The swallows return, beard competition, historic crimes and other musings


The line I most enjoy writing for you every year is short and sweet and simple: "The swallows are back again. The cold winter is officially declared over."

It is with special joy and relief and hope that I write it once more.

Our flicker friends against a bright blue sky are doubly welcome at the end of a week when Boston, the most Irish of your great cities, seemed so close to the western birthland of so many of its citizens that the pain and horror were on the winds that blew across the chilled Atlantic.

So it is indeed with real joy and hope for all kinds of brighter days ahead that I again write the line I've been glad to write since the very beginning of the Irish Voice all those decades ago now.

The swallows are back again.

I always see them first over the roof of my friend Jimmy White's bungalow across the road. There is a lough behind Jimmy and Joanne's great garden, and the insect flights above the water clearly attract the swallows year after year.

I see four of them swooping and showing off their incredible aerial skills over Jimmy's chimney.  They represent one of the most beautiful images of the new season now in it.

They are far more striking than even the brightest flowers in Jimmy's garden below.  They are, after the chilling events in Boston and Texas and all the European and international wars and earthquakes and recessions, some kind of glorious parable that life goes on, that the cycle continues, that there is always light at the end of our tunnels. Something like that.

Yes, the swallows are back and I stand there admiring them with a child's eyes in my old face. And somewhere inside I wonder for how many more Aprils will I write my line about their return.

Another decade anyway, God and Debbie willing, and, the way I feel today maybe even two decades. Any why not?

I go out to write this piece in the garden because the visitors have brought warm weather with them. Dammit if a message does not pop up on the screen from my friend in North Clare, the author and music producer PJ Curtis.

PJ is as excited as I am, not by the sighting of swallows but by the fact that he spotted the first Burren gentians at the foot of Mullaghmore Mountain on his morning walk.  There were three of them, he writes, lonely little fellows in exactly the same spot as he finds them first every year.

I reply with the report of my sighting just as the radio at my elbow on the garden table reveals that Shirley Temple is about to celebrate her 85th birthday! Surely not!

Won't she always be the dancing little one under a flight of bluebirds over the rainbow. But it is true all right.

PJ has other news which I'd like to be the first to tell ye about. He wrote a successful novel recently around the plot of two Irish sisters who gave shelter to a wounded Black and Tan officer during the original Fight for Freedom. And did they not fall in love with him, and did that not cause fierce tensions in a world where the wounded tan was being sought actively by the IRA.

Now, it appears, a leading film company is interested in converting the story into a film which has as good a chance of any of being a major box office success. Remember you read that news here first. I will keep ye posted.

More lighthearted seasonal news, not from PJ, arrives in another email from the North Clare village of Corofin where I lived for a time when I first came to Clare 20 odd years ago. There is a great community spirit in that lively village, and one of my proudest boasts in this life is that a suggestion I made as a resident at a community meeting led to the establishment the following summer of the All-Ireland Stone Throwing Championships in Campbell's backyard.

It has been going strong ever since.  I am the lifetime president of the event, and the news is that Corofin is staging a concurrent competition which is exciting major interest this year.

At the May bank holiday weekend for the revived Finn Festival there will be a competition for the World's Best Beard! All competitors are welcome, and I learn there is hardly a clean-shaven man these days within a 20-mile radius of Corofin, so the competition will be keen.

I'm going to trim my own beard and go back there to meet old friends, and sure I won't win, but there will be plenty of craic and music and stone-throwing and dancing, and the R word will never be mentioned for the whole weekend at the very start of May.

And more lighthearted news before I conclude. There has been considerable delight in the Limerick village of Effin (about 30 miles south of Limerick City) that Facebook is now accepting Effin as a non-offensive word that local residents can register as their address if they wish.

Earlier, because of a perceived connection with the four letter word, Facebook were trying to wipe Effin off their map. Not any more.

But brother Mickey on the phone from Listowel has an interesting yarn to tell me about that same four letter word.

I have to be careful here. Many years ago when Mickey was an Irish Times reporter in Dublin, the venerable editor Douglas Gageby called him aside one day. Gageby had been out socializing the previous night and had been appalled at the frequency with which the FLW was being used by just about everybody.

He detailed Mickey to investigate what was the history of the word and to write a piece about it. Mickey set to work and, in synopsis, discovered that the history of the usage of the offending word (which I totally abhor) is complicated and complex and goes away back through the centuries. Shakespeare apparently even used an early form of it.

But Mickey's researches led him finally to publish one of the many theories about how the word came into the language. Back about the 16th century, he wrote, if a British soldier was being charged with rape or any serious sexual offense he was served with a court martial charge sheet which had the nature of the charge printed in bold lettering across the top. The charge was stated as alleging felonious unlawful carnal knowledge, and it was not long before verbal shorthand attached itself to those charge sheets. That's the story as it was told to me.

I hope, as the little birds create haloes over my happy head, that I've not offended anybody with this. Such was not the intent.

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