. He bought his first pigeon aged 10 on Capel Street, on the north side of Dublin, in a small bird shop that’s now a Filipino food store. He started breeding them as a teenager. “I’d bring a half dozen down to Capel Street of a Saturday to sell, and they’d be back at the house that evening. I trained them to climb out of the trap. We all did that to make a bit of extra cash,” he says.
Small pennies back then, today champion pigeons are sometimes sold for as much as €250,000. Of course that means they don’t race them anymore. Instead, they just set them up in a plush coop with the highest quality straw floors and the best bird feed, and allow them to breed their retirement years away.
“Money doesn’t come into it at our level,” he says. “You do it just so you can see your name up on the board when you go to the clubhouse. It’s a chance to slag [off] the other lads.”
Pigeon racers fit more than one stereotype. Many drive taxis, a few are wheeler-dealer types, and you’ll come across the odd out-andout gangster. The flash BMWs in the driveway of the clubhouse – a tired-looking redbrick building on the shoulder of the River Camac – are probably owned by the latter. The building itself is only used by pigeons and their fanciers, so doesn’t need to be anything better.
Community and loyalty – alongside the friendly rivalry that maintains the sport’s competitive edge – are an important part of pigeon racing. Pigeon fanciers help each other by sharing transport, maintenance costs and even offering free emergency surgery when fellow fanciers’ birds are injured. On some occasions the men have even organised bird auctions to raise money for the widows of fanciers who have passed on.
The club is full of characters. There’s an elderly Italian gent who claims to be the long lost nephew of the real Don Corleone, a guy they refer to as Kirk Douglas’s body double, and then Heno, the master tactician of the north-side pigeon-racing league – who studies the art of breeding and employs the latest technology to get the best form from his birds.
And form, in a nutshell, is horniness. The hornier you can get a bird the faster it flies home. Cocks are separated from hens for long periods. They are allowed to see each through the wire meshing in their lofts but not allowed to touch. In some cases, they are even shown their partners having sex with other birds to drive them mad with jealousy. Science, feeding and all manner of psychological trickery are employed, but at the end of the day it’s the pigeon most desperate to get some who wins the race.
The pigeons’ lofts are state-of-the-art, with heating, electronic sensors and surround-sound stereo systems to keep them relaxed before the races, and maybe to set the mood for when they get back. It’s important that their home is a sanctuary where they can relax in preparation for their marathon journeys. Irish and English birds fly home from as far away as France, Belgium and Germany. Some races can be as long as 1,800km. And with birds flying no faster than 80km/h, they can be gone for a couple of days.
But that’s not the race we’re attending. Ours is a mere sprint – a couple of hundred kilometres from Tipperary to Dublin. “The birds will be back before you are,” says Pascal. “Well, apart from the stupid ones.”
At 6am, 7,000 birds in two trucks make the trip south from Dublin. The fanciers drink tea and wait for a phone call from a man called the “liberator”, who’s holed up in an office in Dublin studying the day’s weather to find the best opening. The phone eventually rings, the cups of tea are put to one side, the conveyors man their posts, and in the blink of a camera shutter the blue sky turns to feathers and dust. After a couple of minutes circling trying to find their bearings, they head in the direction of Dublin.
“How do they know which way to go?” I ask. “It’s in the eyesight,” someone says. “No it’s not, it’s their hearing,” comes another voice. “Will you get away with that! They follow the road signs just like you and me,” says someone else.
Pigeons’ homing devices are in their heads, and work like solar compasses. But studies have shown that birds familiar with certain routes will follow landmarks like motorways and streets, even turning at junctions on their way home. And that’s where we lose them. The first group of birds dive off into west Dublin, then the last of the flock make their way out across the city to Swords and Howth.
At 10.36am, Pascal clocks his first bird home. It’s good enough to win second place and a share of the pools. The next day he gets a phone call from Carlow asking if he is missing a blue-tipped pigeon that had landed exhausted on the doorstep of a local pigeon fancier. “He was probably caught in an east wind. The bird might have flown halfway across the country and back – they’d just keep flying until they drop,” says Pascal.
Pigeons aren’t beautiful birds. In fact, they’re kind of the ugly ducklings of the skies. But they make up for that with their determination and a sex drive that hunger, exhaustion and high winds only temper. As we leave Pascal’s house that afternoon, the cooing in the bird coop rises noticeably. The winners must be getting their just rewards.