Thursday 19 April 2018

A birdie on the sixth at the Royal Dublin

Freedom of the skies: Wild geese over Clontarf Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Freedom of the skies: Wild geese over Clontarf Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Joe Kennedy

The seasonal good news, mentioned by a birder on a nippy morning, was that wild geese were no longer in fowlers' gunsights.

Mallard, wigeon and such are more acceptable fare. And besides it's illegal - and has been for some years.

There was a time when barnacles and brents, greylags and white-fronted birds were fair game. Domestic geese, a portion or two of which you may have sampled over the festive time, are descendants of the greylags, big birds which were once very numerous in the winter, especially on the Wexford Slobs.

Pale-bellied brents, at this time of year, are almost part of the coastal landscape in some locations. At times they appear quite tame, paying scant attention to man or machine when they drop down to green islands of parks and football pitches, where geese may safely graze.

They were never really edible fare. Some fowler once said that you cooked a brent along with an old boot and then ate the boot.

A famous grazing area for them is around the North Bull Island at Dollymount on Dublin Bay. They feed in the lagoons along the tideline and up-end in the water to pluck eel-grass, zostera from the bottom.

I have an abiding memory, while crouching low behind a sea wall along a stone-strewn foreshore, of hearing the powerful wing beats coming down en masse just over my head as the honking birds dropped to the shoreline like aircraft coming in to land.

I would not be found crouching at sea walls these days but rather, like last week, seeing brents grazing in a small park from a passing bus.

The legendary ornithologist Rev P G Kennedy SJ (no relation) relates an extraordinary story of the sudden killing of a barnacle or, probably, brent on the Royal Dublin golf course at the Bull, the ammunition being not a bullet but a golf ball.

The Field of January 31, 1914 carried a reader's letter which reported that a "well-known member of Royal Dublin" while playing on the links at Dollymount, "and approaching the sixth hole with a driving mashie" (a golf club no longer fashionable, I believe), killed a barnacle goose with a golf ball.

"As the shot was played, the bird was scooping and, being struck in the neck, fell to the ground as dead as a coffin-nail."

Dramatic stuff, indeed.

However, the magazine's editor, in a note, queried the goose species.

"We are inclined to think that our correspondent is mistaken as to the species of goose. It would be a sufficiently remarkable feat to hit a goose of any kind with a golf ball, but if a wild one, it would more likely to have been a brent than a barnacle."

Fr Kennedy, at a time when I was starting out on the scribbling life with The Argus in Drogheda, noted in a famous book, that the barnacle was a rare sight at Dollymount.

He once saw two which "passed quite low" in the direction of the Pigeon House, "while fowlers, among them Mr E Stuart, report they have shot a few among brent on the island."

Barnacle geese were widely hunted at one time as their meat was acceptable fare during Lent, as it was held to be more fish than fowl.

And if you ever find a copy of Fr Kennedy's book, An Island Sanctuary (Sign of the Three Candles 1953), grab it. It's the gold dust of bird books.

Sunday Independent

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