My mother often spoke to me about a parrot which was in the home of William Higgins, in the Upper Rosses, when she was young, about the turn of the century. The bird, an African Grey, had been brought home by one of his seafaring sons, and was a great talker and singer.
There were two sisters in the house, who sang in the local church choir, and they frequently practices hymn singing at home. The parrot learned the hymns with them and on fine summer evenings he would be placed outside his house in his cage. Many villagers and visitors would congregate nearby to listen to him singing loud and clear several hymns. One could imagine the look of astonishment on the faces of passing strangers when they heard the old bird blasting out Adestele Fictelous, Hail Glorious Saint Patrick and Tantum Ergo.
The parrot which I remember was in the home of grandaunt Bee McGowan. It was an African Grey too, brought home by her eldest son, a seaman called Pat. Bee had five sons who followed the sea one by one. Mikie became a river pilot like his father, who had died before my time. She also had three daughters, and one, Mary Agnes, had a lovely singing voice. So there was plenty of music and singing there also.
There was a large open kitchen with open fire place, on which the old lady made several fine potoven cakes every week, which were shared out to the family and the many visitors.
The parrot was housed in a large cage in a corner by the fire and did not miss a trick, always watching and listening to what was going on. The front door of the house was only closed nib adverse weather conditions, as Bee loved company.
Usually the kitchen was full of sailors talking of ships, the sea and foreign parts, with Polly butting in on the conversation at times, it was indeed a schoolboy's paradise. Aunt Bee would stand in front of the cage and lilt a jig, then lifting her long skirt she would dance. The parrot would get all excited and would shout: "hoo-hoo-hoo", at intervals. She would then carry him up to the sitting room where he would be alone, leaving the door slightly ajar, and begin to hum the Blarney Roses. Then Polly would sing loud and clear:
Can anybody tell me where the Blarney Roses grow.
It may be down in Limerick Town or over in Mayo,
Or somewhere in the Emerald Isle the place I'd like to know.
In earlier years when Pat would be at home and taking a drop, he would come up from the Elsinore pub and bring down the parrot on his shoulder, to show him off to his pals. When Pat left home, the bird was kept behind bars by the rest of the family, and some had the mark of his sharp beak to justify this precaution.
Pandemonium broke out one day in the house when someone left the catch of the cage door off, and he got out. Everyone evacuated the kitchen andtook refuge behind room doors, peeping out as his nibs flew around muttering and laughing. Luckily after a short while he decided to reenter his cage to eat some seed, and someone rushed out and secured the door.
There were two other pets in the house, a large brown cat and a terrier dog called Trixie. One day the cat was sitting by the fire, and Polly went: "Pssh Pssh Pssh Meow Pssh Pssh Pssh Meow", the cat began to purr and went over to the cage, rubbing against it with his back arched and tail up. Like lightning, the beak came out between the bars and he caught the cat's tail. The howl of poor pussy as the parrot shouted: "Hoo-oo-ooo", and let go. "You blackguard", said Auntie Bee to him.
On another occasion I watched him do the same to the dog. Trixie was outside the house barking and Polly began whistling. "Trixie", he called, "come in her", in a voice like Mary Agnes. In ran Trixie and went to the cage where he received his medicine from the beak.
There were not many cars on the road at that time, but he would often let out a loud shrill whistle when one passed the house. I have often seen drivers jam on brakes, having just passed. They would sit looking through the back window thinking someone needed a lift to town.
What excited him most was when a ship passed up or down the river, which is close to the house. The engine throb and propeller noise could be heard in the kitchen. First he would whistle, then shout loudly: "Port, port, port, put her on the bank and cant her". Some of this was pilot's jargon, the bank was one of the berths at Sligo Bay. Perhaps the ship noises reminded him of his long voyage to Sligo onboard ship.
When I would enter the house, usually Peg, who spoke rather quickly, would say hello Frank. we have all heard of parrot fashion, but one day when I called in, Polly was the first to spot me, and before anyone could speak, he said: "Hello Frank", in a voice like Peg's. We were all convulsed with laughter, but were soon being imitated.
When sitting around the kitchen table having a meal, the family had to be careful not to raise their voices in argument, and sometimes they would do so on purpose to get Polly going. He would shout out loudly on hearing a raised voice in anger: "Oh, oh, the God damn house", and repeat it several times.
When all was calm at meal times he would call out: "Hello, hello", and keep repeating this until someone gave him a scrap of food from the table. When he would have it eaten, he would be at the hello, hello again until satisfied.
The parrot's main diet was a seed, which had to be specially imported by a Sligo store. On one occasion the seed did not arrive on time, and he had to do without it for several days. Then one day Maggie Gillen, who owned and drove her bus between Sligo and Rosses Point, stopped outside the house and blew the horn. Aunt Bee ran out at once to get the parcel of seed. When she unwrapped the paper, Polly recognised the box and did a war dance in his cage shouting: "Hello, hello, hello", and soon he had his fill of favourite food.
Polly is dead a long number of years now, and I was away at sea myself when it happened. I was told he was placed in a makeshift coffin and buried in the field at the rear of the house. The funeral was attended by many of the village youngsters. He was a very clever bird, and in his time gave joy and great entertainment to many.