Paul Walsh hasn’t far to walk to the loft.
His house is on Catherine Street in the Liberties, which leads down to Michael Mallin House on Swift’s Alley, where, tucked in next to the pink-and-yellow flat complex, a rickety, wooden structure is home to his pigeons.
Walsh visits them daily. He tosses in their feed, cleans their cages and sweeps their droppings. His racing days are over, though. At this stage he’s lost count of how many flutter and coo inside. “Haven’t a clue,” he says.
But, as Walsh sees it, they kept him out of trouble growing up. And unlike many of his mates in the 1980s, saved him from drug addiction.
A Local Attraction
On a recent Wednesday morning, two residents smoke on a nearby balcony. A boy in a Man United jersey flies by on his bike, popping a wheelie.
The large, wooden shack sits neatly on the tarmac next to the flats and Walsh has just finished up the morning feed.
The loft is simple but it does the job, says Walsh, burly in frame, with a buzz cut.
He built it back in 1986 with the help of some friends and it’s held up. “There was a whole load of sheds there was knocked down in the ’80s,” he says, pointing to the concrete pavement in front of the loft. “All the kids use to come up, though.”
They still do, but the numbers have dwindled. Pigeon racing has had its day. “It’s a dying sport,” he says.
The sky is cloudless today, the air frigid. There is a light breeze and the loud flutter of the birds above the shed in which Walsh keeps his equipment.
Most of the pigeons are the typical blue-grey beasts found clawing elsewhere along the city streets. One or two are pure white, perched behind the wire-mesh fence enclosing the coop. These ones are special, owing only to their colouring, says Walsh.
The wooden door below squeaks open to reveal wood chipping, seeds, a hard brush, a softer brush, and a white surgical mask used when cleaning time rolls around.
Walsh is still a member of Rialto Racing Club today, although it’s been three years since he raced any of his birds.
In front of the loft, a small speckled pigeon struts towards him. “This fella will follow me anywhere,” he says. “He’s wild, so I took him in a while ago.”
Affixed to the left of the coop are two cartoon pigeons with Irish flags tacked on either side of them. A fifth, larger flag sits proudly between these two, and below the real pigeons, bobbing their heads routinely.
In a few weeks, says Walsh, the decoration will change. “I’ll get Santy out soon. On Paddy’s Day I change them too,” he says. “It’s just for the kids, they like it.”
The local youths around the area weren’t always so easily amused.
Walsh points again to where the sheds used to sit before their removal by the corporation, as the council was called then. In the 1980s, these sheds beside the pigeon loft became injection spots for lads the same age as Walsh.
Out of his 50 or so classmates growing up, Walsh estimates that 20 of them died due to drug addiction. “You ask any of the locals around here. The drugs was terrible then,” he says. “Not just here but all over Dublin.”
A Dying Sport
One of these locals is Walsh’s longtime friend Robert Courtney, who lives on nearby Watling Street. He joins Walsh on another recent clear, crisp morning.
Courtney, unlike Walsh, is still a keen pigeon racer and member of Rialto. Growing up so close together, the two would pal around. It was Walsh who got Courtney hooked on the pigeons.
“Thirty year that’s there,” Walsh says to Courtney, pointing to the loft. “You helped build that. You were only a young fella weren’t you?”
“Yep,” Courtney replies.
“You built that?! You only showed up for one day, you and Tommy!”
The pair laugh and shoulder each other.
Courtney says himself and “Walshy” spent much of their youth in search of pigeons to race. “We used to snare them down in Boland’s Mill. We’d be up at five o’clock out chasing fucking pigeons,” he says. “People thought we were mad!”
Courtney has his own loft on Watling Street where he grew up. While Walsh hasn’t a clue how many birds he now keeps, Courtney says he has around 130.
He agrees though, with Walsh about the future of pigeon racing in Dublin – it’s in decline. In part, this is down to the expense these days of the food, the equipment, the training. The tagging rings alone can cost €150 each. Eventually, says Courtney, the clubs must amalgamate or face going under.
For men their age, approaching 50, pigeon racing is a hangover from their fathers’ generation.
Back then, Walsh and Courtney would frequent Willie’s Pet Shop on Patrick Street. “You’d meet all the old pigeon men in there,” says Courtney. “We were nearly reared in there weren’t we Walshy?”
Willie, dead and buried 25 years, was “a big head of a man”, says Walsh, but he at least provided the two youngsters with sustenance.
“We used to take the dog biscuits, you know the Bonio ones?” asks Walsh. “We’d dip them into our tea and ate them.”
For the pair, pigeon racing and their club memberships provide them with a social life beyond the humdrum. “It’s a social thing these days,” says Walsh.
It means early mornings, though, to tend to the birds. Often up at 5am, Courtney and Walsh will clean their lofts and feed their pigeons. “A lazy man has lazy pigeons,” says Courtney, departing.
Before leaving Walsh for the last time, I ask if his birds have names. Not anymore, he says. Courtney, just left, nips his head around the corner again. “They often have names though, pigeons. Lads will name them” he says. “Sure in our club there’s Hot Chocolate, Ronaldo and Shitebag!”
Walsh waves him off again and starts sweeping the tarmac outside the loft with the hard brush. “That’s how we sort of kept busy,” says Walsh. “That’s what kept me away from the drugs was the pigeons, I’ll tell you that now.”
Walsh lives alone. With no children and a decreased interest in pigeons, and pigeon racing, his loft, which he paints yearly, might not be around for much longer. “The corporation’s going to take it down and that’s it,” he says. “The last man standing.”