The sport and art of pigeon racing 

Pigeon racing is a sport and a passion that has a long and deep-rooted the history in Ireland and Britain;. While the origin of pigeon racing dates back to the early 19th century, pigeons can be seen documented in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in 3000 BC. These ancient Egyptian pigeons were messenger pigeons that would carry information from place to place.

Today, pigeon racing is a quietly popular and sometimes lucrative sport, with one of Dublin’s few remaining pigeon racing clubs located in Inchicore, Dublin 8. 

Belgium is credited for making the sport official and organised in the 19th century. In Ireland, the governing body over the sport is the Irish Homing Union. It has been around since 1895.

Dan Bradley, the press secretary of the Irish Homing Union is a third generation pigeon keeper and second-generation pigeon racer himself, is based outside Greystones, Co Wicklow.

“The culture of pigeon racing has changed,” he says. “In years gone by when my father would’ve raced, there would’ve been everyone getting together in the club and going for a pint in the pub then afterwards. There was that camaraderie, there was, I guess, a lot less pigeons kept back in those days.

“It’s changed a lot now it’s more of a professional occupation in Belgium, and Ireland is heading in that direction – to a lot of people its nearly become a profession for them. It’s becoming a lot more professional, a lot more regulated, and even the set ups.

“People used to fly them to old, dilapidated sheds. The pigeon lofts at this stage are absolutely state of the art, a lot of them have temperature controls, humidity controls, light and darkness controls, so it’s a big change from 20 or 30 years ago.” 

These are no ordinary pigeons. “I think for a long-time people have looked at pigeons like street pigeons, flying rats as they call them or disease-ridden animals. You can actually see there is a huge difference in shape, in size, in the way they look between – an athlete of the sky shall we call them – a racing pigeon versus a street common pigeon. It’s like chalk and cheese.  

“The view of it, I think from the general public is that pigeons are flying rats, but I think when you actually go and see them in action then it begins to blow people’s minds. The fact that a pigeon could fly 60-70 miles an hour from Cork to Dublin all the way up, people just can’t get their head around it – how they have a homing ability to come as far as France to Ireland.

“I think a lot of people wouldn’t view it in the greatest regard, but I think if you actually got the time to sit down with a successful fancier and look at the set-up, to actually experience a day of racing it would totally change people’s opinion of it.”  

As for the future of the sport in Ireland, Bradley says “Pigeon racing is separating into what I would call two fields. There’s the people who want to race the pigeons, so they’d race them back to their garden and that would be one side of it.

“The other side of it then is what’s called one loft racing. Loft racing is where breeders of pigeons would send them pigeons to one loft and they could be all around Europe and America, and they would compete against the best in Europe and the best in the world. It’s kind of breaking up in that some people see the future in one loft racing, and that everyone is not going to race, they’re going to continue to breed pigeons essentially and send them off.

“Other people would say the future of racing is, as the more professional racing goes, trying to create more sponsorship and prize money and stuff like that. I guess you could say the future is just a more professional side of racing.”

Is there still a social side?

“I’m 40-years of age and I would be one of the younger members within the club, it would be a lot of older people that would race pigeons and there’s definitely a social side of it, Bradley says. “There’s a special training vans that go down the road every day during racing season and all the men meet in the one spot to load the pigeons on and it gives them this social aspect there; again, on a Friday then there’s that social aspect again of going down to the club – there’s a level of belonging to a club.

“Then on Saturday when they’re doing up the results when the pigeons are home then, there’s a community there that I guess gives a social aspect to people who may not have any other avenue of a social interaction.

“Even during covid times it was a bit trickier, but people that were on their own, they were able to have some sort of social interaction because that was a tough time for everyone and I guess older people some of them may be on their own and it was the only bit of interaction they got. It’s hugely important to them – it’s hugely important to me as well but it’s especially important to that older fraternity, that they’re able to get some sort of a friendship circle I suppose, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose.” 

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