Countdown to War, July 29th 1914-2014

Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 015

Yesterday, a hundred years ago, the Great War began. Austria and Serbia began the process that dragged the world into war. The metaphor of the Matterhorn tragedy of 1865 has often been used to express what happened. Four climbers were plucked off the mountain when a rope connecting them to three others, broke. They were on their way down. It is often more difficult to get out of a situation than to get into it. The weight of the uppermost climber pulled the second one loose. Their combined weight peeled the third and then the fourth from the face of the crag. The ties that bound them together, were their undoing. The watchers below were helpless to do anything.  The tragedy became the subject of paintings and engravings. After all, the leader of the expedition was Edward Whymper, an artist in love with the Alps.

Professional historians say that the situation was much more complex than this metaphor. Of course it was, but Austria pulled in Germany while Serbia plucked the Russian Empire to its destruction, then France, Belgium, the British Empire and any innocent bystanders who happened to be watching. Portugal was wary of Germany in Africa, so they sent troops to Belgium. The French brought Indo-Chinese  and Senegalese to Europe. Australians and Dubliners went to Turkey. Keep an eye on the Japanese, not that they could pose any serious threat to The Great Powers. The Arabs are getting restless. A glorious opportunity for world strategists to display their skills. Spread out those maps. Send in the cavalry. Send an expedition to Mesopotamia. That should keep those blighters quiet for a century or two.  King Hammurabi of Mesopotamia, in Biblical times, made laws for the protection of widows and orphans. No need to worry about them. It will all be over by Christmas.


It’s a load of shit. Bird shit in fact. The first naval battle was off the South American coast, where Britain and Germany fought to secure the supplies of bird guano from Chile, to make high explosive, to fill the millions and millions of shells needed to dismember millions and millions of people and destroy the drainage of the rivers of Flanders. The shells are things of beauty, works of art. My father defused one of those small shells and brought it back from the war as a souvenir. He saw lads doing the same thing on ammunition dumps and blowing themselves up in the process. There is an art to removing the detonator and the high explosive. Handle with extreme care. It is safe now. In his old age he gave it to me. Their manufacture ensured full employment and liberated women to take paid labour. What could be wrong with that? Famine, Plague, War and Death kicked their horses into a canter. Welcome to the Apocalypse. The troops marched to the front. The khaki-clad British, sensibly, took taxis. The brightly coloured French despised camouflage. They relied on élan. The Russians promptly got lost.  The Kaiser turned to his chemists to fabricate guano. While you’re at it, make me some poison gas.

There were other allegorical figures linked together on that slippery slide into catastrophe: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth. They all brought their talents to the conflict. You could mention also, Irony, Stupidity, astonishing Charity, Mercy, Generosity, Patriotism and Honour, Humour, Endurance and heart-breaking Courage. Poets idealised the shedding of blood. Artists tried to depict the grim reality. Musicians lifted the spirits. In La Grande Illusion a disillusioned soldier remarks that there would be no wars if there were no brass bands. We all love a brass band.…and we won’t be back till it’s over over there…That film was made by Renoir, son of Renoir the artist. There are many things to love about old Renoir. I particularly admire his remarks about the necessity of keeping the house safe for children: removing razor blades and anything that might injure them, poisonous fluids and chemicals etc.


However, it may be necessary in a war to kill children, along with their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents and neighbours, if strategy demands it. This is of course, regrettable and should be avoided if possible, by extensive leafleting in advance, as is done in the present conflict in Gaza. The fact that they have nowhere to run to is a sad irony of the situation. That gun is a thing of sinister beauty, a work of art and precision. It is sited at Sanctuary Wood. Who sought sanctuary there? Where do the children of Gaza seek sanctuary? In a playground? In a school? In a hospital? Not right now. Don’t you know there’s a war on? God fights on the side of the big battalions, with the big guns.


My brother, who knows a bit about museums, accompanied me to Flanders. He took issue with the way artefacts (objects made by art?) were displayed at the Ulster Tower museum. ‘These items should be displayed in atmosphere controlled environments’ he pointed out. ‘They will deteriorate over time.’  ‘Don’t worry,’ replied the official.’We can always go outside and dig up some more.’  That is the truth.


Plenty more where George Nugent came from. His name is attached to a cross.

When I was a child, my mother took me to the National Museum. I saw wonderful things. One thing that puzzled me was the inscription on the belt-buckle of an Irish Volunteer uniform: Gott Mit Uns. It wasn’t Irish. I asked her what it meant. ‘It’s German, ‘ she told me.‘God is with us. The Kaiser, out of the goodness of his heart, sent over some uniforms for the Irish Volunteers.’  What a kind man! I wonder how his chemists got on.



Kipling was a strong advocate of the war until the day an irate father challenged him at a recruiting rally. ‘Why don’t you send your own bloody son?’ he shouted. Kipling had done everything he could think of to keep his boy safe but he could no longer shield him. The boy was killed. Kipling learned a hard lesson. When my father died, or as an old soldier, faded away, at the age of 82, my little son wrote in Our News in school: ‘My Grandad died and we have his shell on the mantlepiece.’ It made for a very puzzled teacher. I tried to write about his experience, in my novel, Reprisal. Maybe I should have mentioned his shell. My father would have smiled at the little boy’s version. He would smile too at the sudden enthusiasm for The Great War in Ireland after a century of shamefaced denial.

The Great War was the war to end all war. That’s day one over anyway.

Eyeless in Gaza

Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 013

John Foster Dulles gave us the concept of brinkmanship: ‘The ability to get to the brink without getting into the war, is the necessary art.’ I recall a critical cartoon of Dulles as a blind man groping his way to the edge of an abyss. It was captioned Eyeless in Gaza. That was during the Suez invasion of 1956. It was Milton’s phrase for Samson…’eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.’ Samson brought the roof down on the Philistines and incidentally on himself. The devotees of God/Jehovah/Allah/Ra/Ammon/Baal/Moloch/and many more, have been particularly busy in the Middle East, for the last 5000 years or so. Milton singled out Moloch for special mention…’Moloch, horrid king, besmeared with blood of human sacrifice…’ The followers of Moloch gave their first-born children to the god, through fire. Has anything changed? Possibly, just for good measure, the children of others are offered also.

Moloch must be smiling. The shells rain down on the children of Gaza. The rockets of the weaker side, the Palestinians, (Philistines/Pelasgi, sea people) fuelled by hatred and despair, score infrequent hits on Israeli towns and psychological hits on Ben Gurion Airport. It is a recurring obscenity, without pity or magnanimity. Those who suffered the Holocaust, say ‘never again’. Their vision is one-sided. By ensuring their own security they store up years of future conflict for their children. Their great war hero, Dayan, wore a black eye patch. Arafat, it is said, kept one hundred young girls in readiness to act as suicide bombers…’my army of roses..’  This region is called The Holy Land, for God’s sake.

Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 014

On a beautiful sunny day I brought my four year old grandson to the playground. It was full of young parents and children, with a few grandparents, here and there. They have their uses. He lay on the wheel and travelled all around the world. The wheel is powered by parents and grandparents by turns. He went to The North Pole and America and Poland and Ireland and Australia, until, like Samson, I ran out of steam. There is a notion that playgrounds are places where children play and parents relax on the benches and smile benignly. It’s not so simple. The price of peace and harmony is eternal vigilance. The big children must not trample or push the smaller ones. The small ones must not climb beyond their ability or wander behind the swings. The adults are on their feet all the time. It is an exercise in tolerance and co-existence. You may not strike or abuse the parent or grandparent of some other child. There may be a need for negotiation and voluntary rules. The playground is no place for brinkmanship. {Dulles believed that as long as nuclear weapons remained in the hands of  ‘the good guys’, there would be world peace, under the threat of mutually assured annihilation.}

Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 004Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 003

We sat on the seat dedicated to Percy French, where he was inspired by the view, to write his famous song, The Mountains of Mourne. There was a fog so we had to be contented with singing a few  bars about the invisible mountains. It is a song of an exile longing for home. We went to watch the swimmers. We met a man whose four-year-old grandson is coming home from Australia. He is very happy about that. We had ice cream (obligatory) from the little shop on the harbour.

Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 009Garden finished July 2014 etc Red Island playground, P French, 018

We climbed the steps to the lighthouse and saw thirty seven jellyfish and a floating crab. We went to see the memorial pole, dedicated to those lost at sea. Tragic deaths but accidental. The names are inscribed all around the pole, stories of long ago and not so long ago. He had to climb the pole. It’s a tradition. When he is big, he told me, he will climb to the top. If you reach the top, you can make a wish. What else could you wish for your children and grandchildren, but peace and safety? What can you see from up there, Alex?

kids july 066

It was a perfect morning.

When we came home the news was that Moloch was still smiling; the bombs were still falling on schools and hospitals and on children playing on the beach. The rockets were still flying. There is no vision beyond the next salvo. An eye for an eye, as the old adage has it, leaves everybody blind. What did Ariel Sharon see, as he lay all those years in a coma? What did Moise Dayan see with his dark eye? Is Yasser Arafat enjoying the fruits of his labours in Paradise, with all those virgins? God help the poor virgins and God pity the children.


Seafood, Saints, Sinners and Pyke.

Enniscorthy july 2014 crabs, cake, Wells House 040

Not a bad haul from a morning walk. The crab was a little bonus. The razor clam and sea urchin were empty, just decoration. Catching razors is a whole different kettle of fish, to mangle a phrase. Sea urchins were esteemed in Classical times, as a delicacy. Some people eat them raw.  Not me. Maybe I got that wrong. Maybe they were steamed. I apologised to the crab, but I took him all the same. At last I have found the place where the mussels are not covered in barnacles. There is a lot of work in removing barnacles. The cockles I took, to complete the song and because they squirted water at me. It is a sin to refuse the good things that nature provides.  I left 47,000,000 for you at the next low tide. It’s a rough estimate, give or take a bucketful. Skerries, I emphasise, is a Blue Flag beach.

I heard a man singing heresy once, long ago. She wheeled her wheelbarrow—From Wearmouth to Jarrow—Crying cockles and mussels—Alive, alive o——– Well, you know what happens to heretics.  Not a bad rhyme, all the same, although it would have been a hell of a push for Molly Malone, leaving her in no fit state for her other, more extra-curricular activities, if gossip is to be believed.  The Venerable Bede, Doctor of the Church, lived for much of his life in Jarrow. I’m sure he would have welcomed some fresh seafood to lighten the sparse monastic diet, whatever about Mollly’s other wares. But no. Molly was a Dubliner Isn’t there a statue of her in Dublin? If heresy were to take hold—and Heaven forfend—she would be trundling her little cart from Sandscale to Barrow, or anywhere else that happened to rhyme. The Venerable Bede himself, would denounce such heresy. He has been stuck in the mud at ‘Venerable’ for a thousand years. Isn’t it time he was upgraded to ‘Saint’?  His life’s course took him from Wearmouth as far as Jarrow where he completed his great work. Perhaps he has been venerated for too long. Give him the big prize.

Enniscorthy july 2014 crabs, cake, Wells House 039

I went another time, to catch crabs. I did reasonably well. I had intended to photograph all the crab ‘courses’ to complete a directory for those who come after me and be venerated for all time, like the good monk…..but it rained. I had started out in summer clothes but autumn took a little lash at my presumption. (Presumption is a sin)  I will attach my recipe as an appendix to the directory.

Nokia july 2014 097

When Doc in Cannery Row waded in the tidal pools of Monterey, he mused about life. Long before Cousteau, he made marine life fascinating. The ebb and flow of the tide never fail to throw up something interesting. A good friend goes to Joe May’s bar on the harbour, to conduct tidal studies. He is quite an expert. The storms have eroded the sand and marine clay undisturbed, possibly, since the Ice age. The pristine new pools are populated at low tide, by shrimp and little dabs. You can detect the fish only by the slight disturbance of the sand. Wonderful camouflage. Do you remember Professor Magnus Pyke on childrens’ television.?  He was an expert. He waved his arms extravagantly to make his point. He explained why beaches are perpetually replenished and how stones float ashore. I know this because we had a houseful of children and saw a lot of childrens’ television. I still hate Scooby Doo. The monster was always Mr. Dettweiler, the villainous campground manager, (insert name and occupation as desired) in a costume far too big for him. It was the same story every time. The kids insisted on watching it even though they despised it too. It postponed homework. It has taken forty years  to get that off my chest. I digress. Professor Magnus Pyke showed how stones are colonised by seaweed and how, with the rising tide, they are lifted and borne by the currents and waves, to a beach near you. I notice too that the mussel, a by-word and a bivalve for stability, the original stick-in-the mud, can levitate in the same way, with his cargo of fellow-travelling barnacles.

Nokia july 2014 102Nokia july 2014 100

Saint Patrick, lifted by missionary zeal, got around a lot more than Venerable Bede. He settled for a time on his island. The monastery did well until the Vikings arrived. The monks eventually moved ashore and probably enjoyed a better diet at Holmpatrick. (A little plug there for Fingal’s splendid market gardening industry.)

from field 019

We went on the Viking Splash with some children. The driver was very entertaining. As we came up from College Green into Nassau Street, he indicated the statue of Molly Malone, showing her wares to the public. He suggested discreetly, out of deference to young listeners, that she sold other commodities besides shellfish. ‘I can’t say what she sold but, that shop on your right might give yiz a clue.’  The shop sells high quality door furniture. The sign reads Knobs and Knockers. Work it out for yourself. Since Classical times, shellfish have been regarded as the food of Venus. Work that one out also.

An old Skerries man ventured as far as London on his holidays. He didn’t think much of it. He couldn’t understand the language at all, at all. ‘Frank,’ he said to the barman, on his return, ‘did you ever hear tell of venerable diseases?’  ‘Venerable what?’  ‘Diseases. Every time I went to wash me hands I saw these warnings about venerable diseases.’  Maybe Bede was wise to stay in his monastery.

On a lighter note, the mussels were delicious.

Hazards of Life, Jethro Tull and Mangling the Language.

2014 June garden train hattons wood 123

George Bernard Shaw  remarked that when any Englishman opens his mouth to speak, he makes another Englishman despise him.  This is by no means confined to Englishmen, but Shaw found our neighbours to be a rewarding field of study. There is a gentleman in an advertisement on Sky television who recommends Sky+ or Netflix for their vast store of videos: ‘orl your fyvourites, Gyme of Frowns’ and so on. I am so tickled by his accent that I forget to note which service he is advertising. Michael Caine retained his Cockney accent for most of his career, but in Zulu he spoke, to perfection, the jaw-clenching dialect of the English ruling class. No doubt he pulled on his trysers, not trousers, in the morning; not britches or pants or breeks or trews.  Zulu was set in the days when the British Empire contained South Africer, Indier, Canader. That was before the intrusive R invaded the language, before architects produced drawrings and George Bernard Shawr was the arbiter of correct speech—-and spelling. The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet  is a Western story involving members of’ ‘the lower orders.’  Shewing-up? As John Wayne would say,: ‘Talk American, God dammit.’

2014 June garden train hattons wood 106

When Oi were a lad, Oi picked potatoes (spuds, taties, tatties,praties,) in those fields, for Bernie Healy. (Earth apples the French call them.  That’s stretching it a bit.)  Another Bernard, Sir Bernard Miles, son of a farm labourer, knighted for outstanding services to the theatre, did a regular turn on the wireless, (radio) as an old Varmer Goiles type, philosophising, while leaning over the gate. He traded on the accepted belief that a Dorset, Devon, Zumerzet accent be funny. The West Country accent was later usurped by the Liverpudlian accent. All Scousers are assumed to be comedians. They go fishing with wehms, not wurrums, as we might, but it is all the same for the poor worm. They eat bzead.

Bernie Healy’s spuds were picked into four-stone wire baskets and then poured into hessian, hundredweight bags. These bags had to be loaded onto the trailer in the evening. A hundredweight (1cwt) is 112 lbs (112 pounds).  American weigh their boxers in pounds, very confusing. I weighed about eight stone (112 pounds, 1cwt). It was an uneven contest between me and the sack.  My brother maintains that he could identify a tractor by its accent: pom pom pom or vrumm vrumm vrumm, Fordson Major, Massey Ferguson, John Deere. The sound we dreaded most was the drap drap….drap …..drarararar of the tractor coming to life in the morning or after the lunch break. The tractor drew the potato digger, a series of whirling, pronged rotors that threw the spuds, still on the stalks, to either side. We then had to follow, shakin’ out to separate the stalks from the spuds. Back-breaking work.

Bernie laughed at how spoiled we were by all the modern luxury of tractors and diggers. ‘When I was a young lad picking spuds, we had to get down and grovel for them.’  Bernie was something of a gentleman farmer. He pronounced his Gs.  ‘What about the small ones?’ I asked. ‘Never mind the hazards,’ he replied. ‘Do you know what a hazard is?’  I thought I knew.  ‘The teacher asked me one time, Miss…..’  (I forget her name)  ‘She asked me: What does hazard mean, Bernie? I said: ‘Tis a little pratie, Miss.’   Try them steamed with a little mint and some butter and salt. Food of the gods. I smile to see the modern vegetable harvesters at work. They have conveyor belts and shelters for the operatives. I imagine that the workers recline on mattresses as they condescend to pick the occasional spud. (I invented the spud-digger mattress. Bernie wasn’t interested.) Sometimes I see  Eastern Europeans moving over the fields like a conquering army. A couple of hundredweight in either hand is no trouble to them.

After a day of dust and toil, gadflies (gad=spear) and stinging nettles, we might be lucky enough to be in time to watch  Alan Freeman in Six Five Special or Top of the Pops. Alan spoke  somewhat out of the side of his mouth. He was, of course, Australian with the twang of the Antipodes. ‘ Hi there, pop pickers,’  he used to say. He also said ‘Not arf!’  We were pop pickers and we were teenagers, a newly coined word. My mother occasionally referred to potatoes as pops. There was a shop near Mountjoy Square, called Tops in Pops. For many years it bore the legend on the window: now is the hour to get those balls of flour. This is the highest compliment that can be paid to a spud. Anyway, on Alan’s panel for rating records (Discs, disks, brand-new waxings, platters,) there was a pretty teenager, called, I think, Sharon. She usually gave a disk, five stars. ‘Oi‘d give it foive.’  Part of her attraction was her wonderful Varmer Goiles accent. There was a record, The Story of Tina by Al Martino. She was sweet seventeen. They met in the springtime. And then came the wedding one morning in May..and still we are sweethearts, though years roll away…  Mawkish or wha’? May weddings were believed to be unlucky. A lady from The Big House in Rush, Colonel Palmer’s lady, gave a £5 bonus to any Rush girl who married in May, in order to discourage papist, peasant superstition. £5 quid? Nice.

I recently bought the eBook of The Iliad of Homer on Amazon Kindle. Capital letters should occur at the start of a word God dammit!  I read it in Classic Comics many years ago, and reckoned that I should try the real thing. I remembered blood and guts, eyeballs impaled on spears and malicious gods. It hasn’t changed. It is an American translation. Achilles is now Achilleus. Ajax, who was not only an heroic warrior, but a very good lavatory-cleaning fluid, is now Aias. As Michael Caine allegedly said: ‘Not many people know that.’  I have learned that bronze armour is no bloody good, whereas bronze spears could do Trojan work; that Homer was good on anatomy, especially dismembered anatomy and that the gods were a miserable, depraved and contemptible shower of layabouts. Amazon asks me to rate Homer. I suppose I have to give ‘im foive stars. The lad shows promise. Would I like to read his next volume? they ask. Not arf!

‘When Adam delved and Eve span, 

Which was then the gentleman?’

Typical peasant grumbling. No wonder that well-bred people found them revolting. Mrs Corcoran, something of an Amazon herself, told us stories from the Bible. ‘When Eve brought the apple to Adam, he should have given her a good smack on the bottom with the spade and told her to put it back.’  ‘Bottom’ was almost a rude word, worth at least a snigger, but not in Mrs Corcoran’s class. Think of all the trouble and sweat of the brow, we would have been spared. Why though, did Adam need a spade in the Garden of Eden? I thought that digging only started after the expulsion from Eden. There was a lot about all the creatures that creep on the surface of the earth, wehms and serpents. I sympathised. Bernie Healy set us to work, creeping across that long field, thinning mangle,(mangolds, mangelwurzels.) Jethro Tull was responsible for the seed-drill. The snag is that too many plants sprout too close to one another. They have to be thinned out. Every handful is a judgement call. Many are called but few are chosen. Bernie said: ‘Don’t look ahead at all you have to weed. Look back at all that you have achieved.’ Good advice. We grovelled and weeded out the weak. Jethro later went into pop music. I heard him on the wireless.

‘The sewer went out to sew his seed and as he sewed, some fell by the wayside. Other some fell among thorns…other some fell on good ground.’ That doesn’t look right. Okay. ”The sower went out  to sow his seed…’ Never mind Shawr.  Jethro regarded the old method of sowing, the broadcast method, as wasteful. He developed the seed-drill. Oi’d give ‘im foive.

A Passage of Time. The Guttery Lane.

Garden, Guttery Lane 007                        Guttery lane

We called it The Guttery Lane. I don’t know if that is the official O.S. name. On the map it is no more than a double line between the corn fields and the low-lying fields on my right.   It was always synonymous with mud and muck. At the height of the heatwave I thought that I could make it, all the way to the end. The ground was parched. I was an early morning lepidopterist, netting not butterflies, but memories. I was no more than a few hundred yards from the railway, but the early morning traffic was merely a distant murmur. It occurred to me briefly that a search party might find me after many days, crawling along, croaking for water. That’s how it works in the movies. I would, of course, have been driven completely mad by the chimaera of a distant mirage. Vultures would be circling overhead. I needn’t  have worried.

Garden, Guttery Lane 006

Garden, Guttery Lane 018

Sometimes it is enough to ramble with no definite purpose. Thoughts and memories rambled with me. I thought of young men fighting through lanes like this, the bocage country of Normandy, exactly seventy years before my morning walk. This would be no country for tank warfare. This would be a place for sudden and deadly ambush. As kids we fought our wars in these fields. ‘Bang!  You’re dead.’  ‘No, I’m not. You missed.’  ‘No, I didn’t.’  ‘Yes you did.’  Our wars were inconclusive. ‘I know where there’s a wren’s nest, in the wall. Do you want to see it?’  I can still see it, after sixty years. Peace broke out. The fields beyond the railway were special. They held the possibility of endless adventure. The lane was a portal to a place of magic.

I noticed the change. This was once a lane for horses and carts. There were two narrow wheel  ruts. The vegetation in the centre was beaten down by hooves. It made it easy for the plodding pedestrian. I walked on, hoping to reach the spring. I brought children there a quarter of a century ago, to look for frogs. The frogs out-witted us. The spring emerges from the high bank on the left and seeps into the lower field on the right. At least, that’s what it used to do.

Garden, Guttery Lane 015

Tractor traffic has  gouged the lane into two deep ruts, anything up to two feet lower than it was in the past. The water cannot escape.  Halfway along, the track becomes a morass. It more than lives up to its mucky reputation. I could see that cattle could manage to get past, but they have a leg at each corner and no rubber boots to leave behind them in the squelching mud. I thought of the poor soldiers. They hadn’t the option of turning back. If I lost a boot, the young lads of memory would go on without me, to search for linnets’ nests in the gorse on Murtaghs’ Hill, (Murtaghs’ Hill is gone) or put up pheasants in Hatton’s Wood. (Never caught one.) A hare might show them a clean pair of heels on the final  narrow stretch of the lane. That was more than I could do. It was time to retreat.

Garden, Guttery Lane 014

It was no more than a tactical withdrawal. There are other ways of reaching the end of the lane, but on this morning the challenge was to retrace  the beaten track. It beat me too. There was nothing for it but to have a civil word with the inquisitive heifers and enjoy the profusion of life in high summer. There were butterflies in abundance, but they were not my quarry. There were horseflies and gadflies, but they had not yet got into their stride. They were humming and getting ready for the day’s work.

I came out onto the road. There was traffic. Normal life resumed. It was time for a cup of tea and a look at Plan B. Perhaps a snorkel and wetsuit next time.

Garden, Guttery Lane 025

A crash course in parenting and the Curse o’ Crummel.

blackbird fledgling june 2014 006

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Our early morning alarm call is  chuck chuck chuck chuck. That means there’s a cat on the prowl, or worse still,  a magpie. Cats I understand. They are hunters, just like lions and tigers. They do an essential job in keeping down vermin. But magpies! diddly-ah dum dum diddly-ah-dum dum  With all due respects to Signor Rossini, they are conniving, thieving bastards. They spread alarm and despondency. They hunt in pairs. They wield old-style football rattles ratchet ratchet ratchet.  Even football hooligans are forbidden to carry those old wooden rattles. It was said of the Stuka dive-bomber that the worst thing about it was the sound. Similarly, bank robbers use swearing and shouting to un-nerve their victims. Swathes of parks and gardens in suburban areas and cities are devoid of songbirds. I have seen magpies take ducklings in the zoo. They soar. They spy. They strike.

Magpies arrived in Ireland in 1650, the year after Cromwell, as if the poor, heart-scalded country hadn’t had enough trouble. They were carried by an easterly gale, to Carnsore Point, in Wexford, Hieron Akron, as Ptolemy called it…the Headland of the Priests. An ill wind. It’s Wind Turbine Akron now.  My Auntie Peg, a Wexford woman, took my brother to see Cromwell’s grave—–and walk on it. I don’t imagine that she spat on it. She was not the spitting type. He told me that they tramped across it with pleasure. De mortuis nil nisi bonum Nah!  Cromwell too,  had the knack of bringing the silence of devastation to whole swathes of the country. I doubt if that bleak man took much pleasure in songbirds warbling in the branches overhead. Trees were for hanging men. Strangely, he is a hero to some people. I have never trodden on his grave but I have to admit to a certain satisfaction when I see a flattened magpie on the road, a rare occurrence. The bird was so engrossed in attending to a squished hedgehog or rat, that he failed to see his nemesis approaching. The black and white smudge can sometimes raise a wing to flap in the wind, a forlorn farewell or possibly, a final two fingers to the world.  The curse o’ Crummel on them anyway. You might suspect that I am not fond of magpies.

blackbird, arch, John's house. June 2014 007

The nest is at the top of that clematis. It took us by surprise. It imposed a duty of care on us. Meals have been interrupted by visits from the magpies and occasionally, the cats. Profanity helps, as any bank robber will tell you. Wildlife documentary makers assert that you do not intervene. We learned that lesson fifty years ago, when we rescued an abandoned blackbird chick. We fed and sheltered it until it fledged and flew around our sitting room spattering the furniture with Stuka precision. It came to our whistle and perched on a shoulder. We released it into the garden but, sadly, there were feathers on the lawn in the morning. It hadn’t learned the fear necessary for survival.

blackbird fledgling june 2014 071

blackbird fledgling june 2014 069

blackbird fledgling june 2014 074

This little fellow was the first to venture from the nest. He crash-landed. I put him back again, against all the rules. ‘Feck that,’ he said and dived out again. He took refuge in shrubbery , where his parents found him. They have fed him constantly for days but now they have become somewhat impatient. It’s a steep learning curve for a chick. He has made it to the top of a fuschia bush. He flies like Buzz Lightyear… falling with style, but he is getting the hang of it.

blackbird fledgling june 2014 004

Wildlife photographers wouldn’t approve of my photography either. The lighting and focus are all wrong. He looks decidedly disgruntled but he has achieved something great. We think that we hear his sibling in a neighbouring garden. A third chick became a dusting of feathers on the lawn on a dewy morning. It’s a harsh world out there. We thought that our parenting years were behind us, that our chicks had all flown the nest, but this little fellow brought some of that parental anxiety back again. Good luck to him and to his brave and exemplary parents.

blackbird fledgling june 2014 005

Who is this however? Where did he come from? A baby sparrow, apparently abandoned. There are no parents in evidence. Here we go again.