Thursday 21 November 2019

A bag of treasures from a beauty's skin

On patrol: A heron waits patiently, Mount Usher Gardens, Co Wicklow
On patrol: A heron waits patiently, Mount Usher Gardens, Co Wicklow

Joe Kennedy

The grey heron seemed to be always standing, motionless, in the pebble-strewn shallows.

The children believed it was the same bird waiting for them, year after year, as the long journey to the West neared its end at a cottage overlooking Lacken strand.

They called out to it as the car came down to the bridge crossing the Palmerstown river. The heron was on sentry duty, a comforting talisman for happy times ahead, fishing in the channel that raced in from the sea, looking for sand eels and taking care to avoid the spines of philibins underfoot.

Herons seem to exude patience. They have a tolerance about them of shadows that pass by. They wait, standing on one leg, for that sudden moment of lethal darting when a needle beak will seize a wriggling sliver from the shallows.

They used always be called cranes in Ireland because of a similarity to the bigger bird, for centuries now not a breeder here but occasionally a six-feet tall visitor that might drop by.

I have seen an internet clip of two cranes (grus grus) near a house in the Mullet peninsula; I have watched them flying at a great height over Extramadura in Spain and also standing far off in that steppe-like region.

In Irish mythology both crane and heron are placed as guardians of the treasures of the Otherworld. A beauty named Aoife was turned into a crane by a jealous lover and forced to be a slave to Manannan Mac Lir, the sea god, for 200 years, "always in his house with everyone mocking thee, a crane that does not visit any land."

When poor Aoife died, Manannan, rather gruesomely, from her skin had made "a good treasure of vessels" such as his shirt, knife, helmet and "the bones of Asal's swine". Don't ask! This crane-bag would reveal its contents only at full-tide. On the ebb, nothing was visible. The bag, ultimately, was passed on to various gods.

"O sweet-voiced is the crane in the marshes of the ridge of the Two Strong Men," cried a woman named Credhe who lamented that the bird could not save both her nestlings from a fox. As she tried to cover one, the fox would make a dash for the other.

In some myths the crane would be an aspect of a war goddess and a guide on the path to the Otherworld. The crane/heron was also mimed in a form of magic called "corrguineacht" with a man delivering a satire standing on one leg with outstretched arm and one eye closed implying harm like the bird's beak.

The ancient weapon, the halberd, used in battle from the Bronze Age to medieval times, a pointed blade mounted on a timber shaft, represents the bird's long neck and beak. A rock art image from Italy shows men dancing like cranes holding halberds aloft.

Much more on myths, legends and folklore of cranes/herons and 23 other Irish birds is in a new book by Niall Mac Coitir published by The Collins Press of Cork. Irish Birds is a beautifully produced hardback with many treasures within especially the wonderful colour illustrations by Gordon D'Arcy. One for Christmas, definitely, at €24.99.

Sunday Independent

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