Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 March 2018

In praise of the plucky and ever cheerful robin

Turkey farmer Michael Reilly from Maynooth weighs some of his birds before the Christmas season. Photo: Frank McGrath.
Turkey farmer Michael Reilly from Maynooth weighs some of his birds before the Christmas season. Photo: Frank McGrath.
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

The last few weeks have been unprecedentedly turbulent in Irish agricultural politics. But I feel what we need to do now is to take a breath, to give people's heads a chance to catch up with their hearts, and see what comes from Con Lucey's report and the various no-confidence motions from IFA branches.

Christmas is nearly upon us, and given that today is December 8, the traditional start of the seasonal festivities, I have been reading about a creature which has strong cultural associations with this time of year - one of our most familiar small birds, the robin.

An Spideog is one of 25 species featured in Ireland's Birds - Myths, Legends and Folklore, the latest in a series of books in which Niall Mac Coitir enthusiastically chronicles the island's historical relationships with various aspects of nature. The book is also illustrated with lovely watercolours by renowned wildlife artist Gordon D'Arcy.

There are various stories about how the robin got his red breast, many of them with religious origins.

One story is that, when the robin pulled a thorn from the crown of thorns, a drop of Christ's blood fell on the robin, and it remained red ever since in acknowledgement of the deed.

The robin also played a helpful role, often to the underdog, in many Irish folktales.

In one, a man fighting a giant is advised by a robin to stand between the giant and the sun and "to remember where men draw blood from sheep".

The giant gets half-blinded and, as he stretches his neck for a better view, the hero lands a killer blow to the neck.

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In another, a man named Mionn has to collect some water in a sieve. Understandably, every time he tries this, the water runs through. On the advice of a robin, Mionn gets some cow dung and daubs it on the sieve.

Given the bird's association with good deeds, it is little surprise that it was consider to be blessed.

It was considered very bad luck to kill or interfere with a robin or a robin's nest.

In Donegal, it was said that when a robin discovered its nest had been robbed, it would utter the following curse: 'Má's duine beag a thóg mo nead/go dtabhairidh Dia ciall dó/ Má's duine mór a thóg mo nead,/ Go gcuireadh Sé faoi chlár é (If it's a little person who took my nest/ May God give him sense/ If it's a big person who took my nest/ May He send him to death).

Though something I find curious is how an aspect of behaviour can be viewed differently in different places, which is a common thread throughout the book.

So, while in some parts, a robin coming into the house was seen as lucky, in others it was seen as a sign of death. Indeed, dare I suggest that it still is.

I've been dipping in and out of this book over the past few weeks when there wasn't something new breaking on the IFA front.

One of the things that struck me, apart from our complex historical and colourful links to the natural world, is a grounding sense of the vastness of time.

Glad tidings

Niall Mac Coitir says the robin has been associated with Christmas in Ireland and Britain since at least the 18th century, which is not surprising as it is one of the few birds to carry on singing in winter while its red breast and cheerful manner make it a natural fit for the season.

He suggests the robin's appearance on Christmas cards may be partly because it echoed the red of post-boxes (at the time), thus reinforcing the association with glad tidings of the season.

These newer links fit very well with the earlier religious ones, which is perhaps why the connection between the robin and Christmas is as powerful as ever today.

I've lived in the countryside all my life but almost every paragraph in this easy-to-read book, published by the Collins Press, taught me something. Its mix of natural history, mythology and folklore will entertain and enlighten old and young.

Indo Farming