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Country Matters: Happily living in cloud cuckoo land


The cuckoo returns to Ireland in early Spring

The cuckoo returns to Ireland in early Spring

The cuckoo returns to Ireland in early Spring

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called it 'wolkenkuckucksheim', a landscape of daydream and delusion, an impossible utopia.

The distinguished Scots journalist Ian Jack provides this snippet of information, and more besides, about what is called 'cloud cuckoo land', touched upon here last week as real calling birds were reported from Co Galway and elsewhere, including Leitrim. There is a connection between Mr Jack and that county, and it's not about cuckoos, but rather the late writer John McGahern, the county's most famous son.

Ian Jack, as editor of Granta magazine, published extracts of McGahern's work but also wrote in another publication about discovering traces of the old Cavan and Leitrim Railway when he was holidaying in the area years previously.

Schopenhauer, however, maintained that philosophers spent too much time up in those cuckoo clouds. The phrase comes from fourth century BC Greece when the playwright Aristophanes introduced it in a play called, appropriately, The Birds, in which two Athenians decide to persuade local flocks to build a city in the sky. One character suggests a name for the place should reflect its airy situation, so 'nephelococcygia' was born, classical Greek for cloud, cuckoo and land. In English translation centuries later, the meaning gradually evolved into a chiding phrase usually directed at children although, more memorably, it may be found in a Margaret Thatcher put-down of the ANC becoming the government of South Africa!

I learned this week (from a Liverpool reader) that hearing the cuckoo became the poet WH Auden's yearly 'holy moment' and who, dismissing idle questions ("does your shout make husbands uneasy"), wrote that "science …may huff and puff but cannot extinguish your magic".

Before I go cuckoo myself, I must report a discovery of fresh-water pearl mussels in a pristine river-bed in Co Kerry. I fight shy of location clues as this is a sensitive matter, with 90pc of this complex species wiped out over the past century. The regular reader, who sent phone images, was not rewarded with pearls of great price - but his information will be exciting news for the Pearl Mussel Project, which monitors this endangered species protected under the Wildlife Acts and European Habitat Directive.

For some years I have watched white storks near a tidal river in southern Portugal leading to a town which was once a centre of the sardine canning industry.

There, disused red-brick factory chimneys remain by ordinance as nest sites topped by stick piles for birds which clap their beaks in a sole means of communication. Small towns, particularly in Alentejo, cherish the storybook images of peaceful birds making their homes around church spires and on old farm cart wheels.

Now, in southern England, some wild storks in a conservation project have been incubating eggs to produce the first wild chicks in hundreds of years. Storks were never native to Ireland so any future migration must remain up there with the Greeks.

Sunday Independent