Category: Archive

Inside File The curlew’s fading cry

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

A few years back, there was a popular beer commercial on Irish television that depicted an Irish guy working in the Middle East. Our homesick boyo was sending a message to the folks he missed back in the oh-so-green old sod. You could fry an egg on the stones here, he said wistfully, before listing the things he missed most about Ireland.

One of them was Sally O’Brien "and the way she looked at you." Another Irish memory our lonely exile missed was "the cry of the curlew." For those of you who are ornithologically-challenged, the curlew is a wading bird found in a variety of habitats in Ireland, bogs, uplands and estuaries in particular. Its mournful cry is as identifiably Irish a sound as that of the Bald Eagle in the American West. There is a range of mountains spanning the line between counties Sligo and Roscommon called the Curlew Mountains. There was once a battle in these hills –"The Battle of the Curlews."

Well, there’s another battle on now. The Curlew’s cry is being heard less and less these days. Suffice it to say, nobody is rushing around a parking lot with a brown bag stuffed full of cash destined for hands that would rezone a chunk of land in favor of curlews, or other avian Irish natives.

The curlew’s decline was highlighted in a recent Irish Times report that pointed to the growing list of endangered bird species on the island of Ireland, a 32,000-square-mile landmass where nature cares not a whit about man-made political frontiers.

Bird protecting organizations in Ireland, North and South, cooperate closely in monitoring the status of various species. If one takes a nosedive, but is not immediately threatened with extinction, it goes on the "Amber List." But if the nosedive is really steep and is beginning to look like a numbers crash, the bird goes on the "Red List." The curlew is now on the Red List, together with 17 other species. What makes the curlew’s name stand out on this dubious list is that it was once so abundant; this in contrast to some veterans of the Red List, which were always rare.

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All of a sudden, the curlew is in "steep decline," according to a cross-border survey by the Republic’s BirdWatch Ireland and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the North. Ireland’s economic advances have been spectacular in recent times, but progress and change will always exact a price. Twenty years from now, there might well be a popular beer commercial where yer man comes on complaining about the heat in some faraway land, says that he misses the old sod, Sally O’Brien’s granddaughter, a decent pint — and the cry of a truly dependable car alarm.

Cromwell’s reputation

There’s uproar in Drogheda over a display at a local heritage center of Oliver Cromwell’s death mask. As many readers know, the last time Ollie paid a visit to the town at the Boyne’s mouth he took serious exception to the cheek and defiance of the local defenders and civilian population alike and put thousands of them to the sword — even after the garrison bowed to his tender mercies. The Oxford Companion To Irish History, hardly a rabid tome, puts the numbers of defenders killed in the aftermath of the 1649 siege as 3,500 with "possibly 1,000" civilians also killed. There are higher estimates for the latter in other historical records but the actual slaughter of helpless civilians, both in Drogheda and later Wexford — where, according to the Oxford Companion, 2,000 were killed in the town marketplace after Cromwell’s soldiers "ran amok" — has never been in doubt. Reasons and excuses were put forward, not least by Cromwell himself, but these have only tended to confirm the view that foul murder was performed on a mass scale in both places.

The death mask story, however, has prompted a twist in the tale, courtesy of the Irish Independent. The Indo, in a report, described Drogheda as the town where Cromwell "was reputed to have massacred thousands of defenseless civilians." Reputed? Ah, the dead hand of creeping revisionism strikes again. We’ll be reading next that Cromwell was in the GPO.

Rick’s Irish Mrs.

Rick Lazio’s attention to issues of Irish-American concern have been spawned by several factors. One is obviously his heavily Irish American constituency on Long Island. Another may well be his wife, Patricia Moriarty, whose Irish-American roots are revealed in her name. One of the Lazio daughters, Kelsey, takes Irish stepdancing lessons, so if dad’s political gambit doesn’t work out she might end up supporting him someday by becoming a "Riverdance" star. Who knows?

Anyway, the background to the Hillary/Rick contest is looking green all round, he with his Irish American wife and she with her Irish American husband. May the best spouse win.

Garret’s wishful thinking

Garret FitzGerald is enthusiastic about a new biography of Margaret Thatcher. That is evident in the former taoiseach’s recent review in the Irish Times of "Margaret Thatcher: A Biography. Volume One (1925-1979): The Grocer’s Daughter," by John Campbell. Bejaysus but that title’s nearly as long as one of Garret’s speeches. Anyway, Garret reckons that this offering is far better than Thatcher’s own autobiography of a few years back. That two-volume work, according to FitzGerald, did Maggie poor service.

"It has been said, although I do not know with what truth, that the only part she penned herself was the section on the Falklands War. The remainder of that book shows every sign, indeed, of having been penned by sycophantic ghosts."

Which would be fine as far as Garret is concerned. In "The Downing Street Years," Maggie, or the ghosts, took several swipes at poor Garret and portrayed his arch-enemy in Irish politics, Charles Haughey, as a political leader far more worthy of the Iron Lady’s respect.

Wrote Maggie, or her ghosts: "Unfortunately, like many modern liberals he [FitzGerald] overestimated his own powers of persuasion over his colleagues and countrymen. He was a man of as many words as Charles Haughey was few. He was also, beneath the skin of sophistication, even more sensitive to imagined snubs and more inclined to exaggerate the importance of essentially trivial issues than Mr. Haughey."

A few pages on: "I, for my part, felt that I understood him [Haughey] better than I had before — and better perhaps than I ever did Garret FitzGerald." Begob, no wonder Garret is seeing ghosts.

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