My Nana always kept hens. As a child, I spent a lot of time at her house – just the other side of the hill from where we now live – and hens were an ever-present, taken-for-granted part of growing up. Previously my Nana, a trained and skilled poultrywoman, had kept flocks of hens for breeding; by the time I came along she just supplied Dwanes, one of the local shops, with fresh eggs for sale at the counter. But there were still jobs for the grandchildren to do. One of the dreaded chores was that of collecting the eggs. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the straw-lined wicker egg basket banging against my Wellington-clad bare legs, I would go through the gate in the far corner of the yard, wander past the haggart with all its fascinating bits of rusty farm machinery, turn right on to the lane the cows ambled along twice a day for milking and, keeping close to the less muddy inside side, come to the old wooden hen house. After taking a deep breath of clean air, I would twist the old bolt across, opening the door into the musty fug of the hens’ world and prepare myself for the egg search.
These were very much free-range eggs; the hens spent their days roaming through the nearby grove and surrounding farmyards. Very few of the outdoor escapades of my cousins and I didn’t involve encountering some squawking hen in an unlikely place. But there were always a few indoors and they looked very imposing indeed, especially to a little girl who wasn’t too much bigger than the basket that she carried. Most of the nesting boxes that lined the hen house were empty that time of the day but there were always a few hens in place to put the heart crossways in you as you pulled back the disintegrating curtains that gave the layers some privacy. Unlike my Mother and aunts, I could never bring myself to root under a hen for eggs, always too afraid that that shar-looking beak would seek to defend its owner from the unwarranted intrusion. I wonder how many eggs I left behind in those days?
On Saturday the Husband picked up four Rhode Island Red, point-of-lay pullets from a hen lady near Kanturk to populate our sturdy and stylish new hen house and run from Fingerprint Wood Products. The crooning and clucking from the girls as they figure out their new surroundings has unlocked a stream of long-forgotten memories. Every time we go into the garden there has to be time spent observing the new arrivals and marvelling at their antics. Even though we are keeping them confined at the moment, they have already managed – even at a remove – to terrorise the local tom cat who was paying visits to our own cat. The cat herself normally follows us around the garden as we work outside; her movements are now more confined as she tries to avoid being seen and commented on by the hens. Last night the Husband and I spent half-an-hour in and out of the run, trying to find a bowl or bucket that our ever-so-slightly dense foursome would recognise as a water receptacle. They walked around – almost into – the various water containers for quite a while but not once while we were there did they actually see what was in them. Figuring that they wouldn’t expire from thirst overnight, we eventually left them to it. I think that my Nana would have been very entertained.