herald

Wednesday 16 January 2019

combat

This is a time of the year for departure. The swallows go away and small boys and small girls, not to mention big boys and big girls, finish their holidays and go back to school.

The swallows have been here since April and then they go back, we are told, to south-west Africa. Whether they are natives of Africa or of Ireland you cannot say because many of them are born here. Why they come from south-west Africa is not clear. They are not following the heat. It is said they are following the light.

How they come we are not sure. They hardly fly direct. They rest on trees and they stow away on ships. One thing is certain: when they arrive here, they are not tired. They are full of energy. When working in Knockaderry National School, a little distance south of Farranfore, I saw this for myself.

A pair of swallows used to arrive about noon. They didn't take a break. They set about refurbishing an old nest and building a new one. It was fascinating to watch them -- they worked very quickly and very hard.

There was a little river that ran by the school and it provided them with ideal building materials. From its banks they got wet mud. This was the foundation for a new nest. Then they got pieces of wood and moss and so on. And in about two hours a new nest was built. Then they went about their business catching insects and even butterflies.

When a butterfly went up too high he was exposing himself and you could see a fascinating aerial combat between the butterfly and the swallow. The swallow usually won.

They were also a guide to the weather: when they flew high, you would have good weather but when they skimmed the ground, rain was coming. In the old days there were two resident swallows in Croke Park. Sadly they are there no more. Perhaps the rebuilding of the stadium has frightened them away.

This is a good time of the year for the turkeys. The blackberries are ripe. They begin with the berries that are low down. When they have those all eaten, they start flying for the berries that are high up.

We had a terrier of dubious ancestry: he took his share of the berries that were low down but he came into his own with jumping for the high berries. He was competing with birds that were well able to fly. He had no wings but he succeeded now and then. Whenever he brought down a big berry he brought it to me for approval. He had earned it and I gave him a few pats on the back and away he leaped again.

By now you will have gathered that he was a strange kind of dog. Somebody in an inspired moment had christened him Joker: the name stuck to him and he stuck to his name.

Joker occasionally went away for a while such as his time with the turkeys. Birds do not usually like dogs but they welcomed him because he kept the fox away.

Sometimes he took a position guarding the front door. Not everybody could even knock at it. He distrusted all men who were well dressed, such as those from the ESB, the Gas Company and insurance men. He was a gentle dog and he did not bite them, but he made it quite clear that they should go away. Whenever a beggar man came or a member of the Travelling community, he would escort them around to the back door.

Sometimes you will see swallows remaining behind after the main body has gone away. Gilbert White, the great naturalist, used to wonder why and he discovered that those birds had yet to deliver a clutch. When the young ones were well able to fly, they went off with their parents on what for them was to be a great adventure.

Poets and songwriters loved the swallows. They occur in several popular songs. The most famous is When The Swallows Come Back To Capistrano. And, of course, our popular poet Francis Ledwidge, from Co Meath, included them in a famous verse:

Soon the swallows will be flying South

And the winds wheel North to gather in the snow

Even the roses spilt on youths' red lips,

Must soon go down the road all roses go.

Going back to school can be worrying for the pupils and not least for the teachers. It is a traumatic time. Classes are being changed and new books must be studied and sometimes new subjects are introduced.

One time, when my father was with a flying column, Eamon de Valera came to supervise the blowing up of a bridge, which led from a village to a hillside rich in blackberries. The women of the village told him that he would blow up the bridge over their live bodies -- the bridge is still there.

Eamon used to claim that when he looked into his own heart he was able to understand the people of Ireland. On this occasion he didn't get it right.

The swallows still come and go for half a year and they brighten our lives.

Fogra: Congratulations go to the Republic of Ireland's team and to Giovanni for the heroic display in Moscow. Fogra eile: One newspaper headed their piece with the words The Iron Curtain. We associate The Iron Curtain with the Russians. It should have been The Eireann Curtain.

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