So, what did you spend your Easter Monday doing? Eating roast chicken? Stuffing your face full of chocolate eggs? I took all that chicken-related stuff a bit further as I found myself at the National Poultry Races in Carlingford, County Louth.
I hadn't gone deliberately – while enjoying an enormous pub lunch I found myself reading the brochure that had been left considerately at my place setting and thought, well, as I'm here...
One thing led to another and so I set off in search of the racing action – it wasn't hard to find. Carlingford is set in something of a natural amphitheatre what with the hills behind and the sea in front so the sounds of The Birdie Song floating on the air were easy to follow and I soon found myself leaning on a poultry-protective fence along with plenty of other excited punters, awaiting the start of the fourth race of the day and taking a moment to brush up on the rules.
“The handlers line up with their birds”. So far so good. Five under tens stood there, perched (sorry) on the edge of action, their hands filled with fat feathered friends.
“The starter then says 'Ready, Steady' and at this point the bird is held gently with its feet on the ground. The starter then says 'GO!'”. Here, according to the rules; “the handler is allowed to stand behind the bird and shooooooooo (sic) her/him to the line”.
At least that's what's supposed to happen. What actually happens, is this – five kids and five chickens all scramble around (sorry), to no apparent intent in a very small corner of a long racing track all shouting 'hoosh', and 'go' and 'cluck' and suchlike. At this point you begin to realise that chickens aren't natural racers. I have seen shuttlecocks with more determination and a better sense of direction. One of the rules states that if for any reason the bird flies out of the enclosure, before the finish then it's disqualified. I think that's what happened to Goldie McNugget who, in a mighty leap, landed on the buggy of some unfortunate infant, scaring the aforementioned infant stiff with much flapping of redundant wings before he was wrangled back to safety. A quick check of the programme shows that Goldie McNugget was sponsored by 'Gerard Long Van Takeaway'. I'm not sure if that means vehicles or burgers, but if it were the latter, then I fear Goldie McNugget may have lived up to his name by the time the last race was run.
Eventually, although I'm not sure how, a winner was declared (Latvian Girl, if you must know), the fowl were gathered up and a small boy trotted off triumphantly with an Easter Egg. Later, I spotted a few of these about town. The elite, the hot shot squad of poultry racing. It was the most fun thing I've watched, possibly ever.
The weather seemed to affect attendance somewhat but then again, torrential rain and freezing cold tend to do that. The cloudbursts, however, added a special Craggy Island sort of feel to proceedings and I should hope that next year someone will sponsor a Tunnel of Goats.
The Taafe's Castle National Poultry Races is surprisingly good fun and a real example of a town getting behind something silly and different. Local pubs, shops, restaurants, taxi companies etc. sponsor either races or birds because it's not just confined to chickens, you know. All poultry can participate - Geese, roosters – ducks, I've learned, are far better at racing than chickens. In that they can make it from one end of the course to the next which is pretty impressive under the circumstances. There was even a poultry-themed soundtrack piped out to entertain the crowds and inspire the runners between races. Until you've heard the Mission Impossible theme performed by Rhode Island Reds, you haven't heard music.
So what else did I learn? Training techniques? Breeds? Feeds? Seeds? As it happens, nothing. I was just there for the fun. I'm not Nationwide.
And brilliant as it was, I began to think of possible improvements. This sport needs a champion, a role model for our times. An Ayrton Henna, if you will. What about recruiting squirrel jockeys to keep the chickens in line, for example? Children clearly can't manage it. Why, I'd pay to see a squirrel whipping a Bantam to the finish line.
We could try celebrity poultry racing? Who wouldn't want to see Francis Brennan giving a Silkie a pep talk, or Anne Doyle goose-whispering? And why stop at Carlingford? Ireland, even? There's international potential in this sport and so long as the games are held in the Southern Hemisphere every winter, no transport costs for the participants. Recession-busting as well as entertaining!
I would have suggested Dave Lamb as a voiceover as well but there was already one there who ran a commentary as dry as a bag of birdseed. And a starting pistol probably wouldn't be fair. Funny, perhaps, but PETA might object.
Well done to Carlingford for following up the National Leprechaun Hunt with the Poultry Races. It's all good, clean, family fun and the animals are responsibly treated. It's a bit of nonsense and whimsy for a Bank Holiday Monday, real village green entertainment for a country that needs a touch of silliness to cheer us all up. So what's next? Pig racing seems popular, for instance. And the mind boggles at what we could get cows to learn.....there's a whole summer of this sort of thing coming up so forget Macnas and the Rose of Tralee – for real public entertainment, see what's happening locally with farm animals in a competitive capacity this summer. I can assure you, you won't regret it.