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Seamus Heaney with the wran and blackbird

I was out gardening this morning and the bird feeders needed replenishment with peanuts and fat balls to assist our feathered friends in keeping up their daily dietary needs.

The garden birds are a constant source of fun to watch their antics from the voracious garrulous, bullying ,greedy crows to the tiny little wrens and blue tits.

I think of the way so many birds are remembered in our folklore and in songs and verse.

I mention just two of them in this piece .The first one I recall is the little dreoilin or Druid ean or Druid bird and its links with St Stephens Day.

In my younger days in Kerry St Stephen's Day was a big celebration with large groups of musicians and dancers moving about. My father was one of the dancing group and he also had the hobby Horse or Lair Bhan, the white mare. This mare was part of some rare tradition in Kerry. I think there was an equivalent one in Wales.

St. Stephen, our first Christian martyr, was reputed to have been betrayed by our little wran, hence the wran boys were out to get him for St Stephen's Day.

He was also reputed to have betrayed Irish soldiers fighting against the Norsemen by flapping his wings on their shields or, so I was told by my grandmother many moons ago.

I loved the story of how the Wren became king of the birds, a yarn which I spun to many a class group I taught over the years. There was an added embellishment every year.

The bird kingdom wanted to elect a new king of the birds and so they had a parliamentary party meeting, birdie style, and they would tweet the result to the whole birdie population. The king would be the bird which could fly the highest . So, the eagle flew and soared higher and higher. He got tired from all the effort and out from his tail feathers flew our cheeky little wren and it flew higher still. So, a winner was declared and from then forward the wren was known as “The king of all birds”. The eagle disputed the awarding of the title to the wren, saying his title was stolen from him but that was fake news. There was no point in launching an eagle challenge because the birdie council would throw it out.

I still well remember the verse from my youth:

The wran ,the wran, the king of all birds,

St Stephens Day was stuck in the furze

Although he was little, his honour was great

Jump up ye lads and give him a trate [treat]

When I left Kerry, I had to change my spelling of that little bird from wran to wren as I had never heard the latter sound in my phonetically adjusted head.

But enough of the wren and let’s move on to that most populous member of the thrush family populating our gardens, our friend the londubh or black bird.

The londubh is a very shy bird. I threw out some bread on the lawn this cold November morning and kept an eye on proceedings. Soon I espied two black birds hiding under the hedge. Suddenly one blackbird darted out in a hedge hop, as Seamas Heaney would say, all self- conscious and shy. It grabbed a piece of bread in its beak and darted back into safety to eat it.

I have visited Avondale ,the homeplace of Charles Stewart Parnell on many occasions and I remember that lovely song “the Blackbird of Sweet Avondale” so well sung by the Wolf Tones. This great song was composed by Parnell’s sister Fanny Parnell in 1881 after Parnell’s arrest.

Then we go back a bit further to my own younger days to Beatlemania. I remember that lovely song composed by Paul Mc Cartney“ Blackbird singing in the dead of night” and so beautifully rendered by the Beatles. This was the Beatles hopeful essay on the civil rights movement in America. The broken wings in the song represented how discriminated some people were. The let us fly again referred to the hope that they would overcome the discrimination and be full citizens of the USA.

Another favourite artist of mine was Rod Stewart. Now 75 he is still the same lively, effervescent bundle of energy he always was. I loved His blackbird song “bye bye blackbird”. Do you remember the words? “Black bird singing the blues away outside my door, Pack all my cares away”. I suppose his version was so popular because it was nearly the same version as the original 1926 composition by Ray Henderson.

I think the most poignant mention of a blackbird was by Seamas Heaney. When Heaney was very ill and knew that he was dying he wrote that lovely poem” The black bird of Glanmore”.It was the final poem in the District and Circle collection published in 2006. Heaney was quite ill at this time. In the poem he goes through his past life and visualises his future mortality. It is one of the most moving poems I have ever read.

He also references back to his Mid Term Break poem in which his brother Christopher was tragically killed in a motor accident.” No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear”

The final line of that haunting poem about the blackbird referenced “When I Leave”.

I think any fan or lukewarm follower of Heaney should visit the Heaney museum in the Bank of Ireland in Dublin. It is such a treasure trove of Heaney Memorabilia with recordings of Heaney reading some of his own poems .

Next time you are in the city please make sure you visit this national institute and give yourself a treat. You do not need to book to gain entry. It is located in the Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre in College Green with the entrance via Westmoreland Street. It takes the visitor on a multi-sensory journey from Heaney’s origins through his remarkable poetic journey [ That’s the blurb from the centre].

I give you the first and last verses of “The blackbird of Glanmore “by Seamus Heaney

First Verse

On the grass when I Arrive

Filling the stillness with life

But ready to scare off

At the very first wrong move

In the ivy when I leave

It’s you blackbird I Love

Last Verse

Hedge Hop, I am absolute,

For you ,your ready talk back,

Your each stand -offish comeback,

Your picky ,nervy gold beak-

On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.

Glanmore Gate Lodge is in the grounds of Glanmore Castle. It was Heaney’s retreat in the 70’s is in Ashford, Co Wicklow . It is located on the Devil’s Glen Road,Ashford

Mick O Callaghan 23/11/2020

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