TWO swallows were hunting low over my house yesterday, more than a month after they should have departed for Africa, and just two days before we move into wintertime.
The movement of African migrants is one of the great natural metronomes that, independent of the calendar, sounds the knell over one season and a welcome to its successor. So now, the rules have clearly changed. Winter formally arrives, yet swallows remain: the sensation is almost creepy: the world feels slightly out of kilter. Ancient laws now do not apply. What happens next?
Yes, we've had a glorious autumn, the only Irish season that remotely resembles its mythic self. Spring was a disaster: a cross between a car-wash and a wind-tunnel, scouring the blossom from the trees in the orchard before the pollen could journey to the female stigma and complete the act of fertilisation.
A fruitless summer followed, and a flyless one too: the cold damp air made the reproductive cycles of insects infinitely more difficult. Bees and hoverflies were only irregular visitors, and even then the bees were of the native black variety: the honeybee brought by monks from the Mediterranean over a thousand years ago has still not recovered from the mysterious blight of recent years. The grasshoppers and crickets that usually arrive in August were silent.
Even that strangely pleasant harbinger of the end of the summer, the annual wasp-plague -- delightful for the exquisite variety of yellow-jackets that apparently find one's nostrils an irresistible place to sling their hammock -- didn't occur.
With so few insects, there was little even for smaller predators to eat, and so we've not seen one of the great joys of autumn, the spiders spinning their artful webs in the corners of all the windows. Even gossamer -- that great shimmering shifting gauze of perhaps over a hundred acres, caused by the toiling of billions of tiny arachnids -- seldom made any appearance.
Yet after a miserable spring, followed by a summer that was a long grey wet tunnel, autumn was quite magnificent, raising farmers from near-ruin, as the sun inhaled the water from the sodden pastures, and turned weltering swamp into shimmering meadow.
Colours that have no names suddenly erupted amongst the gold and the honeycomb and the ochre and the isabella and the amber of our hedgerows and tree-stands.
Thus were we rescued from the dank monotony of a seasonless year by a quite glorious fall. And maybe that's the reason for the swallows' continuing presence on the very weekend when winter arrives, when the changing clocks propel us into the signature-dark of the season: too few young birds were fledged during the year to ensure enough swallows could complete the two-fold journey to Africa and back.
Their sole purpose is to breed: to return to their native eaves next spring and transmit their defining genes to another generation: and if they fail to do that, they have failed in their life's sole purpose.
Hearts sink, as on Sunday evening, darkness falls an hour earlier than it will have done tomorrow. But mankind discovered long ago how to carry itself through the coming ordeal of winter, which is why there are sustaining feasts in the coming weeks. Halloween, Guy Fawkes, Thanksgiving are lifebelts thrown to make the onrush of winter bearable. Then comes Christmas and from then on, each day grows two minutes longer, and the reason to smile grows a little greater.
All right, we have debts that would sink Brazil. And yes, we have a crazy welfare system, which has concluded that one in six of the working population -- 300,000 people: up by 100,000 in a decade -- is suffering from a disability requiring a pension, costing the exchequer €3bn a year.
And our demented allowances enable TDs to claim unvouched expenses worth €15,000 annually. As if to confirm that this island is a little insane, we learnt the other day that 174,000 Irish people spent €167m last year travelling to Britain to watch club soccer-matches: almost one thousand euro per visitor per match.
But you know, the funny thing? People still want to come and live here, despite our fogs and our mists and our cold and our strange seasonless years. There's something almost addictive about the grey silence of an Irish bog, or the steady patter of a soft rainfall in March.
Those swallows flying over my house this weekend: if they return -- and God willing, return they shall this coming April -- they must pass through the skies of Portugal and Spain, or across the Bay of Biscay, or over Normandy and the villages of the English Downland and the mountains of Wales.
They come, because this is their home, as it was their ancestors' home for countless generations, ever since the glaciers of the Ice Age retreated, and because they can fill an ecological niche here. But to survive the terrible perils of their vast pilgrimages, and to breed next spring, those swallows must show enormous adaptability, singular determination and implacable fortitude: as must we all, on our own perilous journey to the future.