Summer swallows in Ireland: a game of cats and birds

I just have to tell ye this minute my story of Romeo and Juliet and their sons Gog and Magog and their daughter Oonagh, the most beautiful of the three. And I think, being a bit cracked as ye know, that it is a life story in miniature but nonetheless powerful in its way.


I have been writing all summer about my Irish meanderings, and they have not finished yet as I will relate shortly. I also have been writing about our brilliant weather, especially in the earlier weeks of the summer. That is relevant to this tale of Romeo and Juliet and their family.

Our thatched cottage has walls nearly three feet in width. The heavy golden thatched roof, together with those walls, makes it cool in good weather and snug and warm in the winter. I love the place.

When the good weather came in early May we ritually open up all the doors, and that is something which the swallows Romeo and Juliet instantly spotted when they met and fell in feathered love in the skies above Carhue townland.

The rear end of the long cottage (where our beautiful Irish Voice artist Caty Bartholomew once slept when she visited) was originally a horse shed. We converted it into a studio for the artistic Dutch Nation, into our guest room for the many visitors over the years, into a flexible kind of extra space.

The wide doors which once admitted big working horses are now French doors opening out into what is now the retriever Anika's personal pen. When good weather comes we leave them open day and night, and Romeo and Juliet spotted that when they fell into their feathered love story early in the summer.

I spotted the young pair early on. They would fly into the studio under the eaves, and under the steeply pitched timber roof in a crazy fashion that their older wiser peers would not approve of.

The older couples always establish their nests in the outside sheds where swallows properly belong. But Romeo and Juliet were in the first flush of youth and love, lissom little slips of things, very beautiful, and in one ledged corner of the studio they thought they had found their Valhalla, their little warm home in the west.

Spotting them early, and being a mortal man, I closed the French doors to dissuade them from squatting. But I forgot the open window above the loft!

Inside three days, to my amazement, a dinky little clay nest, exquisitely constructed, appeared on the

Ledge, and there was Juliet with her classical Greek profile sitting within. And Romeo sitting protectively beside it every nightfall. You cannot cruelly intervene in that situation.

We flung open the French doors again and let love take its course. This was largely the humane decision of the Dutch Nation.

This is a cruel world. About the same time as we noticed the lovers so too did our cats Tuppence and Thruppence.

These semi-Burmese ladies are lethal. There is not a mouse left in the townland at this stage. Every day of the golden summer one or other of them would be down in the studio waiting their chance to pounce.

There is a ladder leading up to the loft that gave them elevation. Always there was one of them sitting on the fourth step up, coiled to spring at what were now the flitting parents of an invisible brood above in the nest.

"It will end badly," I often said to the Dutch Nation, but the die was cast. Life had to take its course.

I was busy (as ye know) and often away but, incredibly quickly, as the summer waxed and waned, there suddenly appeared on the white ledge beside the nest the three heads of the swallow fledglings. One was smaller, sleeker, more patrician than the clearly bulkier male heads to either side.

I christened her Oonagh at once and the others Gog and Magog, the larger of the male pair. Romeo and Juliet, constantly feeding the trio, were great parents. At night they would be perched exhausted side by side, the family back safe in the nest.

Below, or on the loft ladder, Tuppence and Thruppence with their sharp talons, were never far away. Watching. Waiting. Poised to kill.

Easy to say we should have kept them out of the studio. Impossible. The French doors had to remain open to permit the feeding flights of Romeo and Juliet.

Cats will always find a way into any space. The swallows had to take their chance.

Once I saw Thruppence spring from the ladder and almost catch the flitting Juliet. But all that was outside our ambit and ken. Juliet escaped and life went on.

I knew the crucial time would come when the young ones launched themselves from the ledge for their first flights. I know nothing about how long it takes young swallows to learn to fly. But I knew one fall would likely be fatal. Cats are lethal.

The family of swallows left us last Thursday, sometime in the afternoon. I know that because I was working at this keyboard on the other side of the wall and I heard excitable bird sound and concurrent scuffle of the type associated with talons on timber floors.

I went to investigate, and four of the five swallows were gone to the wide world outside. The nest was empty in a way you somehow knew it would never be used again.

Romeo and Juliet were gone. And Gog and Magog were gone, fleeting on the thermals over the thatched roof, but poor little beautiful petite Oonagh had not made it.

Thruppence was sitting contentedly beside the small little dead little corpse with its blue-grey halo of feathers that never got a chance to fly.

I left her alone with her prey. Life is life for all of us.

I know I write a lot about the annual comings and goings of our swallows. That's because these are poignant paragraphs in our years on this earth. And they are beautiful birds.

They have not departed for Africa yet, as I write, but they are getting ready on the telephone wires every evening. Up there this autumn is our Romeo and our Juliet. And Gog and Magog readying for the mysterious ordeal of their first migration.

And you wonder if they have any kind of memory of their sister Oonagh.

I suppose I'm a sentimental fool.

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