To leave and return wakes us again to the marvellous

Raheen Castle, Castlehaven, West Cork. Picture: Damien Enright

The thing that strikes me most about being back in Ireland is the birdsong in the evening, the number and variety of birds in full song. 

In every direction, there is not one but many birds singing; that is how it is here, in West Cork, anyway.

We did not hear birdsong like this in Ibiza. Yes, there were birds and one outstandingly loud and mellow blackbird singing from the tall trees in the Vara de Rey, where we were staying in the centre of Ibiza town. 

Its voice reached every corner of the approximately 200m long by 50m wide plaza, amplified by the tall buildings on either side. 

It was a feature the town could be proud of but, of course, familiarity can transform even the most extraordinary phenomenon into the commonplace and overlooked.

I’ve had a reminder of this truism since being away from my home territory for three months.

So much of it seems magical, but ‘seems’ is the wrong word: it is magical but I had ceased to see this clearly as I once did, my eyes had been blinded by familiarity.

This happens no matter where we go. Even the Garden of Eden, and all its lovely flowers and wondrous plants, its streams and pretty bridges, would become ‘everyday’. 

But to leave and return after some time away wakes us again to the marvellous. And all week, since our return, I keep stopping and staring at sights that my local friends don’t notice. 

But they are as wonderful and exotic as sights anywhere I have been.

I noticed that there were more than 100 shelduck out on the mudflats of the bay, with dozens of black-tailed godwit gathered along the watercourses that carve their way from the mouth of the River Arigideen to flow into the sea most of four miles below and beyond. 

These watercourses meander differently daily: they make new paths, cut deep into the soft, clean mud. 

Rivulets that issue from the fields and cross under roads on both sides of the bay join them.

On sunny days, the godwits roost in rows, some with chestnut or brick-red breasts — the males, in breeding colours. 

While some roost, others step daintily on their pencil-thin, tall legs in the shallows, foraging. 

Beyond the banks, the shelduck, strikingly white, sweep the mud with their flat bills; their diet is tiny marine snails or minute crustaceans — sand-hoppers — that emerge from the mud when the tide recedes.

The bright white feathers of both duck and drake shining in the sunlight make them easy to see and to watch even a mile away; the females can afford to wear white because they nest underground, in rabbit burrows, unlike the mallard ducks who must be brown and camouflaged because they nest under the sky and otherwise would make easy targets. 

In fact, the shelducks, both genders, wear a broad chestnut breast-band, while heads and shoulders are black, and beaks bright red, near crimson.

Amongst the things that have changed and which make me stop and stare is the devastation of the woods by the storms of winter. 

Some of the gales happened before we left but, after the die-back of scrub, what they pulled down or laid flat now is dramatically revealed and it is a tragic sight.

The huge beeches lie like felled behemoths; in the darkening dusk they might be stranded whales, palm-shapes of earth erect at one end, clay and roots — some 10 foot tall — the spilled viscera of their bodies. 

The tall, slim, red-barked myrtles nearby — those that have survived — are staggered. 

Where they went straight aloft for 30 feet, some are like drunks propping one another up, three sheets to the wind, indeed. 

Indeed, knocked sideways by the blow.

It’s almost dark in the woods, with a grey-floored sky now that the sun has set, red as a poker from the fire, at the top of the bay, painting the water scarlet and purple before dropping behind the ruined abbey, witness to such artistry for 800 years. 

Still the birds sing in the strong trees, a boisterous thrush and a piping blackbird foremost of the chorus.

That evening, earlier, we’d walked along the cliff path, the coast ahead empty of habitation, the sound and sight of the sea sloughing in beneath us, breaking repetitively, eternally on the rocks. 

This is what makes our Ireland a place of legend, the muted colours, the depth of time, the lapping of the patient sea. 

In the dark field above us, the wind-bent blackthorns were a haze of white blossom. 

Two ravens stood on fence posts. 

On the cliff edge, strings of whins, yellow as amber, lit up the path to guide us home.

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