Every week, we invite an influential figure in the cage bird fancy to tell us about themselves and their view of the hobby. This week is slightly different: British bird breeder Tom English puts our questions (and some of his own) to his father, TOM ENGLISH Snr, over the phone

Tom English, Jr says: “I wanted to do a profile on my dad, Tom Snr, as he is the other half of the well-known partnership T. & T. English in Ireland and the UK. He will be 82 years young next month and came from Blarney Street in the north side of Cork City ‘where everyone kept a singing bird in a cage just inside the front door’”.

Which clubs have you been most involved with? Any official roles?

TOM ENGLISH Snr: In the 1990s my son and I both joined the two best bird clubs in the city: Cork Show Bird Society and Southern Ireland Native Bird Breeder Society (SINBBS). My son Tom is still an active member at both. Our partnership of T. & T. English were treasurer and assistant treasurers at SINBBS for 10 years. Tom Jnr was show secretary and now is show manager and vice chairman.

Briefly summarise your career in birdkeeping.

TES: Under the partnership of T. & T. English, we have been keeping and exhibiting natives, mules and hybrids for years. But as a young boy growing up in Cork, I had three great interests: weightlifting, birds and dogs, and in that order. The keeping of cage birds back then was very big in Cork and there were huge competitions between neighbours to see who had the best singing linnets and mules.

My great grandad had a plot of land in Fair Hill and we used to go hunt rabbits and watch the flocks of finches feeding in the fields. Between all this I was training hard on my weightlifting skills and won many competitions over a 25-year period, including “Mr Ireland” and numerous Munster and provincial events.

I married and moved to the south side of the city, where I still live today, and had four children. My son Tom Jnr, as a young boy, was showing a keen interest in all aspects of the countryside: dogs, birds and fishing, and so I encouraged and helped him. We used to walk the fields for hours on end. Now the fields are factories and houses.

Which clubs and societies have done the most good for the hobby? Tom English adds: what was the best club you joined?

TES: The Cork Show Bird Society was the mother club of all the bird clubs in the city at the time. The huge membership and the wealth of knowledge was a great learning curve for us as we were novices. There were talks and lectures at the monthly meetings. This fabulous club celebrates its 100th show very soon, which is a great achievement for a hobby.

The SINBBS was the best thing my son and I did by joining it. At the time it was formed to encourage the breeding and recording of native birds. There were so many big-named exhibitors in this one club in Cork that were winning with their show birds all over the country. The help and encouragement shown to us was second to none and the club still holds on to its great reputation today. One of the founder members, Mr Noel O’Sullivan, is still active in the club today.

What do you consider your most significant achievements in the hobby?

TES: We have achieved a lot of winnings as novices and the step-up to champion was big after the three-year novice rule back them. But we were able to hold our own with the big boys! The best achievements in our hobby are winning best in show at the Irish Native Bird Breeders Society in Dublin, and wining best in show at the Cork Show Bird Society at Cork City Hall. This show, then and now, is the best CBS show in Ireland.

We have won five best in shows, three second best in shows, 10 best mule hybrids in show, three best native and hundreds of other special awards.

Do you recall Tom Jnr’s time as a novice judge?

TES: SINBBS encouraged Tom Jnr to be a novice judge, which he did with great pride, and used to travel to shows, meet judges and help with the paperwork. He’d set labels on the cages and double check with the show secretary, which is a very important role of a judge (he already had an eye for a bird). 

Tom Jnr did this for a few years, so often that we’d lose out on exhibiting at that show. Tom Jnr was a novice judge under the late Grosvenor Ridgway and Lynn Jones. He would always try to steward when Walter Jones, Noel O’Sullivan and John Hartnett judged at shows. He’d put himself forward when the UK judges came over.

Kilkenny CBS was Tom Jnr’s first senior judging engagement many years ago and with a bit of advice and encouragement from Tom’s great friend Willie Walsh, he hasn’t looked back. Willie was always on the end of the phone for help. I remember travelling to all of Tom Jnr’s shows with my best friend Eugene Molloy and we’d make a weekend of it.

We love visiting the UK and have made great friends over the years.

What one thing would you like to achieve in birdkeeping that you haven’t already?

TES: Of all our years of exhibiting and winning with our strong team of birds, our own club show (SINBBS) is the one show we haven’t won best in show at. The standard of birds on the bench at this show is insane. We believe they receive the best birds in the country, which is why it’s so hard to win (maybe this year!)

What changes to the hobby would best guarantee its future?

TES: There are not enough novices getting the exhibition side with natives. My two grandchildren (Tom Jnr’s kids) show as juniors at the CBS shows. It’s a day out for all of us on a Sunday morning and we head down the junior side of the hall to look for any rosettes on their cages. We need to try to encourage more boys and girls to get into this famous hobby, a hobby for which I have made fantastic memories and great friends for life.

Any final words before we end this phone call?

TES: Over the years, Tom Jnr has judged so many specialist shows in both Ireland and the UK. He takes great pride in representing the city while he is away. I often laugh when I think of him travelling to a show, whether it be in the UK or Ireland, that Tom Jnr never has a pint the night before a show! He says he wants to have a clear head when judging the birds on the Saturday,but he makes up for it on the Saturday night!

I often think how lucky I was to grow up with my son and share the same interests and hobbies. I’ve shared my highs and lows in the keeping of birds. I’ve made so many friends while travelling with Tom Jnr. I do miss the bird shows and my old buddies that I looked forward to seeing every year, but the pandemic has knocked it on the head. 

I have loved doing this article for C&AB with Tom Jnr over the phone. It’s a pity we couldn’t do it over a cuppa in his bird shed. 

I hope readers enjoyed this trip down memory lane from a very proud Cork man! Be safe and hope to meet all my friends at the next bird show.