Revolutionary petrels in Dublin

A sound sculpture staged at Dublin’s GPO Witness History Visitor Centre is entitled ‘Women of 1916 — Stormy Petrel/Guardeall’, writes Richard Collins

Revolutionary petrels in Dublin

Thirty-three old-style loudspeakers take turns broadcasting the quietly-spoken words of the female couriers who acted as ‘human telegraphs’ during the Rising. When threatened with capture by the enemy, a ‘stormy petrel’ messenger might swallow the note she carried. Others memorised the messages in advance, so that no incriminating material, such as the text of the newly-released Proclamation, could be found on their person.

‘In 1916, the stormy petrel was an international symbol of revolution and the anti-colonial imagination’ declares the exhibit’s booklet, a work of art in itself. During the political turbulence of the 19th and early 20th centuries, this avian Che Guevara came to symbolise the romantic revolutionary. Gorky’s ‘Song of the Stormy Petrel’ celebrates the bird’s courage. ‘The stormy petrel is what I am’ declared the melancholy Dane, Soren Kierkegaard, philosophical outsider and progenitor of Existentialism.

Our smallest seabird, no bigger than a swallow, is black all over, apart from a gleaming white rump and a bar on the underside of the wings. It can patter along the sea surface, legs dangling, seeming to walk on water like St Peter on the Lake of Galilee.

Linguist WB Lockwood says, however, that its name doesn’t derive from Peter’s, but has the same root as ‘pattering’. The bird is seen from land only when gales blow it ashore; hence the adjective ‘stormy’.

This elusive creature, wandering the turbulent ocean and impossible to track, fits the profile of the romantic revolutionary. Coming ashore under cloak of darkness on pitch-black rainy nights, petrels nest colonially in burrows on remote uninhabited islands. The quiet hick-coughing song, emanating from the ground, is one of nature’s most intriguing sounds. By day, the only indication that nesting birds are present is a pervasive fishy odour.

A quarter of Europe’s storm petrels breed on west coast islands between Cork and Donegal. The numbers at some colonies are huge. On a ringing expedition to the Blaskets many years ago, a single 12m mist-net caught so many ‘stormies’ that six of us, all experienced handlers, working feverishly throughout the night, could barely cope with the flow of birds. We ringed hundreds. There were no injuries; petrels are among the toughest of birds.

The parents take turns incubating the single white egg in three-day-long sessions. A week after hatching, the chick is left alone in the burrow, visited by one or other parent on alternate nights to be fed on an oily ‘soup’ of regurgitated fish and plankton. As its fledging date approaches, the youngster is fed less frequently until, when it’s about 70 days old, the parents desert it.

Hunger forces the chick to leave the burrow, take wing and head out to sea. It won’t touch land again for at least four years. We know little about the petrel’s life away, ‘riding out the endless hurricanes of the Atlantic winter’ in RM Lockley’s words.

The phrase is misleading; most petrels avoid the cold by flying south to spend winter off the African coast. In spring they wander back northwards towards Europe.

Ringing has shown storm petrels mate for life and they are exceedingly long-lived. They have to be. Not breeding until it is at least four years old, and raising only one chick each year, a petrel must live a long time if it’s to replace itself. Individuals over age 30 have been recorded. A ringed one, aged 33, was re-trapped and released again.

The creators of ‘Women of 1916 - Stormy Petrel/Guardeall’ hope to move the installation to the Women’s Museum in Hanoi, to ‘showcase Irish modern and visual arts in Vietnam, while prompting a conversation about the role of women in revolution, whether in Vietnam or Ireland’.

Orla Ryan, Alanna Kelly and Brian Hand. Stormy Petrel/ Guardeall. An Post. 2016

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