Over the past week, we (as a nation) have been commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ‘Easter Rising’.
For anyone who is not familiar with Irish history, the ‘Easter Rising’ was an armed rebellion against the British Empire and began on Easter Monday, 1916. It was a late date for Easter that year…the rising began on 24th April. Over 2,000 armed men and women of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army occupied various important locations in Dublin city.
At the General Post Office (GPO) in the centre of Dublin, Padraig Pearse read out a proclamation announcing that Ireland was now a Republic and free of British rule. It was a progressive proclamation starting with the words: ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’.
Needless to say, the crown forces put down the rising within a week. By the end of that week, over 400 civilians (including many children), volunteers and British soldiers were killed. Dublin lay in ruins, having being heavily shelled by British forces. The leaders were rounded up and suffered abuse and outrage from ordinary Dubliners. However, when the leaders were subsequently executed over the following weeks, the tide of opinion turned in favour of the men and women who fought ‘for Ireland’s freedom’.
The commemorations this week have been very balanced with many opposing views freely expressed and debated. In some ways it has been a great exercise of self-reflection which allows us, as a nation, to mature and once again take ownership of our collective history.
There have been countless hours of TV dedicated to the events of that bloody week in 1916 and millions of words written on the subject. I have a deep interest in history (instilled by my late father) and have watched lots on TV and read hundreds of articles.
The Dublin city of 1916 was very much as it is now with it’s main streets and roads still there. However, in 1916, when you travelled a mile or two outside of Dublin city you were in the heart of the countryside. Where there are now motorways and sprawling housing estates, there were miles of open farmland dotted with small country villages like Finglas, Coolock and Killester. Houses and shopping centres have long since swamped these villages.
This morning, I was reading various first-hand accounts of events around that tumultuous week in Dublin and one small paragraph jumped out at me. The words shook me from the ‘historical side’ of my brain and threw me back to the ‘bird side’! Unexpectedly, I found myself reflecting on things ‘bird’.
The eyewitness account was written by an Ernest Jordison, head of British Petroleum in Ireland. When the rising started, he brought his wife and children to safety in Drogheda, Co. Louth. They cycled there from Clontarf on the north side of Dublin.
Having left his family in the relative safety of Drogheda, he returned by bike to Clontarf. It was his account of that return to Clontarf that captured my imagination.
He writes: ‘After leaving the main road at Santry, along the lanes, cycling through Coolock and Killester, everything was still and quiet except for the Corncrakes craking, the weather was very beautiful and fine, and the country was lighted up from the reflection in the skies of the fires in Dublin city.’
One hundred years later, you could ramble along the lanes of Killester and Coolock for the rest of your life and you’ll never hear a Corncrake. These birds are now confined to the remote islands and headlands of Donegal, Galway and Kerry. They were once a common bird over all of Ireland but changes in farming practices sentenced them to near extinction.
As it was late April in 1916 when this account was written, the birds would have been fresh in from their migrations from southern Africa. The males would have been in full voice, claiming their territory and trying to attract the attention of the females. Their rasping ‘krex-krex’ call was the sound of an Irish spring and summer…it was also so loud at night that people cursed ‘the bloody birds’ for preventing anyone from getting a good nights sleep. Nobody in Coolock or Killester can make those complaints these days.
Thinking of the Corncrakes this Mr Jordison heard along the lanes of north Dublin 100 years ago, I started to wonder what other birds he might have heard. No doubt the sound of Skylarks was everywhere while Yellowhammers must have been calling from every field edge. These are getting scarcer these days. Last week I visited a well- known Yellowhammer site in north Dublin only to discover (to my horror) that the hedges that these birds love to nest in were cut down to bare stumps. Where usually the songs of Yellowhammers could be heard, there was silence.
I also can’t help wondering if Mr Jordison heard the jangling song of Corn Buntings too on his cycle home that Easter week in 1916. These were common in the early part of the 20th century all over Ireland. They have now become extinct as a breeding species in Ireland with the last birds holding on in the remote areas of Mayo up to the mid-1990’s. What a terrible shame to witness the extinction of a breeding bird species in my lifetime.
While the writings of most of the authors on the many aspects of the 1916 rising captured so much of the life of Dublin at that time, that small paragraph written by Earnest Jordison captures so much more. It was an unintended snapshot of bird life of Dublin in 1916.
Reading it also reminds me that it is now almost six years since I have heard a Corncrake in Ireland. What better way to commemorate life than to seek a calling Corncrake this summer? It is my new resolution for 2016.
And when I do hear that ‘Corncrake craking’, I will thank Earnest Jordison for reminding me that these birds are a precious part of our natural heritage and that such things are truly worth ‘fighting’ for.