Let the date be remembered: April 8, 2011. For within a single hour at around noon on that blessed day, the first swallows and the first martins of the summer arrived in the skies of Kildare. So winter ends, and the season of growth and of plenty finally begins.
That was surely the longest winter since the Famine; it began in October, murdering an infant autumn as it emerged from its cot, and then stayed, as dogged as Stalingrad, for the next five months. The first sign that it was really coming to an end was the appearance of the primrose, which emerged, as always, with the equinox.
The truth is that we haven't really got four seasons, but two: winter and beiger, with atypical interludes in each -- such as the glorious weather last weekend. Now we are in for the strange mulligatawny of an Irish beiger, as grey days follow wet days. Yet despite the absence of palpable warmth or unambiguous sunlight in the Irish beiger-season, things grow in our gardens.
Genes are funny things. My mother could throw an old nail on to a heap of concrete rubble one autumn, and the next year a new species of tree would grow there, festooned with orange, maroon and purple blossoms, attracting masses of hummingbirds from Florida and hoopoes from Provence and honey bees from Corsica. After months of sumptuous blooms, a vast crop of luscious fruit would then emerge. Their taste lay somewhere between pineapple and honeydew, with a hint of tangerine and lime. Autumn brought the colours of napalm and vermilion, isabella and russet, maroon and gold. With winter came stark black boughs glistening with hoar frost and dripping brilliant mistletoe, while robins and dunnocks sang their little f**king socks off.
Fifty percent of my genes are my mother's. Yet I have the gardening skills that will turn a rosebed into a salt-lick. I am to plant life what Pol Pot was to human rights. Each spring, I will spend a €100 or more each on a few universal grow-anywhere Kevlar trees, guaranteed to prosper anywhere from the Arctic to Zanzibar, in fire or flood, volcano or ocean, dune or bog. They're usually dead before I manage to get them to the car. Garden centre owners have grown fat and slick and loll on Mediterranean hammocks, thanks to my forlorn horticultural dreams.
I must confess to a secret vice. There is a hill in Wicklow, not far from Stratford-on-Slaney, that is one of the secret beauties of Ireland, for at this time of year it is densely covered in thousands and thousands of bluebells. I do not mean by "bluebell" the cheap and gaudy Spanish bluebell, that looks like a street-walking hyacinth, all big hat and no knickers and smelling like a Las Vegas trollop. No, I mean the old bluebell of these islands, a subtle and delicate flower, which speaks of spring breezes upon the Shannon and treetop thrush songs from the woodland glade wherein it grows. I love bluebells with a lust that is barely healthy. However, this passion -- though perhaps a little depraved -- is not criminal. Moreover, I have a regrettable taboo against digging up wild flowers, so though I could have robbed the hillside of a few score bulbs, I didn't. But bluebell bulbs are strangely hard to find. However, in England before Christmas, I bought a few dozen bluebell bulbs, and brought them home.
Half of them sprouted in February, which is a little early for bluebells, but not all that early for what they actually turned out to be, which was daffodils. The other half vanished without trace. Thus my annual season of heartbreak is now under way, as saplings become sapless before my very eyes. In about three months' time I'll admit defeat and raid the nearest garden centre, making off with a hundred fully grown flowers and shrubs, which will last for about a day in the ground before keeling over in toxic shock. Next day, the season of beiger usually ends and winter begins.
But what I really cannot bear about the onset of beiger is the diabolical technology that the season annually exposes us to, namely, the two-stroke engine. This is so called after cause of death amongst people who have to yank-start strimmers, lawnmowers and chainsaws (which of course never start); a binary cerebral-occlusion. The yank-start is the horticultural equivalent of an American frat-house initiation ritual, a largely meaningless test of manhood. It's no coincidence that domestic appliances never require the user to dislocate her arm to start them. How many shirts would ever be laundered or pressed if the washing-machine or iron had to be yank-started with a pull-cord? No: only devices which are used by the male of the species (who is too stupidly proud to protest) depend on this primitive technology. In the era of Google and Facebook, a yank-pull is the equivalent of Stevenson's Rocket on the Luas, or Ryanair flying a fleet of Vickers Vimys. The only consolation, after the longest winter in a hundred years, beiger is finally here: the swallow is in the sky, and the cuckoo is on her way.