Working on the next Stefan Gillespie novel I am, at the moment, in the spring of 1940, at almost this time of year, late April, when the swallows arrived, indifferent to the war and the conflict they had flown over – in the Mediterranean, in Spain, in France, in England, on their way to West Wicklow. Ancestors of the swallows that still arrive and build their nest in the same places. And this year's swallows actually did arrive here last week. I know that because one flew into my face on Friday when I went into the wood shed, where a mud nest is now being refurbished for the first brood of the year.
Of course the animals famous for flying into faces, and getting tangled up in hair, etc., are bats. We do have bats too, tiny mouse-like pipistrelles, and in the summer evenings, as the dozens of swallows finally give up swooping the sky above the house to collect insects, a lonely bat or two will often take over. The truth about bats, however, is that one thing they will never do is fly into your face, let alone get tangled in your hair. Their radar-like abilities mean that they can see everything. They may miss you by half a millimetre, but it will be a carefully calculated half millimetre.
I know this because a long time ago, in the eighties, I was visiting some caves on the border between Kenya and Uganda, in the Mount Elgon National Park, following the route through Kenya taken by a Victorian explorer, Joseph Thomson, who was the first European to reach this area. The caves are quite isolated even now. At the time Thomson went to Mount Elgon some of the huge caves were lived in by the Elegeyo tribe, and the Elegeyo told him that the caves had been created by elephants digging out the mountainside. Thomson duly recorded this in his wonderful book, ‘Through Masai Land’, and was ridiculed by the Royal Geographical Society for giving credence to such a ludicrous idea.
It was only in the 1990s that herds of elephants were captured on film, by infrared cameras, moving up the mountain into the caves, and using their tusks to dig into the cave walls. It appears that they are looking for minerals they need. And it is now accepted that the unique caves of Mount Elgon have indeed been created over millennia, in significant part at least, by herds of elephants.
But what about bats?
Well, I was standing in one of the caves when the guide, playing a joke he had obviously played many times, let off a shot from his rifle. In response, out of the darkness at the back of the cave, a black cloud, filling the cave from roof to ceiling, came rolling towards me at great speed, heading for the horizontal gash of sunlight that was the cave entrance. They were bats; bats in numbers of the order of ten thousand. As they really did fill the whole cave, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, the cloud of bats had to pass round me. I was totally shrouded in bats. I wouldn’t say it was an enjoyable sensation! But though they passed within millimetres, and I could feel the air moved by their wings, I was not touched. Not a wing tip brushed my hair. So while a swallow might collide with you in the wood shed, a bat really won’t!
The swallows arrive here always in two groups; an advance party of only a few around now, the middle to end of April, and then in May they come in much bigger numbers. This morning there are two swallows flying; in two week there will be twenty or thirty, and then in due course all their offspring.
Thomas Hardy wrote a well-known and deceptively ‘slight’ poem that starts with spring moving into summer; this time of year. I thought of it this morning as I heard a cuckoo across the valley, below Kilranelagh, looking out past the horse chestnut that is, sadly, the last of three very big and very old trees – the other two had to come down because of a disease that is wiping out horse chestnuts in the way elms were wiped out in my youth. It was the first cuckoo I have heard this year. I often do hear a cuckoo across the valley, but I have seen one only once, in some woods near Talbotstown. I say Hardy’s poem is deceptively slight, because like all his poetry, the words carry a great deal more below the surface than above, and in his words of simple, almost naive celebration are, as ever, the weight of loss and memory, love and pain, youth and age, longing and regret, the deep bonds between people and places, our connection with the land and its life (already being lost itself in Hardy’s time). The idea that something as simple as sitting outside a pub stirs the soul and brings us into touch with the whole sweep of our lives from youth to old age, is the kind of thing Thomas Hardy can make work with an effortlessness few other poets would risk. He has no problem slapping the simple and the profound up against each other. For me that 'south and west' carries a very strong memory of place and people - my grandparents, childhood holidays spent with my cousins in Dorset - as it is one of the components of my Irish-English heritage. Though I don't think there were many maids in sprig-muslin about outside the Cat and Fiddle near Christchurch...
It’s probably true that all great poetry has the characteristics of an iceberg in one way or another. Most of what’s there is beneath the surface. Hardy’s work is always like that. Anyway, it starts:
This is the weather the cuckoo likes,
And so do I;
When showers betumble the chestnut spikes,
And nestlings fly;
And the little brown nightingale bills his best,
And they sit outside at 'The Traveller's Rest,'
And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest,
And citizens dream of the south and west,
And so do I.
Meanwhile the last flowering of 2014's chestnut spikes, looking towards Kilranelagh's slopes, and the cattle out below Baltinglass Hill, looking across the field where Stefan Gillespie was shearing sheep in 'The City of Shadows'... and, some of this years gorse, just because I love it, and... why not, a few elephants in a cave on the slopes of Mount Elgon...