Turtle Bunbury

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THE TALE OF THE PIDGEONS (2009)

by Turtle Bunbury

As the sun slowly glided across the Dublin mountain’s in the autumn of 1786, Mary Pidgeon sauntered out of the kitchen carrying another platter of succulent Poolbeg oysters for the top-hatted gentlemen seated at the table. The sea was rougher than it had been for some days but otherwise it was business as usual for the Pidgeon family restaurant. Little did Mary know that there would soon be a murder most foul in this very house.

Today, the Pigeonhouse is the name by which the Poolbeg ESB plant is best known. Built in the 1970s, the two chimneys of the power station rise like giant barber-shop poles to dominate the Dublin skyline for miles around. Ask anyone why the Pigeonhouse is so-called and 9 out of 10 will understandably suggest a connection to our portly feathered friends. Such an answer would be wrong.

Situated approximately 1.5km [check] east of Ringsend on the Poolbeg peninsula, the Pigeonhouse takes its name from an enterprising fellow called John Pidgeon who lived here in the 18th century. Quite where Mr Pidgeon came from is unclear but the surname may well derive from the French interpretation of LittleJohn, aka "Petit Johan".

In 1761, Mr Pidgeon was appointed caretaker for a new storehouse built by the Ballast Office. This lonesome structure stood on the northern edge of the windswept Poolbeg peninsula, overlooking the small and rather inefficient harbour where the mail-ships coming from England and Wales anchored. To the east was the Great South Wall, a mile and a half of solid granite built to protect Dublin Bay from the waves that rolled in from the stormy Irish Sea.

The storehouse to which Mr Pidgeon was assigned started life as a wooden storage depot for equipment used during the building of this phenomenal wall. In time, the Ballast Office converted it into a more homely structure, with eight rooms downstairs and a large loft above. Mr Pidgeon’s duties included making sure the fire in the Poolbeg lighthouse was constantly lit, keeping an eye out for French or Spanish enemy ships, and providing a bed for those caught out in the bad weather.

To care-take such an isolated location would have driven a bachelor insane. Fortunately, Mr Pidgeon was a married man. Moreover, when Mr and Mrs Pidgeon moved to their new residence, they brought with them their feisty young son, Ned, and two beautiful daughters, Mary and Rachel.

Mr and Mrs Pidgeon were a resourceful couple. It occurred to them that the passengers who disembarked from the packet-ships were frequently greener than the lichen-stained South Wall. In rough weather, the journey across the sea from Holyhead could take up to three or four days. Mr Pidgeon wondered whether a drop of rum or brandy might not be appreciated by such exhausted voyagers?

It also occurred to the Pidgeons that the South Wall itself was generating a considerable volume of visitor traffic from well-to-do gentlemen interested in this pioneering maritime work. Sometimes these curious chaps arrived on horseback or in the rickety horse-drawn carriage that came from Dublin City. On calmer days, especially Sundays, they sailed their yachts in from Dun Laoghaire (then Kingstown) and Howth. Surely, said Mrs Pidgeon to Mr Pidgeon, such adventurous souls would appreciate a cup of tea and a bite to eat.

Before long, the Pidgeons had converted their coastal home into one of the most popular restaurants in Dublin, providing their customers with cockles, shrimps and oysters, pots of tea and the occasional tankard of stout, rum or whiskey. Mrs Pidgeon and her lovely daughters gamely served up the food and beverage, while Mr Pidgeon and Ned took their esteemed guests on guided tours of Dublin Bay Wall, transporting them in a small, brightly coloured rowing boat. The storehouse quickly became known as ‘Pidgeon’s House’, subsequently corrupted to the Pigeonhouse, and its owner found himself ‘on the fair road to fortune’.

This was the Dublin of Grattan’s Parliament, a Golden Age for many in the city. People were coming from all across Europe to marvel at the construction of the new Georgian skyline, dominated by such impressive buildings as the Custom House and the Four Courts. Some wanted to see the college where Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke honed their literary skills. Others wanted to enjoy the theatre and music that played upon the streets where Handel’s Messiah was first performed a generation earlier. But whatever their purpose for visiting Dublin, few of those who sailed in or out of Dublin would not have paused at the Pigeonhouse for a quick tipple.

However, life at the Pigeonhouse was not all crumpets and tea. Luckless emigrants headed for England were sometimes captured and press-ganged into service with the Royal Navy. The coaches coming from Dublin City were occasionally attacked and plundered by ‘desperate banditti armed with swords and pistols’. Smugglers were often at large, awaiting darkness and fog so they might sail into Dublin Bay and unload their contraband without watchmen like John Pidgeon alerting the army.

Indeed, when the last of their guests departed and the cold, dark night settled upon the Poolbeg peninsula, the Pidgeon family must have felt more than a pang of isolation and fear.

It was on one such dark and foggy evening in 1786 that life for the Pidgeons took an abrupt turn for the worse. Four strangers arrived at the door claiming to be in distress. The Pidgeons gallantly let them in, only to find themselves under attack. Ned and the girls came galloping down from the loft to defend their parents. During the ensuing scuffle, Ned’s hands were badly slashed by a sword. The raiders grabbed everything they could find, smashed a hole in the Pidgeons’ boat and fled into the night.

When they heard the terrible news, the Pidgeon’s regulars immediately organized a collection to buy them a new boat. However, the event had shaken the family very badly. Mr Pidgeon died soon afterwards, possibly from injuries received during the attack. All to soon he was followed Ned who never recovered from his wounds. Destitute and distraught, Mrs Pidgeon was also soon dead, leaving the two girls to fend for themselves.

There was, however, a happy ending of sorts. One evening Rachel and Mary, still living at the family home, sailed to the rescue of an Americans ship wrecked in a storm off the South Wall. As well as the captain, they saved a wealthy widower from Philadelphia and his three-year-old son. The Pidgeon girls provided the unfortunate trio with ‘blankets, food and warmth’, and looked after them until they were fully recovered. The American subsequently fell in love with Mary and proposed to her. The sisters duly emigrated to Philadelphia where Rachel also struck lucky and found a husband. Whether either sister had any children or not is presently unknown.

During the 1790s, the Pidgeon’s residence was converted into a fully-fledged hotel, boasting 25 chimney pieces. A new harbour was built alongside the hotel which rapidly became the place to stay for anyone voyaging across the Irish Sea. However, following the 1798 Rebellion, the British War Office requisitioned the hotel and converted it into the Pigeonhouse Barracks. In 1897 these quarters were sold to Dublin Corporation. The rooms where the Pidgeon family once slept and entertained their guests presently serve as offices for the Electricity Supply Board.

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