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Con Houlihan: The truth about pigs and parlours

Some people aren't happy unless there are other people on whom they can look down. The older generations of the Irish in America were not without a tinge of racism: they were prejudiced against the blacks and the Jews and the Italians. This attitude came, of course, from their own sense of inferiority.

The English are a good people but not without prejudice: they tend to act superior to the French and the Germans and they are sometimes patronising towards the Irish. Perhaps they envy us a quality that they lack themselves. We were expert catchers in the wry. This, of course, was all a long time ago. We have to suffer jokes now that are not funny anymore.

The English thought of us as irresponsible: this attitude was summed up in a sentence: "The Irish keep pigs in the parlour". This, of course, was blatantly ridiculous because it was the poor people who mainly kept pigs and in their houses there were no parlours. In the farmers' houses there were always parlours but they were hardly ever used. They were almost sacred rooms. The main use of the parlour was for arranging marriages. Only the parents of the boy and girl attended those meetings. They were so serious that the two most important people weren't consulted at all. The important factors in arranging marriages were money and land.

The parlour had another function: it was used a couple of times a year as a symbol of the Irish caste system. There was a neighbour of ours at home, a widow with a modest hillside farm, who expressed the caste system in the clearest possible way. On occasions such as the bringing in of the hay or the digging out of the potatoes, there might be a meitheal, a fairly large group who tried to do all the work on the one day.


At lunch time, the good lady of the house used to stand in the door and say: "Farmers and farmers' sons in the parlour. Servant boys in the kitchen." This snobbery may have sounded comical, but it extended to all walks of Irish life and it hasn't gone away. Our society is still almost as caste ridden as the Indian sub-continent.

When the good lady referred to the kitchen, it wasn't really a kitchen at all. It was a living room where, generally, cooking and eating and socialising took place. In the small houses there was no parlour at all. What we called the kitchen was really the living room. It wasn't very big and sometimes you wonder how big families were reared there. We had neighbours in a council cottage where 14 children grew up. You could say that the imagination extended the space.

The living room in the small houses -- or if you like, the kitchen -- served for many purposes apart from the ordinary. The children did their lessons there while the elders conversed or played cards or read the papers. In some houses you might wonder what happened to the table because there was no table: it had been put into a room to make way for dancing. This was especially common in the hill country and in the mountains. All those houses in my time, whether big or small, had one thing in common: you would see a fire glowing all the year round. This was to combat the damp, never far away in the South West. The fire had another use: almost all the food for the animals and fowl was boiled -- it was a great way to safeguard against disease. It was common sense.

It worked. In all those houses you wouldn't be surprised to see a hen hatching in one corner and a litter of pups being reared in another. Almost every house had a halfdoor. This was supposed to keep the children in and the fowl out but nobody told the hens. They loved picking around the kitchen floor. Our kitchen was probably unique. Once upon a time it served to rear 12 pheasants. My mother's father, Con Cronin, to his horror had killed a mother pheasant when he was mowing hay. All he could do was bring the chickens home. His wife was delighted and she reared them with great care until they were about three months old. Then they were allowed out into the yard with the hens. They got on well but that is a story for another day.

The yard was very close to a busy main road and it was quite visible through a three-barred gate. The pheasants were a great attraction. People used to stop to admire them and sometimes they came into the yard. All went very well until the pheasants were about seven months old and then one day while my grandmother was doing some job in the yard, she heard high up in the sky a sound that she had never heard before. It was a kind of a hoot and a cry. Her 12 darlings flew up and away and she never saw them again.


Now we will come back to the pig in the parlour. A neighbour of ours, a doctor in London, came home on a surprise visit to his family and brought with him his girlfriend who had never been in Ireland before. They arrived on a night when a sow, about to give birth, was in a corner of the kitchen. The good doctor was mortified and refused to speak to his father or to his brothers and went off to bed in a huff, whatever that is.

His girlfriend was fascinated by the sow in the kitchen and decided to stay up with the woman of the house and observe the process of birth. After a few hours the woman of the house fell asleep but at about three in the morning she woke up when the sow gave a gentle moan. And she said to the girlfriend: "You will see something now that you have never seen before." And she did. She saw 10 piglets coming into the world. She was enthralled.

When she went back to London, she told her friends that the Irish don't keep pigs in the parlour. They keep them in the living room because the parlour isn't good enough for them.

Fogra: Warmest congratulations go to Tony McCoy and Jonjo O'Neill and JP McManus on their great win with Don't Push It at Aintree