Wednesday 24 January 2018

Country matters: No oysters for a shell smasher


Joe Kennedy

IT was an American name, I told the boy, chancing it again. He well knew there were no oysters where we were, a stone's throw from the tideline.

Black-and-white birds, sturdy and busily bent to their tasks, were poking in the soft grass margins between rocks and a hard place. They were seeking earthworms, more easily come by than oysters.

Oystercatchers are really mussel and cockle seekers, wrenching and teasing the shells from the rocks and sandy shore using a powerful bone-strengthened bill, part hammer, part chisel, carrot-red to toucan-yellow. At the tip of the beak are corpuscles that allow the bird to sense by touch. It can therefore forage by night and, in effect, be a continuing prospector of the strand with the ability to change its bill from a mussel blade to a worm teaser.

In 1785, Linnaeus, the Swede who gave plants and all wild creatures their Latin names, classified the bird as Haematopus Ostralegus, or blood-footed oyster picker, so there were obviously oysters a-plenty about on northern European seashores of old. The bird familiar to us is Eurasian, its American cousin having, until well into the last century, great oyster harvests to feast on in the shellfish beds of the New York and New England coastlines and Chesapeake Bay further south.

Oystercatchers skimming over the waves have been a common sight when large flocks wintered from Scotland and Iceland and are now moving off. Some remain to breed here, but the principal nesting sites are in Belgium and Norway.

In the west of Ireland especially an old name for the bird is Giolla Brid, or the servant or page of Brigid, indicating by thinning flocks of departing birds that the saint's feast day or remembrance time was drawing near and the grey mantle of winter was finally moving with spring on the way, lifting the dreary hearts of the farming community.

There were many traditions associated with Brigid, stories of adventure and miracle, especially in Co Kildare, and religious practices such as visitations to holy wells and pious processions are remembered, if no longer in vogue.

But the most widespread custom was the making of a Cros Brid, a cross of straw, to place in the home. This was the logo for RTE television and today some primary school children are encouraged to make the crosses in diamond or lozenge shapes.

But there were also less devotional practices such as house-calling by groups of "Biddy Boys" who went about with an effigy of the saint called a Brideog chanting "here comes Brigid dressed in white; give her something for the night".

More innocent visitations were recalled by Tomas O Crohan on the Great Blasket in 1922 when he opened his door one February morning to find "two pilgrims on the threshold, a little girl with a figure of a child in her arms, and a little boy". He gave them some sugar and they gave him a blessing for his kindness.

St Brigid's bird was once eaten in coastal places and was called sea-pie.

It is still shot-at in France - surprise, surprise! - but I have not seen any culinary reports, though with a lifespan of up to 40 years one would assume it would not be the most tender fare, though in hard times perhaps welcome, especially on a bleak day in February.

Sunday Independent

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