Ruth grew up on a farm near Clondalkin, in the County Dublin of the 1940’s, when life was very different. Electricity didn’t reach the farm until 1950, so the house was lit with oil lamps in the evenings and water was drawn from the well using a horse-drawn pumping system. At that time, there were many small-holdings around Dublin city, and most of them kept a few hens to provide eggs and meat for the family.
Hens depend on light to stimulate the egg-laying cycle, and in the absence of electricity, hen-houses were not lit, so they stopped laying eggs, and there was always a shortage of eggs in the winter. As a result, fresh eggs in the winter commanded a premium price, and Ruth’s father was innovative enough to find ways to encourage his hens to lay more eggs in the cold, dark months. He also fed them hot cereal mashes every evening, and was able to supply eggs to his customers all year round. Ruth remembers packing batches of a couple of dozen eggs into special cardboard boxes for posting to customers on the other side of Dublin. She also recalls preserving summer eggs in a liquid called “water glass”, which would keep them fresh enough for baking for up to six months.
Most people kept a few dozen hens, but Ruth’s father sometimes had over a hundred in his flock, selling eggs to shops as well as private customers. He used an incubator and brooders, warmed by oil burners, so that they could hatch their own eggs, producing young hens to sell as well. The wicks of the burners had to trimmed every morning to keep them burning efficiently. They had to mix their own chick mash by hand, rubbing cod liver oil into maize meal and ground cereals.
When Ruth married in the 1950’s, she set up home near Skerries, and she started her own hen business, rearing pullets up until point-of-lay for people in places like Malahide, Rush, Portmarnock and Swords who still kept small flocks of hens. The Department of Agriculture supported her enterprise, and an enthusiastic poultry instructor named Miss Byrne visited Ruth regularly, giving advice.
In the 1960’s and ‘70’s hen-keeping dwindled in popularity, with many people selling their farms to property developers, and Ruth’s business moved from selling hens towards larger scale egg-production.
She found that her methods had to change with the times, for economic reasons. She had free range at first, then she changed to deep litter barns when she had more hens, and finally, she installed battery cages in the 1960’s, a system that was the only economic answer at the time. Ruth never liked the battery cage system, and she’s delighted that free-range and barn-type systems are now common-place.
Ruth and her husband sold her farm in Skerries in the early 1980’s and moved to the Carlow countryside. Ruth keeps only a small flock of hens nowadays, just producing enough eggs for her own family and friends. She thinks it’s funny that hen-keeping is seen as a new fad, when in reality, people are just taking up the activities of their grandparents.
She’s still known by many of her former customers as a hen-guru, and she’s quick to offer advice, with traditional remedies for hens that have gone off the lay etc. The modern hybrid hens and off-the-shelf hen food mean that it’s much easier to produce eggs successfully: Ruth says there’s less of an art to hen-keeping than in the past. But she’s very clear about one thing: you still have to mind the ladies properly.
- Hen-keeping is not a new fad: it’s been a traditional Irish activity for many generations
- Traditional breeds have been replaced by high-production hybrid hens