Kirby and the kittiwakes

WITH all the hype about Star Wars and Skellig Michael, there’s a danger some people might be deluded into thinking it is just a spectacular rock that has only recently been discovered in the Atlantic.

But it has a much deeper significance. It is hugely important as an internationally-known seabird colony, for instance, and was the location for one of the first monastic sites in Ireland, around 600AD.

Long before Hollywood heard of Skellig, the late Michael Kirby, a writer and fisherman from nearby Ballinskelligs, in south-west Kerry, had been singing its praises as a wonder of a nature and a place to be cherished for its wildness and remoteness.

The recent presentation to UCC of Kirby’s papers — including a dozen published books, newspaper and magazine articles, audio recordings, manuscripts, and photographs — comes a reminder of what Skellig is really all about. It also coincides with a warning from Birdwatch Ireland that his favourite seabird, the kittiwake, is moving closer to extinction because of climate change and overfishing.

GPS tracking shows kittiwakes are being forced to be away from their cliff nests for lengthy periods as they search for food, which gives more opportunities for predators to destroy their eggs and chicks.

All of which prompted us, during Christmas, to take down from a high shelf a dusty copy of Kirby’s book, Skelligs Calling, published in 2003. This is, essentially, a memoir of his life on the sea, with his keen observation and storytelling ability making it an engaging read.

He writes about all the birds he knew on Skellig, where he went lobster-fishing. There, he had a close-up view of kittiwakes chasing shoals of sprat .

Impressed by their behaviour and the way they tolerated each other, he saw them share beakfuls of sprat, some standing beside nests full of fledglings, others with their necks intertwined, rubbing heads together and pruning their plumage.

And all that against a constant background chorus from the feathered choir. Peace came only when all the young were ready for flight.

Only the parent birds remained in Skellig’s Blindman’s Cave to repair old nests for next year’s brood. The kittiwakes nest on the sheltered side of high Atlantic cliffs, free from man’s interference, Kirby noted.

Whilst also fascinated by gannets, puffins, storm petrels and other seabirds, the kittiwake was closest to his heart.

“The kittiwake has not inherited the rough mannerisms of the gull family, its relative. It remains my choice of seabird — a gentle creature, beautiful lark of the ocean with the plaintive cry.”

Michael Kirby, who died weeks short of his 99th birthday in 2005, was a man thoroughly in tune with his environment and deserves to be more widely recognised as a writer.

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