Nest of the Eagle

eagles over nead

Nead an Iolair – that is the house we live in, here in the townland of Cappaghglass, West Cork. That’s it, in the picture above, with a pair of eagles flying overhead… We don’t see them very often. Well, in truth, we haven’t seen them at all – this is a bit of photographic magic – and wishful thinking. Nead an Iolair – our Irish readers will know that this means Nest of the Eagles – is a perfect name for the site, suspended way up above Rossbrin Cove – a good lookout with higher ground behind: exactly the right environment for the big birds. There were undoubtedly eagles here once – and in various other parts of Ireland – but when and how many? As with most things nowadays, someone has carried out the research and there’s a study available online. It’s worth a read, but I can summarise the main points: analysis of place-names and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years enabled the following diagrams to be drawn up:

eagles data

Data from The history of eagles in Britain and Ireland: an ecological review of placename and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years – Evans, O’Toole and Whitfield, RSPB Scotland 2012. Diagram (a) is 500AD and diagram (b) is 1800AD. The dots show Golden Eagle locations in dark grey, White-tailed Eagle locations in light grey and overlapping of both species in black

The diagram shows that White-tailed Eagles have lived here on the Mizen Peninsula 1500 years ago, and both species have been located a little further up the west coast as recently as 200 years ago. In 2001 fifty young golden eagles were released in Glenveagh National Park, Donegal, in an attempt to reintroduce the bird to Ireland. In a similar project to reintroduce white-tailed eagles,  one hundred of the birds were brought from Norway to the Killarney National Park between 2007 and 2011, and up to September 2016 thirteen chicks have survived. The aim is to get at least ten chicks flying from their nests each year. Six white-tailed eagle chicks have flown from their nests in Ireland in 2016, making it the most successful year yet; one of these chicks was born near Glengariff, which is only just over the hill from us in terms of an eagle’s range. So we remain ever hopeful that the white-tailed eagles (sometimes known as white-tailed sea eagles) will soon make their way down here to Nead an Iolair – attracted, perhaps, by the name. We’d be very pleased to see them circling overhead – they are the largest birds on Ireland’s shores. Already our bird feeders attract avians of all shapes and sizes, and they generally get along fine with each other, although the smaller birds do make themselves scarce when Spioróg turns up!

White-tailed sea eagle

A superb photograph of Haliaeetus albicilla – the white-tailed eagle or white-tailed sea-eagle, by Yathin S Krishnappa (via Wikipedia Commons). This was taken in Svolvaer, Norway – geographical source of the birds that were reintroduced into Killarney National Park within the last decade

Whenever we are on our travels we look out for the word Iolair (eagle) in place-names. We found one in Duhallow, a Barony in Cork County, just north of the wonderfully named Boggeragh Mountains. In fact we were alerted by signposts directing us to Nad or Nadd (nest) and found ourselves in a tiny settlement which was determined to point out its links with the eagles.

nad road sign

eagle on post 2

large eagle's nest sign

The village of Nead an Iolair in Duhallow, North Cork makes its associations with eagles very clear. The pub is named The Eagle’s Nest, and there is a fine sculpture of the bird sitting Nelson-like on a column beside it

Besides these features the village has a poignant memorial dating from the struggle for independence: a reminder of harsh realities still within living memory. The words that stand out are May God Free Ireland.

Back to the eagles and – in an interesting diversion into semantics – we noticed that the name over the door of the pub is in old Irish script and has introduced an additional character to the word Iolair – it looks like an ‘f’. Finola tells me that the use of the accent over that ‘f’ – which is known as a búilte – serves to silence the letter. In modern script it would be converted to ‘fh’: so fhiolair would still be pronounced ‘uller’. But we can’t find any precedent for using the word in this form. Perhaps an expert in Irish language can help us here…?

nead an fiolair

Regular readers will be aware that I am always on the lookout for links between Cornwall and the West of Ireland (and there are many). Interestingly, Nead an Iolair is one of them. Just outside St Ives, on the north coast of Cornwall, is a superb house, also called Eagle’s Nest. It was the family home of Patrick Heron, one of the influential St Ives School artists. When I lived in Cornwall I frequently passed by the house and was always impressed with its location – like us now, it is high up above the coast with a commanding view over the myriad small fields and out to the ocean. I always thought I would like to live there, because of that view… Now I have my own Eagle’s Nest – and I couldn’t be more content.

eagles Nest cornwall

Looking across the Cornish moorlands near Zennor, towards Eagle’s Nest – photographed by the artist Patrick Heron, whose home this was

The Seven Whistlers

curlew title

While researching for this post I picked up the excellent book by Niall Mac Coitir, Ireland’s Birds – Myths, Legends and Folklore and got diverted by a section on Eagles: why wouldn’t I, as we live up here in Nead an Iolair, Eagle’s Nest? I was delighted to discover from this book that Adam and Eve are reincarnated as Eagles and live on the island of Inishbofin, at the mouth of Killary Harbour in Galway. This adds to the list of important people of the world who have ended up in Ireland, including St Valentine in Dublin and Santa Claus (St Nicholas) who rests in Jerpoint Abbey. I’m hoping to discover many more…

My real subject today is the Curlew: we have seen a few of them lately below us in Rossbrin Cove. They are winter visitors from Scandinavia. There is a small breeding population in Ireland, mainly centred in Galway and Mayo, but this has declined catastrophically in recent times, and the bird is now red-listed as a globally threatened species, according to Birdwatch Ireland. Every Curlew sighting, therefore, is an important one.

In Irish bird folklore, the Curlew does not come over in a good light. It has a very distinctive and haunting call, and this has probably contributed to associations with the Otherworld.

Mac Coitor says: …The Curlew was famous for its whistling and screeching calls, which were believed to foretell the arrival of rain or stormy weather… while Scottish poet Norman Alexander MacCaig (1910 – 1996) describes the Curlew’s voice:

Trailing bubbles of music over the squelchy hillside… music as desolate, as beautiful as your loved places, mountainy marshes and glistening mudflats by the stealthy sea…

Curlews fly at dusk, sometimes in groups: this has given rise to accounts of The Seven Whistlers in both Britain and Ireland. One of the earliest collectors of folkore in these islands, Jabez Allies (1787 – 1856), wrote:

…I have been informed that the country people used to talk a good deal about the ‘Seven Whistlers’ and the late John Pressdee, who lived at Cuckold’s Knoll, in Suckley, said that oftentimes, at night, when he happened to be upon the hill by his house, heard six out of the ‘Seven Whistlers’ pass over his head, but that no more than six of them were ever heard by him, or by any one else to whistle at one time, and that should the seven whistle together the world would be at an end…

Another account, from William Henderson, Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders:

‘I heard ’em one dark night last winter,’ said an old Folkestone fisherman. ‘They come over our heads all of a sudden, singing “ewe, ewe,” and the men in the boat wanted to go back. It came on to rain and blow soon afterwards, and was an awful night, Sir; and sure enough before morning a boat was upset, and seven poor fellows drowned. I know what makes the noise, Sir; it’s them long-billed curlews, but I never likes to hear them.’

It’s that long, curved bill that makes the Curlew so distinct a figure down on the mud flats at low tide. The slim, pliable beak is used to probe in mud and shallow water for worms, crustaceans, and insects, and for exploring stones and shells. In flight the bird has a wonderful aerodynamism and reminds me of that beautiful aircraft – now extinct – Concorde. In my younger days, growing up in Hampshire, I watched the test flights of that plane at Farnborough, and always admired its drooping ‘Curlew’ nose.


Irish poetry has been enriched by images of the Curlew. Seamus Heaney’s From the Republic of Conscience:

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared…

We can’t leave out W B Yeats – He reproves the Curlew:

O, CURLEW, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
Passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind.

Four of Yeats’ poems, including Curlew, were set to music by the eccentric English composer Philip Heseltine, who took the name Peter Warlock. The Curlew is a chamber song-cycle setting written for tenor voice, flute, cor anglais and string quartet. Heseltine spent some time in Ireland, including a period on a ‘Gaeltacht island’ (perhaps Cape Clear?) where he sought to learn the Irish language.

Heseltine / Warlock’s The Curlew brings us full circle, as the composer also spent time in Cornwall under the shadow of another Eagle’s Nest – near St Ives – in an area frequented by artists, writers and mystics including D H Lawrence, Aleister Crowley, Virginia Woolf and Patrick Heron. From Eagle’s Nest in West Cork to Eagle’s Nest in West Cornwall… The Curlew is a much-travelled bird… Be careful of the Seven Whistlers!

view from Eagle's Nest

Curlews be here… view of Rossbrin Cove from Eagle’s Nest, West Cork