Winged Messengers

In the morning I’ve taken to lying in the dark for a while before I get up. I listen to the birds outside and try to decipher what they have to tell me about the day ahead. “Stay in bed, it’s freezing out here,” is what I’ve been hearing a lot of lately. I’m using the birds as an excuse to be lazy – have you ever heard the like of it? Come to think of it, I have. There is a poem, written in the Irish language, by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna called, ‘An Bonnán Buí’ – The Yellow Bittern – an extremely rare, secretive, well-camouflaged member of the heron family. Written in the form of a lament, the poet is saddened for the bird having died of thirst because the land was frozen. But then Mac Giolla Ghunna quickly uses the bird’s demise as a tongue in cheek defence of his own drinking habit. (If you want to see a sign, you’ll always see a sign!) It’s a very old poem. The bittern hasn’t bred in Ireland since 1840, and its composition pre-dates that. Here are the first two verses of the five-verse poem. This version, a translation by Seamus Heaney, gives a bit of insight to the story

Yellow bittern, there you are now,

Skin and bone on the frozen shore.

It wasn’t hunger but thirst for a mouthful

That left you foundered and me heartsore.

What odds is it now about Troy’s destruction

With you on the flagstones upside down,

Who never injured or hurt a creature

And preferred bog water to any wine?

Bittern, bittern, your end was awful,

Your perished skull there on the road,

You that would call me every morning

With your gargler’s song as you guzzled mud.

And that’s what’s ahead of your brother Cathal

(You know what they say about me and the stuff)

But they’ve got it wrong and the truth is simple:

A drop would have saved that croaker’s life.”

(Excerpt: ‘An Bonnán Buí’, by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. Translation, ‘The Yellow Bittern’, by Seamus Heaney.)

I love the very personal nature of his lament. The shy bird is his friend and confidant; his own self, really. I think he knows if he keeps on down the guzzling road, he’ll end up like the bird. “Go tell it to the birds,” you might be told if someone thinks what you have to say is not credible, a lie. You could do worse than to tell the birds a few things, or to listen to what they have to tell you. For the last few days I’ve spent some time sitting at the back of the house looking out into the garden, watching the birds, decoding their messages. There is a big, fat, lolloping thrush, she bounces about ponderously (if birds can ponder?), methodically poking at roots, no rush. Her message: “sure it’s all grand!” Sometimes when I see the thrush, the wren isn’t far behind, frenetically flitting, a little dart of intention and with a totally different message, a nervous one: “don’t catch anyone’s eye, stay low, stay out of it.” Then there is the swaggering robin, looking as full and red-breasted as Simon Callow’s cummerbund, boastful even, standing on the handle of the spade, surely saying: “make way, make way… it’s my garden, clearly I’m their favourite.” The pair of blackbirds don’t seem to have much of a strategy at all; bobbing around in circles, in and out of the hedge, a she and a jet-black he, getting a bit testy with the thrush, “dozy freckle-front” they call it, rude! The blue tits are the workers: industrious, systematic, focussed, with a cry of: “is anyone else doing any work around here this day?” At the top of a naked, spindly plum tree an elegant collared dove surveys it all, a little haughtily, pretending not to, “I’m not even getting involved.” Quite what all that boils down to, I don’t know, but at least they haven’t told me to go and pour myself a whiskey.

Whist drinkers, like Mac Giolla Ghunna, have seen no downturn in numbers in Ireland in recent years, the bittern remains a winged ghost from the past. In the twentieth century there were only 19 or 20 occurrences of it in the North of Ireland, and even then, they were probably just passing through. Listen out, though, if ever you are near marshes, wetlands, or reed beds, for you never know. Listen for their ‘booming’ call, said to be like a distant foghorn or the lowing of cattle. Now wouldn’t that be quite a thing to hear, I would love to interpret that one!

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