Sunday 22 September 2019

Owl hoots on a night of mischief

Dawn call of the great eagle owl from the dark timbered countryside
Dawn call of the great eagle owl from the dark timbered countryside

Joe Kennedy

A cry before dawn of "hoo-ho, hoo-ho", strange sounds from the darkness, could have travelled from up to 5km away but it seemed much closer.

This was the call of a great eagle owl (bubo bubo), the largest and most powerful of European owls, which on that day I had heard in northern Spain, and which I had once seen in Ireland, perched by a rural roadside. No one believed me at the time. This was not surprising.

About 20 years back, near Portmarnock in Co Dublin I saw the bird while driving. It was so big it was highly visible. I stopped for a closer look but it slowly rose, and, almost casually, glided over a field and out of sight towards a tree-line fringing large farming estates.

I assumed it was an escapee from a private aviary or zoo but I never found out though I wrote about it and I never saw the bird in the area again. I did see one other eagle owl in Ireland but this one was dead, awaiting mounting at a taxidermist's where to inquire about it was really none of my business. There are collectors of exotic birds, both dead and alive, for private aviaries and for household ornaments. Two dead barn owls I found in Co Meath ended up, mounted, in family homes; one man I knew regularly visited auction rooms hoping to add to his collection of Victorian glass-encased birds.

But the dawn hooting of the eagle owl I had heard was in thick-forested, mountainous countryside in Galicia, the northern Spanish province that rests on the shoulder of Portugal, a Celtic land with its own language, Gallego, and from whose rocky shores had sailed Bronze Age adventurers to make landfall in these islands millennia ago.

Halloween found me there and there were stories to be heard of real witches living in the mountains, apart from the colourful folkloric effigies made of wood and cloth, with broomsticks, hanging outside village shops like Pinocchios.

I had made a spooky journey over winding, switchback roads, the winds sighing in the pines and thick sweet chestnuts, to a former monastery, now a fine hotel, merging out of the gloom to welcome the weary traveller.

"Hoo-ho, hoo-ho" went the owl somewhere off in the dark, timbered countryside. Because of the eve of All-Souls, my imagination drifted to thoughts of the repeating echo of 'macalla', hillside sounds which had evolved into a spooky creature joining other bogeymen wandering the lonely roads of Ireland on this significant night. These included the fearsome Pooka, resembling a horse foaming at the mouth, to be avoided at all costs, and on this 'oidhche-na-haimleise' (Night of Mischief), in this shadow of Samhain, the Celtic farm-time marking the beginning of winter, those other forces of darkness called Dullachain and Mungo-Mango, to keep travellers on their toes.

The Pooka, it was believed, could be mollified by poitin, a glass or two pitched out the back door. Young people on the road made much noise to keep their spirits up as they called at houses for treats. It was always wise to be generous as doors could be tied from outside or animals splashed with whitewash.

This was trick-or-treat long before it became sanitised in America!

Sunday Independent

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