Flight of fancy dawns for the swallow

LAST week, in glorious weather, we walked the headlands of west Cork. On Three Castles Head, beyond Barley Cove, we found lizards basking on the walls of the collapsed 15th century bawn, golden lizards, sharp-eyed and fast, disappearing between the stones at the hint of a footfall or shadow.

On the Seven Heads, where we had seen clouds of painted lady butterflies arrive from Morocco in late June, red admiral and small tortoiseshell butterflies were abundant, and swallows were gathering in flocks, ready to leave for Africa. A thousand or more skimmed the golden gorse and purple heather on the headland over Foilarea Bay. My brother wondered which one would be first to fly out over the sea? He’d brought the good weather from Spain, and was seeing Ireland as we rarely see it.

They would fly out over Biscay, then over the Straits of Gibraltar, the Sahara Desert, the rainforest of the Congo, the Namib Desert and finally arrive in Botswana and Lesotho, these swallows born in Irish barns. A little inland, hundreds were perched on telephone wires and through the binoculars, I saw that most were young birds with short tails and fledgling gapes; a keen observer of such things tells me he has noted swallows only three days out of the nest joining the flock for the 3,000 mile flight.

It’s a formidable journey, fraught with danger. Elenora’s falcons, with hungry chicks, stand ready to ambush them as they cross from Spain to Africa. South of the Sahara, swallows from all over Europe break their journey to roost in reed beds and locals will, literally, pick them as they would fruit, pluck them and pop them in the pot. It is a journey that fires the imagination and, to express it, I cannot resist including a poem inspired by a man, now passed away, who would have liked to travel with the swallows but could not, being too old.

One September day, I was having a drink with him at his home when he called me to come and look out the window, where swallows were gathering. He had travelled all his life, and he told me how he missed the thrill of it. It’s not the arrival, it’s the journey, he said. As I walked home, inspired and, perhaps, a tad inebriated, I thought of these lines and wrote them for him:

Sips and swallows

Look out!

The swallows going south blacken the wires,

last posts before the sea.

From quiet farms as sun goes out,

as yards grow cold,

from barns and rafters,

the shadows flicker on the fields,

summer’s rearings darken the meadows.

On the wires, the old wait, vets of the mile-high club

sharpening cold wings to slice through latitudes,

tread the night skies

on the high trek to south of the sun

or fall for once and all through the net of stars.

The young flutter and dash,

flash in first feather,

caught in the throng and twitter adventure...

Always, before, I went,

migrant of fancy,

took flight when the sun dimmed – No more:

the time has come when I can’t go

with the will or the winter,

too old now –

They used to say but

listen – it’s the same everywhere,

the daily grub, the airborne lepidoptera

Yes, but the weather’s better, see,

the scene new, and that makes all the difference!

Caution? Don’t tell me caution!

I’d go on the next wind, with the next flight,

tail off over the sea,

be spec to twitchers in cold winter ricks

and I with swallows...

There is no staying and no second chance,

the flock moves on, the winds push,

the moon beckons,

the young dash out splitting the sky.

I loved the swallows of my youth,

and the gulps of middle years.

Now, I sip from a small cup,

the time’s near up,

bare wires divide these days, going nowhere fast.

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