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.

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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

Hares in Abundance

exhibition poster

“And now, Sir Hare, good-day to you. God guide you to a how-d’ye-do with me…” (from the Middle English poem – Names of the Hare – translation by Seamus Heaney)

You may know that I am a Hare fanatic. Every day as I travel along through West Cork – driving, cycling or walking – I am scouring the fields and hedgerows in the hope of seeing one of these shy and elusive animals: very occasionally my watchfulness is rewarded. Last year I kept a Hare Diary… on the last day of December I counted up: I had seen only six, and two of these were in other parts of Ireland. Yet, when I first visited Ballybane West – just over the hill from here – back in the early 1990s I saw them on most days; one early morning then I looked out of the window and there was a whole luck of Hares running around the field beyond the house – at least ten of them.

felt hares

A luck of Hares by Christina Jasmin Roser, feltmaker

Where have all the Hares gone? I can’t answer that, but I can tell you that there are a whole lot of Hares in the Heron Gallery, Ahakista at the moment: Annabel Langrish and her husband, Klaus have mounted an excellent exhibition of art and craft works based around images of the Hare.

The exhibition brings together the work of several artists from the West of Ireland: paintings, drawings, feltwork, fabrics, papier mache, jewellery and ceramics. The whole makes a really attractive assemblage, but any one of the works on display – all of which are for sale – would be an elegant addition to your own art collection! I would readily bring them all here to Nead an Iolair but – as we already have numerous images of Hares around the house – Finola has put an embargo on further Hare imports (just for the moment).

Robert talking

Yours Truly was asked to say a few words about Hares at the exhibition opening: a wonderful portait of William the Hare by Sylvia Parkinson looks on

All the works in the Heron Gallery show bring out the magical qualities of this special animal. Mostly it is Lepus Timidus Hibernicus which is depicted: the Irish Hare. This belongs to the Mountain Hare species, related to Arctic Hares. Irish Hares don’t turn white in the winter but they do moult to a paler colour, and sometimes they have white patches then. There are also Brown Hares in Ireland: these were imported from Britain to add to the game stock on landlord estates from medieval times onwards.

Three ceramic Hares by Annabel Langrish, from the exhibition

Although the Irish Hare has been ‘legally protected’ since 1930 – and is listed as a protected species under EU legislation – it can be hunted under license, and Hare coursing is still permitted. This seems anomalous to me: those who support Hare coursing claim that the animals do not suffer. They are captured from the wild, caged (usually for several weeks), and released onto a course where they are chased by muzzled Greyhounds. After this they are put back into the wild. As their name would suggest (Lepidus Timidus), Hares are nervous animals and there can be little doubt that they do suffer stress through the ordeal. Many die before being released. Coursing has been banned in the UK since 2005. There have been moves to have Hares fully protected in Ireland.

The Hare’s Revenge: Dean Wolstenholme’s painting of Greyhounds coursing a Hare (right), while in the medieval woodcut (left) a Hare plays a tabor. The tabor is the forerunner of the Irish bodhran: I am reliably informed that the best skin to use for a bodhran is that of the Greyhound!

bugs_bunny_by_nightwing1975The Hare is a most ancient animal. Fossils have been found dating from Pleistocene times showing that the Hare has not changed or developed in three million years: presumably it is just so perfectly integrated to its environment. It also occupies a prime place in our own mythology. Hare is the archetypal Trickster figure in many cultures – helping to create the world, to bring fire to humans, generally being mischevious and getting into hopeless scrapes, but always coming out on top: just like Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny in fact – who is, of course, a Hare! Bugs (my favourite cartoon character) is loosely based on the Br’er Rabbit stories by ‘Uncle Remus’ – collected in the 1870s by Joel Chandler Harris from the oral tradition of the plantation slaves in the Southern United States. Br’er Rabbit (in America Hares are known as Jackrabbits) has his origin as a Trickster figure in African folk tradition.

I have gleaned most of my Hare lore from this much thumbed edition of The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson – published by Faber – which I acquired when it first came out in 1972. If you have an evening or three to spare I will happily regale you with tales of Hares gathered from far and wide and recorded in these pages.

pendants

Jewellery by Alison Ibbs

When I lived in Devon, on Dartmoor, I was fortunate to have around me many examples of a symbol known as The Tinners’ Rabbits. Chagford was a Stannary Town – a place where refined tin was assessed, coined, and sold and there was a story that the symbol was a badge of the tin miners. It depicts three Hares (not Rabbits) in a circle: each Hare has two ears, yet there are only three ears in total. A bit of a riddle, perhaps – but one which has been found all over the world, as a project carried out by Chris Chapman reveals. In Chagford’s medieval church (and in several others in Devon and elsewhere) there is a roof boss carved with the image.

There doesn’t seem to be any real evidence to connect the Tinners’ Rabbits symbol to the tin miners – however, there is a surviving superstition in Cornwall and in Ireland that if you meet a Hare while on your way to the mine (or, in some places, when you are going fishing) you turn around and go home!

Some of Annabel’s Hares in the exhibition (left) and (right) our own view of the Hare in the Moon seen from Nead an Iolair last week

Part of the universal folklore of Hares reminds us that it’s the Hare in the Moon we are seeing above us, not the Man in the Moon. And… I know you thought it was an Easter Bunny that brings the chocolate eggs – in fact it’s the Easter Hare! The Saxon spring festival of Ēostre celebrated a hero-Goddess who had a Hare as a companion… Well, that’s one of the many interpretations you will find of this moon-based festival.

Hare eggs and Hare ceramic by Etain Hickey

It’s not Easter now – it’s July – but you can go and see this exhibition on the Sheep’s Head for the rest of this month, and enjoy the beautiful gardens there as well. If, like me, you are a Hare fan, then don’t miss it!

Looking on

Irish Farming – 6,000 Years Ago

The Céide Fields Visitor Centre

The Céide Fields Visitor Centre





How did we farm in Ireland in Neolithic times? Turns out, much as we do now!

We’re just back from an inspiring trip to Mayo, the highlight of which was a visit to the largest Neolithic site in the world – the Céide Fields (pronounced Kay-jeh, for our non-Irish readers).

Collapsed field walls under the bog. The white stakes mark the line of the uncovered wall

Collapsed field walls under the bog. The white stakes mark the line of the uncovered wall

When we think of the Neolithic (or New Stone Age, or Early Farming) period in Ireland, we automatically think of the megalithic tombs – spectacular sites like Newgrange and Loughcrew, or the smaller portal tombs, like Poulnabrone or Arderrawinny. But how did these people make their living? What were their daily lives like? We found the answers, going back almost 6,000 years, at the Céide Fields.

The extent of the fields around the Visitor Centre

The extent of the fields around the Visitor Centre

The Céide Fields is an extensive system of enclosures, stretching for kilometres from the sea over the hills, used for livestock farming. Occasionally, besides grazing fields, there is evidence for corrals, grain-growing, and farmhouses. In fact, much like we see around us in West Cork nowadays, people lived in their own farmhouses, surrounded by their fields, within sight of their neighbours.

This enclosure surrounded a farmhouse

This enclosure surrounded a farmhouse

Society was cooperative – it had to be, in order for such an enormous network of fields to be constructed. And life was peaceful: there is no evidence of defensive structures. The weather was warmer than now – warm enough so cattle could graze outside all winter – and there was enough land and food for everyone.

They quarried rocks for fences and for structure like court tombs

They quarried rocks for fences and for structure like court tombs

They had a spiritual life, building their own version of megaliths – the Court Tombs. We were fortunate to meet the manager of the Céide Fields site, Gretta Byrne, who gave us directions to Rathlackan Court Tomb – a site she had excavated. Court tombs are a type of chambered tomb, generally oriented towards the east and featuring a forecourt at the front of a long mound that covered the chambers. Rathlackan is a fine example, with three chambers and a nicely preserved forecourt. It took a highly organised society to build a complex structure such as this.

In the 1930s a local schoolteacher, Patrick Caulfield, first discovered what were clearly pre-bog collapsed walls when cutting peat in the deep blanket bog that covers this part of Mayo. Decades later his son, Seamus, now an archaeologist, headed the investigations that led to the realisation of how extensive the field system was. Mostly this was done by probing – sending a thin metal bar down through the soft peat until it hit a rock. This technique was so successful that miles of walls could be charted without the need to excavate. Excavation focussed on uncovering small sections of wall and features like enclosures and house-sites.

I take a hand at probing

I take a hand at probing

About 5,200 years ago, a combination of climate change and forest clearance led to the development of the blanket bog that covers the land today and ultimately forced these Neolithic people, after 500 years of successful farming, to abandon their fields. The ecology of bogland and the conditions that create it are the subject of some of the museum exhibits and also of the excellent guided tour that covered two hectares behind the Visitor Centre.

A section of wall disappears under the bog

A section of wall disappears under the bog

If you find yourself in this part of Ireland, do plan a visit to the Céide Fields. Take some bug spray – although they weren’t in evidence when we were there, the Céide midges have a reputation for ferocity. Enjoy the display in the award-winning Visitor Centre first and fortify yourself with a coffee and cake.

This pine came from the bog

This pine came from the bog

Once outside, as you walk along beside the ancient stone walls, look across the valley towards Downpatrick, and marvel at the continuity of a way of life – small cattle farms among stone-walled fields – that began almost 6,000 years ago.

This scene, in Galway, could have happened 6,000 years ago in North Mayo

This scene, in Galway, could have happened 6,000 years ago in North Mayo

We’ll let Seamus Heaney have the last word. His poem, Belderg, was inspired by the Céide Fields:

When he stripped off blanket bog

The soft-piled centuries

Fell open like a glib;

There were the first plough-marks,

The stone-age fields, the tomb

Corbelled, turfed and chambered,

Floored with dry turf-coomb.

A landscape fossilized,

Its stone wall patternings

Repeated before our eyes

In the stone walls of Mayo.

Looking towards Downpatrick Head from the Visitor Centre

Looking towards Downpatrick Head from the Visitor Centre

The Irish Elk

Megaloceros seen in Cahir Castle

Megaloceros seen in Cahir Castle

Have you seen an Irish Elk?

It’s not something I’ve bumped into…

You’d know it if you had! Megaloceros Giganticus stood over two metres high at the shoulders and had antlers up to four metres wide. It was the largest Deer that ever roamed the Earth.

And it was Irish?

It actually lived all over Europe – and in Russia and China. But the best fossilised examples have been found in Ireland, preserved in the peat bogs.

Giant Elk

Have you seen an Irish Elk?

I certainly have: there are some whole skeletons in the wonderful Natural History Museum in Dublin, but their antlers hang in many a hall – by which I mean a ‘Baronial’ hall or castle. They seem to have been popular trophies to have mounted on the wall along with all the Foxes and Salmons that didn’t get away… And these ‘trophies’ became sought after in the boom years: Christie’s sold a pair of antlers for £52,850 in 2001, and another pair from Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, sold for £77,353 in 2005.

largeelk

Dublin’s Natural History Museum

Trinity's pair of irish Elks - female and male

Trinity’s pair of Irish Elks – female and male

But trophies means that someone would have hunted them. Surely they were never around at the same time as people?

It’s a good chance they were. The latest dating of Megaloceros is around 5,000 BC, although others assert that they died out several Millennia before that. The first humans are supposed to have settled in Ireland around 8,000 BC – the Mesolithic period.

Lascaux Cave Painting - estimated to be 17,300 years old

Lascaux Cave Painting – estimated to be 17,300 years old

And why did they die out?

There are a few theories: being hunted – not being able to adapt to changing climates and environments – or simply that their antlers were too big…

I like that theory…

Yes. We saw this one at Ballymaloe – but it wasn’t on the menu!

Ballymaloe Trophy

Ballymaloe Trophy

Such a shame that it doesn’t still exist.

True… although it might be a bit scary if you met it on the slopes of Mount Gabriel!

Along with Ireland’s last Wolf?

Exactly.

Closest relation: Canadian Bull Moose (Robert Bateman)

Closest relation alive today: Canadian Bull Moose (Robert Bateman)

But you know…

Yes?

I read that some scientists believe that if they found a good enough specimen – preserved in the permafrost perhaps – they could extract enough DNA to re-establish the species through cloning. And others, too: Mammoths maybe, and Sabre-Toothed Tigers.

So, one day, our view from Nead an Iolair could be enhanced by a herd of grazing Giant Elks.

Now, there’s a thought…

I’ll give the last word to Seamus Heaney – who found inspiration in Megaloceros:

We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening–

Everywhere the eye concedes to

Encrouching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye

Of a tarn. Our unfenced country

Is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.

They’ve taken the skeleton

Of the Great Irish Elk

Out of the peat, set it up

An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,

Missing its last definition

By millions of years.

They’ll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks

Of great firs, soft as pulp.

Our pioneers keep striking

Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.

The wet centre is bottomless.

(Bogland, Seamus Heaney 1969)

meg stamp

Troll Tuning

Baltimore - with Dún na Séad before restoration - painted by Val Byrne

Baltimore – with Dún na Séad before restoration – painted by Val Byrne

It’s May, and time for the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, still in progress as I write this, and keeping us up well into the nights with world class concerts: music from so many cultures that involves the ubiquitous violin. My post today has been sparked off by the opening event held in the restored Dún na Séad – the name means fort of the jewels, which may be a reference to the building’s role in the collection of taxes levied on foreign vessels entering the harbour. The Anglo-Norman castle was built in the early 13th century, was besieged and sacked many times, became a garrison for Oliver Cromwell in 1649 and fell into ruin until it was rescued and underwent a superb full restoration only completed in 2005. Friday’s candlelit opening concert featured a fiddle master from the Shetlands, Aly Bain, and his long term musical collaborator Ale Möller, a multi instrumentalist from Sweden. 

One piece in their programme immediately caught my attention: Hjaltadans – literally translated as ‘lame’ or ‘limping’ dance. It’s also the name of a Bronze Age stone circle near Houbie in the Shetlands. It’s said that the two central stones of that circle are a fiddler and his wife who were entertaining a group of Trowies (trolls) and were interrupted in their music making by the rising sun which turned them all to stone. Trolls are undoubtedly related to The Other Crowd in Ireland, and also inhabit the shadows in Scandinavia.

Here is an extract from the latest album from Bain, Möller and Molsky – Troll Tuning: King Karl’s March

 

The Shetland troll dance was followed by a Swedish ‘Troll Tuning Set’. Aly and Ale explained that Troll Tuning is a particular way of setting up a fiddle where the strings are tuned AEAC♯, rather than the more usual GDAE. This tuning is sometimes used in Scandinavia, Shetland and in American old-time music (this probably because there were so many settlers from Sweden in North America). The tuning produces very distinctive, haunting music: ‘…Once you’ve heard a trowie tune you can never forget it…’ Even more interesting is the legend that playing such tunes connects the musicians with magical powers.

The Devil's Music: Hardanger Fiddle

The Devil’s Music: Hardanger Fiddle

All this reminded me of traditional stories involving musicians and characters from the Otherworlds: they are pretty universal over many cultures. I also thought about a particular type of fiddle from Norway (regularly seen and heard at the Fiddle Fair) which has ‘magical’ associations: the Hardanger Fiddle or Hardingfele in Norwegian. This traditional instrument is usually magnificently carved and inlaid, and has understrings which are not actually bowed, but are tuned to vibrate when other notes are sounded. The tone and ambience of the instrument is unique and compelling: it is easy to imagine the Trowies or Sióg (pronouced Sheeogue: Irish Fairies) requiring such striking sounds for their festivities. But some have thought the Hardingfele has diabolic connections, and in fact many good players were reputed to have been taught to play by the Devil himself. During the 1800s many fiddles were destroyed or hidden both by fiddlers and laypeople who thought ‘…that it would be best for the soul that the fiddle be burned…’ as it was viewed as ‘… a sinful instrument that encouraged wild dances, drinking and fighting…’

In Ireland, boys were sometimes dressed as girls to stop the Sheehogue from stealing them away

In rural Ireland, boys were sometimes dressed as girls so the Sióg would not steal them away

At this time of the year it’s not just the instruments and the music we have to be wary of: throughout the month of May the Sióg are active. Yeats tells how an old man saw them fight once: ‘…they tore the thatch off a house in the midst of it all. Had anyone else been near they would merely have seen a great wind whirling everything into the air as it passed. When the wind makes the straws and leaves whirl, that is the Fairies, and the peasantry take off their hats and say, God bless them…’

The wind is certainly whirling and tearing at the trees outside as I write this: May has seen the return of strong gales – the trees are bending again and Roaringwater Bay is alive with white breakers. Looking out to the islands I bring to mind a tune from the Blaskets, over on the coast of Kerry. Port na pBucai (Music of the Fairies) is a haunted song if ever there was one. It’s said that the islanders were out fishing in their currachs when a storm broke out. It turned into a gale and they feared for their lives as the canvas hulled craft became swamped. Then, the wind suddenly died and they became aware of music playing somewhere around them – an unearthly music. The island fiddler was amongst the crew; when they got safely back to land he found he could remember the tune they had heard. It has passed into the traditional repertoire and has been played ever since.

My own rendition of Port na bPucai on the concertina –

 

To close, a verse by Seamus Heaney which was inspired by this story of the Fairy music:

The Given Note

On the most westerly Blasket
In a dry-stone hut
He got this air out of the night.

Strange noises were heard
By others who followed, bits of a tune
Coming in on loud weather

Though nothing like melody.
He blamed their fingers and ear
As unpractised, their fiddling easy

For he had gone alone into the island
And brought back the whole thing.
The house throbbed like his full violin. 

So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don’t care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic. 

Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely,
Rephrases itself into the air.

Blaskets