The swallows finally departed on the last day of September, when the air was still warm, and vast, silver cascades of tiny flies shimmered in the morning sun.
And now, as the financial shadows darken over our land, and it is easier to talk of doom than of hope, we should take great solace from what we have. We are lucky to live on this island, with all the space that we have, and our clean Atlantic air, and the greenness of our largely unpeopled acres. Hundreds of millions of individuals across the world live in the horrors of a megalopolis, with strangers' cloacas just feet away in every direction. There is no one in Ireland who is more than 40 minutes from either a field of grass or a sea-shore.
In almost every respect, other than in the conduct of those who have managed our money, Ireland has been a wonderful country to live in over the first three seasons of 2010. I saw dawn on January 1, a moment of wondrous beauty such as would bring cheer to a dungeon. The full moon was plummeting into the western horizon like a cold sun, casting long shadows with its pale-blue light. The real sun rose to the south-east even before the moon was gone, reversing the shadows in a single fiery instant, and an icy light of pale acetylene was suddenly replaced from the opposite horizon with a warm and amber glow, over a landscape of shimmering snow and crystalline thorn.
To have been alive last winter was to have known heaven: day after day of such beauty as this island has never seen. Certainly not in 1963, or 1947, broken years in broken times, when a cold winter meant the poor froze, while the emigrants fled by the thousand each day, for who then could pause to enjoy a landscape of snow from sea to sea? Last winter, for all our woes, reminded us of the sheer joys of life and living.
The winter cold, reaching into spring, did something mysterious to our apple trees and our soft fruit. There were never such raspberries, nor lasting so long as those that we were later to see: never such apple blossoms, and in due course, never such apples. The season of cold finally departed in the last week of April, when the swallows returned from Africa: pitifully few, and an ominous augur for their future.
Then followed a wondrous summer, evening after evening in which it was possible to sit out, as the swallows made nests in the outhouses and the few martins made their nests under the eaves. July was cold and wet, but it killed an imminent drought, and August was either warm or even hot. And miracles of miracles, the swallows prospered, as did their plasterer cousins the martins. From the handful of birds wheeling in the evening light of April, grew a tumult: three nests become 12, and a single martin's nest became three. And once again, I saw a corncrake escorting her young to the safety of the long grass -- the fifth year running I have seen this, though no official census records a breeding pair in Kildare, just as no local farmer pleads for state money to keep the bird alive.
This time last year I wrote of the glories of the September just gone and of autumn's Indian summer, so named by the first English settlers in the American colonies. I thought then that I should never see the like again this year, but I was wrong -- 2010 produced a sumptuous September with a bounty of almost biblical goodness. Plums filled our trees, apples glowed red against the deep green of the orchards and even the raspberries continued to crop as the trees around them turned ochre. Then came the final day of September, when the swallows left more than a week later than normal, and I was able to collect the last of the damsons and a bushel-and-a-half of red apples, to eat now, or cook and freeze for flans and pies, when the log burns in the grate and darkness falls by 5pm.
Summer now lies in summer's grave, and a spring-like autumn has arrived. But the seasons' seas will soon wash over the remains of the year and bring us to Christmas and 2011.
When next we see our swallows and martins, about April 21, some 15,000 people who were alive for their departure will be dead, through the natural attrition of disease and age and accident and madness and murder. We who are still blessed with life can -- and should -- this winter accept that Ireland has changed for ever. For we know this simple truth: we must now shoulder debts that we did not incur, and meet creditors at our door from whom we borrowed nothing.
Nonetheless, we must pay them all, and more. So for our own peace of mind, we should bear up and smile as we make each payment. We have a civilisation to remake, and we must do so with dignity and with humour. There is no more bracing sound than laughter from a cold house.