Blackbird taps in a chilly dawn
IN The Backward Look by Frank O'Connor, can be found this translation of an 11th century Irish poem: "What little throat/ Has framed that note?/What gold beak shot it far away?/A blackbird on a leafy throne/Tossed it alone across the bay."
The early Irish metrics here are fascinating: "Int en bec ro lec feit etc". It's another language entirely, of course, its apparent simplicity disarming. The Backward Look, published in 1966, a year after O'Connor's death, is based on a series of lectures given by him at Trinity College in the early Sixties.
Wallace Stevens, an American poet, also wrote about the bird of the gold beak in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" The sixth 'way' goes: "Icicles filled the long window with barbaric glass/ The shadow of the blackbird crossed it to and fro . . ."
This is a regular winter sight in New England and now and then also in this "wintry land of Hibernia", well named by the Romans. But not in summertime, surely! Last week, in North Leitrim, hailstone marbles rattled windows and gathered in clumps to give gravel a winter coat. Then there were sleet flurries.
But there was a lift to the day when a blackbird began tapping on a window to wake up to the chills of May. I had a close look. It was a bird with orange beak showing signs of wear and tear, acknowledging its reflection in the small glass pane. We exchanged glances. It flew off. I made tea in the icy chill.
I reflected on a time once remembered clearly when such little encounters could be a pleasant start to a day's conversation. There were lambs at the back door here last year having lain with their mother in the night before scuttling off. Across the valley there were cuckoo calls; nearer, a cock pheasant in splendid plumage shepherded his dowdy ladies.
Further westwards, at Newport, in Mayo, I had another blackbird experience. In a high-windowed house a bird looked in on two mornings. There was no tapping this time. Outside, an estate forest canopy was busy with many birds in spite of the weather. There were several blackbirds busily assembling beakfuls of worms and grubs to feed brooding partners and young. One bird was collecting extra nesting material to insure against the cold. A plump rook nestling was rolling on its back having fallen from a high tree. It appeared to be well-fed but there was no sign of parental concern.
While the population of their kin, song thrushes, appears to be on the decline, blackbirds are plentiful with numbers rising to two million pairs in recent years. And this is boosted in October and November by a large influx from Scotland, northern England and Scandinavia.
The lon dubh, or turdus merula merula, as sentinels of the woodlands, when disturbed emit a loud crescendo of warning. Author Glynn Anderson relates when the birds were hunted in the 17th century by a Lord Lieutenant, who flew hawks at blackbirds in the Phoenix Park for "200 mounted spectators".
Joseph Addison, editor of The Spectator, who was also Chief Secretary here in the 18th century, would have been outraged. He appreciated their fondness for berries. He wrote, in 1712: "I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than cherries. I give them fruit for their song." A civilized man, certainly.