Sunday 17 November 2019

Country Matters: 'Chickens' whisper on a holy island

GYPSY: European Storm Petrel
GYPSY: European Storm Petrel

Joe Kennedy

From the pier on Inishbofin I had looked south to High Island and spoken to two men who appeared to be dressed for a day of vigorous sea-angling.

But I was wrong. They were going scuba-diving.

"What's it like down there?" I asked. "Fantastic," they replied. I believed them. There are amazing vistas beneath the waves - and amazing scenes above too.

The journalist and author James Morrissey, who spends time in Cleggan, is to produce a book about Omey Island, nearby, following his successful books concerning lighthouses and Inishbofin.

Omey Island (about six times the size of further-away High Island, at 500 acres) once had a school or two and a house of religious folk - the father of the poet Louis MacNeice was born there.

Another famous poet, who once lived in Cleggan, is Richard Murphy (now on the far side of the world). His memoir, The Kick, along with his collected poems, has been re-issued, the prose book being replete with new colour photographs. He once sensationally found a storm petrel's nest in a hermit's skull on High Island!

He had bought the place from a man who found it no longer viable for sheep grazing. Richard got enthused at the idea of restoring the early Christian hermit cells and oratory and spent long periods toiling in the footsteps of Saints Fechin and Gormgal on those 80 windswept acres. He cleaned out the bog and silt from a well sacred to the memory of Brian Borumha where the water was said to have turned to blood after the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

While there overnight Murphy became fascinated by the strange sounds of the tiny, sooty-black petrels (called Mother Carey's Chickens by ancient mariners), which he heard mewing and purring in burrrows and rocky crevices. From this came poetry, especially Stormpetrel, a bird he called a "gypsy of the sea… guest of the storm… smelling of musk".

This Peadairin-na-stoirme (Little Peter) he named "A pulse of the rock/You throb till daybreak on your cryptic nest/A song older than fossils/Ephemeral as thrift..."

There are an estimated 100,000 breeding pairs of petrels (Hydrobates pelagicus) on our west coast islands between Kerry and Donegal, including 26,000 pairs on Inishtooskert, Co Kerry - the largest colony in the world.

The birds are about the size of skylarks with disproportionately large rounded wings on which they pass most of their lives, skimming the surface of the sea. They are nomads, and range over the oceans during autumn and winter, heading for South Africa.

They return here in May and also to islands off Wales and Scotland, the Faroes, Iceland and Norway. One egg is laid, hatched after 40 days and the chick then departed after 60 days.

The birds are essentially pelagic, living for months on the open Atlantic, appearing to walk on water, like the biblical Peter - from whom, it has been suggested, the name 'petrel' may have evolved.

Sunday Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life