DOWN TO EARTH
Of corncrakes and Irish.
The tops of the mountains have been obscured by cloud all week and even though it’s midday, and well into May, it has the feeling of dusk. This first kilometer of the valley is always darker anyway, overshadowed by the close, vertical walls of Cappanawallagh to the North and Sliabh Eilbhe to the South. On a wet day like this, the limestone of their flanks is a slick pewter. But even when I reach the open floor of the valley the skies seem to press down – rain-darkened and swollen. It feels as though the weather blunts everything, blurring the edges of the landscape, and making even nearby sounds seem far away – a kind of weather that always reminds me of the poem by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill “Níor cheol éan, níorbh labhair damh, níor bhéic tonn, níor lig rón sceamh”. No bird sang, no stag spoke, no seal roared, no wave broke. I am walking to retrieve a hazel rod I passed a week ago. It was broken off from the tree’s coppiced fulcrum, lying in long grass by the road. On reflection, I have decided it will make a nice walking stick. I have developed an unfortunate habit of crossing paths with the feral goats that roam around the mountaintops near my parents’ house and I don’t fancy my chances against one of the pucks without a good stick. Not that I fancy them much with one either.
And then I hear it, just twice, barked into the quiet of the valley. A sharp, metallic sound. A sound out of place in nature. I stop, listening for another call, the cold grass of the verge hugging my ankles. Until this moment, I would have denied I was listening for this sound at all. But as it grates once more over fields, I remember my grandfather trying to imitate it and I know, that really, I have always been walking in expectation of hearing it in this valley again. Though I’ve heard it only once before. As a child, pressing down on a domed button in an interpretative center in Donegal. I thought the button was broken, the same mechanical, grating sound had cracked the silence of the room. Like the false start of an old car on a cold morning, or the crunch of metal on metal as the gearstick does not quite make it home. The call of a male corncrake. In videos the corncrake’s beak snaps open and shut, whiplashing the bird’s head back like a Pez dispenser as it calls. Crex crex, the bird’s Latin name, from the ancient Greek “κρεξ”, is onomatopoeic – an attempt to reduce their sound to paper. One writer says it is like “a comb being scratched along the edge of a matchbox.” It doesn’t do its strangeness justice. And it can’t describe the pure volume of it. A male corncrake in full voice can be heard for nearly a mile.
The waterways of my life are haunted by reed-thin Grey Herons. Gargoyles lurking among the rushes, more reptilian than avian, with their necks curled like springs, ready to spear. As a child, I learned to tell what birds were nesting nearby from the marks of their feet in the soft mud of riverbanks as I walked with my parents. How to distinguish between the webbed salutes of a barnacle goose and a mute swan’s foot. How to spot the faint, spidery marks of a moorhen’s scuttle along a canal towpath. The shivering lines of a rat’s paw. On the shore below our house, a gulp of cormorants gathered every day. One generation replaced the next as my sister and I grew up, left, returned. I can still watch them from the kitchen, the great-grandchildren many times of the birds that stood on the same rocks thirty years ago, and me, a many times great-grandchild of another family. Standing on our own rocks. We called them “na cailleacha dubha” in school – the black witches. If there is another name for them in Irish I do not know it. And they do look like a coven, their ragged wings outstretched, dripping in the Atlantic wind. But the bird calls that once drowned out the sound of the sea in these fields are growing fainter. The cuckoos still call the hour every summer but once, the corncrake’s call was just as loud, as frequent.
In pictures, the corncrake has a thick neck – neither as long and delicate as a wader (lapaire – a foot paddler or a clumsy one), nor as stocky as a gull (faoileán – the one who circles). Her head is small with a short, squat, grey, and brown speckled body balanced on long legs that end in comically elongated feet. Compared with the sleek, emerald and scarlet racing stripes of the cock pheasants, the corncrake is ungainly, plain. I say this, and yet I have never seen one. Most people in Ireland – in Europe – have not. In the national folklore archives in Dublin, interviews from the 1930s list the corncrake as one of the most common birds in the country. They were so common throughout Ireland and Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that crofters on Uist in the Outer Hebrides complained that the sound of the birds kept them awake all night during the summer. They didn’t imagine it. Early in the breeding season, a male corncrake can call more than 20,000 times in a single night, reaching a feverish pitch between midnight and 3 a.m. It makes the Irish saying, “codladh an traonach chugat” (the sleep of the corncrake to you) seem a bit sly. How many corncrakes there must have been for their scratching chorus to be loud enough to drown out the chance of sleep. I think of the writer Amy Liptrot, nearly a century later, driving the midnight roads of Orkney trying to catch the sound of a single bird for conservation records and I wonder why this crake is calling during the day in our valley. Perhaps the dark swell of the rain-sodden sky has fooled us both.
By the time the children who recorded the interviews for the Irish folklore archive had children of their own, the corncrake population in Ireland had plummeted. There are few estimates of how many corncrakes actually were in Ireland during the 1930s, but by 1978 it was estimated there were only 1,500 migrating to the country each year. The decline was not uniquely Irish. Scientists working in Eastern Europe and Russia began to notice similar patterns, while in England the corncrake population even by the 1930s had already contracted sharply, the bird’s range receding to the western and northern edges of the country. But in Ireland and Scotland, the corncrake held on long enough that their precipitous decline was recorded with increasing concern as the twentieth century wore on.
The pattern of the corncrake’s retreat – into the valleys of Wales, the Scottish Highlands, the Atlantic fringes of Ireland, maps almost precisely onto the expansion of mechanization and industrialization of agriculture outwards from Southeastern England at the end of the nineteenth century. The hedgerows and scrublands were reclaimed, tilled – made “productive”. Wild spaces were scrubbed off the landscape, and the Corncrake found itself pushed to the margins, to the “unproductive” places, lingering at the edges. The tall grasses and tangled “waste” lands of marsh, nettle, and cow parsley the corncrake needed for nesting became rarer. And the tall grasses and crops that remained were harvested earlier each year. Too often, the corncrake would find some lonely patch of wheat, or tall grass only to have its eggs or chicks mown down as the crop was cut. As corncrake numbers plummeted all over Europe, farmers were given subsidies to cut their fields from the center outwards – giving the birds time to flee from the machines. The public was asked to listen out for the bird’s distinctive call during Spring and Summer – and to report hearing it so populations could be protected and mapped. It didn’t work. In the summer of 1996 when I pressed the button in the Donegal interpretative center there were less than 600 breeding pairs of corncrakes in Western Europe. I listen for twenty-eight years before I hear the call again. In the most unpromising of summers. In 2021, Ireland’s national biodiversity audits estimate that a quarter of the island’s bird populations are at levels that require conservation intervention. Roughly 25% of the island’s birds are now considered endangered – the corncrake is one of those most at risk, their numbers still slipping down. Even the birds whose presence we have taken for granted are going quiet – between 1980 and 2020 researchers estimate that across Europe there are 75 million fewer starlings, 247 million fewer house sparrows, 68 million fewer skylarks.
Most of the corncrakes that can still be heard are recorded in spots like this valley. Fingernail thin slivers of land along the Western coast of Ireland. Areas that have developed a strange kinship with this bird. In the national folklore archive, one interviewee, asked about the corncrake says that her singing gladdens people’s hearts because it reminds Irish people of their own language, reminds them that birds too have their own languages, their own ways for expressing joy or sorrow. I wonder if it is a coincidence that the corncrake holds on in the areas where the Irish language does. In spaces that are hard to cultivate, bird and language are both fugitives in the long grass, holding out against the forces that would cut them off. Where old harvest times were kept longest, where the language’s way of describing nature leaked into the people’s way of handling her.
Like corncrakes, it is hard to say how many people are left who speak Irish fluently. Whose language has the authenticity of birdcall, learned as a hatchling. Certainly, mine doesn’t. My Irish was learned in the captive spaces of school. Irish had begun disappearing from this valley when the corncrake did. Long before I began to walk its paths. And yet. And yet here we both are, ar lá brádarnach, beo ar éigean. Staring towards where the other might be standing, eyes searching for each other through the haze of rain. I stay, listening for another call until the approaching rumble of a car breaks the silence. We have already lost so many of the birds that once flew through this landscape. Carraig an Iolair, Eagle’s Rock, a soaring crag overlooking a deep meadow, and a remaining scrap of the temperate rainforest is six kilometres from here. An echo of a time when like Fionn Mac Cumhaill recounts in one poem, the country echoed with the sound of the eagle “screaming … on the edge of the wood”, and when the corncrake from the meadow would have “clacked … – a strenuous bard”. The rock has been quiet for as long as anyone can remember, its name the only clue to a time when this landscape was richer than we can understand now, existing as we do, in a world where the value of things that cannot be calculated is zero. When really, it is incalculable.
These earliest Irish poems describe landscapes which are alive with birdsong, noisy with the calls of stags and the howls of wolves. Even when the poets turned their attention to the actions of humans, nature was not ruled by kings and warriors but instead ruled them. The human characters of these stories were fleeting players on the tírdhreach, the countenance of the land, while nature was not merely a setting for their stories, but the strongest, most enduring character of them. The landscape these tales describe has a history no royal line completes, with a kind of immortality not even the longest-lived heroes can hope for, so that even the smallest creatures possess a precious quality. The goldfinch is lasair choille, the flame of the forest – a lick of bright gold darting among the trees. The linnet is coinnleoir óir – the golden candlestick. The chaffinch is rí rua, the red king, for his blushing chest feathers.
They are dancing flames, golden-winged things. The lon dubh (or just lon in older Irish), the blackbird is one of the three oldest animals in the world – along with the trout and the stag – who together represent water, air, and earth. It is not just the blackbird – wingbeats stitch together the settings of the ceantar (the world of humans) and alltar (the world of spirits). The house of the fairy woman Crédhe of the Fair Hair is thatched with the wings of birds in vivid shades of crimson, yellow, and blue. The palace of Manannán, the Irish sea god, is built from beams of bronze and walls of silver, its roof thatched with the wings of white birds – wings that act as a haunting foreshadowing of the fate of Mannanán’s own grandchildren who are cursed to live as swans for nine hundred years. The Irish god of love Aongus Óg is often depicted surrounded by four birds which were said to have formed from his kisses, and birds are often depicted as messengers from the otherworld, even in more modern folk beliefs. The spideog, the robin, is still believed to be a messenger from the dead, and the flight of a swan, eala, over a house is said to foretell the death of its resident. The battle goddesses of Irish legend are themselves both one and many, woman and winged. The Mór-Ríoghain can turn, at will, from the form of a woman to that of a carrion crow, from maiden to cailleach or crone, and from one being to three, Badb, Macha, and Nemain. Flock, fledgling, bird, spirit, woman, God.
The power of birds imbued those who told their stories too. Cormac’s Glossary and Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer), record that the cloaks of the chief poets of Ireland were stitched from the feathers of birds. It is an alluring image, the storyteller swaddled in the feathers of creatures who can travel between the seen and unseen worlds. A symbol, perhaps, of the poet’s own power to move between the real, and the imagined. I see the chief poet of Ulster from Tochmarc Emire, hunched, ruffled, eyes narrowed by the smoke beside the low light of a fire, passing on the stories of the londubh. And I think there is something more than the feathered backs of these two tribes that unites them. These scéalaithe, cloaked in feathers were keepers of an oral tradition. A history of place and people passed mouth to mouth, images that lingered for a moment and then faded with the wood smoke, curling into nothing. Like a sparrow’s breath disappearing on the cold morning air.
Days after I first hear the corncrake’s call I am walking through the valley again when my dog stops at a bend in the river. He freezes, some instinct pulling him towards a spot across the water. I follow his gaze just in time to see a bird with long legs rush through a gap in the drystone wall and into the safety of the tall grass just beyond. Was it a corncrake? Hard to tell. It could easily have been a young pheasant. The distance was too far, the light too low to know for sure. But the shape keeps flitting through my mind, and I find myself tracking the corncrake – through story and history. Calling up tattered manuscripts and ignored memoirs from the bowels of the University Library. Pawing through boxes of family recordings and pictures. Mapping flight paths.
In the National Library in Dublin, acres of space separate each occupied desk. My mask is making my reading glasses fog, the press of cotton against my nose flushing warm breath upwards. Measures to ensure our survival. A door hidden in the wood-paneled wall has been left open to allow air to circulate, and a cool breeze whips through the opening, carrying the sound of gulls from the river. Last week one flew right in. Circled the room’s domed ceiling, fooled perhaps by its chilly, sky-blue paint. A fitting place to hunt a corncrake, I think, tracking her through mud to ink. But she is as elusive as ever. These “hoarse and noisy” birds that Gerald of Wales wrote were “innumerable” when he visited Ireland in the twelfth century are strangely absent from what has leaked through the centuries.
A poem of Saint Marbán describing the birds which kept him company during his life as a hermit in the seventh-century records,
Barnacles, brent geese
Close to Halloween
A dark, rough tone.
In a flock so vast.
White birds come
Herons, seagulls …
No corncrake. Despite all my page-turning, stone turning. And yet. And yet now and then she flashes into view. The Triads of Ireland, a miscellaneous collection of linked triptychs on subjects from law to geography, names “the nettle, the elderberry, and the corncrake” as the three signs of a cursed site. In the landscape, she sometimes appears in the contours of the hills themselves. On the wafery paper of an ordnance survey map, I trace the Anglicised bowdlerisation of her. Reduced by English soldier surveyors in the nineteenth century to a strange phonetic garble she is still just visible at Carntreena (Carn Traonach – Cairn of the Corncrake) and Largatreany (Learga an Traonaigh – Slope of the Corncrake).
Her appearance in the written record only begins to gain strength as her presence in the landscape wanes. But the picture of the corncrake which emerges is contradictory. People who have seen her say that her eggs are red, or blue, brown, or speckled. She lays four, or eleven, or eight of them. She is “about the size of a pigeon” or a waterhen, or “a small turkey”. She is brown, or maybe grey or nearly black. She is a foolish bird because she lays her eggs on the ground. Or she is smart because she makes not one nest but three – two decoys, and the one where she keeps her chicks. It seems that even after centuries the corncrake remains a creature that belongs more to the uncertain world of the alltar. Reflecting our imaginations back at us. In both Ireland and Scotland, it is widely believed until the beginning of the twentieth century that the corncrake makes its distinctive call not by opening its beak, like other birds, but by lying on its back and rubbing its legs together. In a turn for the weird, the story says that the corncrake does this because it believes its legs are keeping the sky from crashing down onto the earth, and that she sings a song as she goes about her lifting,
‘Tréan le tréun, Strength to the corncrake,
tréan le tréun, strength to the corncrake,
dhá gháigín an éin, the two little legs of the bird,
A’ ciméad an aeir go léir, Keeping up all the air,
Uaidh suas, Uaidh suas! Up with them, up with them!
Something almost prophetic lingers at the edges of the story. The corncrake was one of the first birds whose decline signaled what was lost as we came to worship “productivity” in the narrow terms of maximised yields and higher profits. Their fading calls were one of the first signs of the change we are now struggling to undo. The sky might fall – not because the corncrake is no longer present to hold it up, but because the landscapes which have displaced her are more barren than they appear. We have inverted the order of the Irish stories, contorting the relationship of things until nature is a minor player, and human need is the driving character in a story as shallow as it must be short. Because in the end, it is the unproductive, the elusive, the wild things the corncrake represents that feed the landscape we depend on. That make it. Whose absence threatens to unmake it. Her legs may not be the only thing keeping our landscape in order, but her silence is a warning sign.
The Natural History Museum in Dublin is one of the world’s last Victorian, cabinet-style museums, the specimens stuffed and mounted in mahogany trimmed glass display cases, nestled in felted grasslands, or clambering along varnished wooden logs. I must have walked past the corncrake family a hundred times as a child – fingers itching to pull out the display drawers that held the butterflies and moths. But here they are, frozen in a dust-filled ray of sunlight from the tall windows. The female crouches a little, one glassy eye turned towards me, her long foot hinting toward a step, making as if to move between me and her chick – a ball of downy, black feathers. The male’s head is angled up towards the whale skeleton that swims through the air above them, towards where the sky should be. The faded labels on the plinths that hold them read only “Corn Crake, Crex crex, Dublin”. It does not give their Irish name – “an traonach” or “an gearra-ghuirt” – the bird who sleeps all day and calls all night, the corn dweller who comes in the first four weeks of March. Eagles and turtledoves and cranes sit, frozen, around us. All the silences of our landscape pressing down on one space.
From Irish Pages Vol. 11 No. 2: Love.
Dr Róisín Costello is a bilingual writer and academic who lives and works between Dublin and Co Clare. She writes about the connections between language and landscape, the impacts of law on geography and how to recover feminist understandings of place. Her writing has been published in Elsewhere, The Hopper, Entropy, Caught by the River and Banshee. She was shortlisted for the Bodley Head/Financial Times essay competition and, in 2021, was selected as the recipient of a Words Ireland Mentorship by Dublin City Council. A barrister and an Assistant Professor of Law at Dublin City University, she has published research in numerous peer-reviewed journals and is the author of the forthcoming volume Law in Irish Literature: Critical Approaches to Institutions, Power and Identity (Edinburgh University Press, 2024). She is one of the two Irish Language Editors of Irish Pages.