“The Cuckoo comes in April. He sings his song in May. By June he changes his tune and then he flies away.”
That is a quote direct from the Folklore Collection available from duchas.ie. Yesterday, two lovely things happened simultaneously: first; a friend sent a recording of the Cuckoo taken in situ about 10km away from where I live, and second; a friend suggested I check out the duchas.ie website. Both happenings are the inspirations, the “imbas” for this creation.
There are 1,736 references to the Cuckoo and stories surrounding this elusive and mischevious bird in the Folklore Collection alone. So, it is safe to assume this bird commands a high status in Irish myth. Sadly, we do not hear the Cuckoo so much nowadays. As a child I recall it being a common, taken for granted thing.
We knew by instinct to turn to the right when first hearing the Cuckoo call as it was luckier to hear it with your right ear. If you were really poxy at the time and you had some money in your pocket it was even better still, as hearing the Cuckoo foretold prosperity. If you asked it a secret question like “How soon until I am married?” the number of Cuckoo replies would be the amount of years until that event would take place. I can vouch for this being true, both my cousin and I can actually. The Cuckoo song also heralds a spell of bad weather known as the “Scaraveens”
“Scaraveen” is one of those Irish words that was part of my Nire Valley lexicon. There were many Hiberno-English-isms like that, words like “sceartán” (tick) or “míoltóg” (midge) are still in everyday use. These are words which one may not immediately understand without their translation into English. The tone of voice with which the word was said gave as much away as the word itself. “Scaraveen” derives from the Irish phrase “garbh shíon na gCuach” – “the rough weather of the Cuckoo”. This gradually became “garbh shion“, then “Garaveen” and, finally, “Scaraveen”.
The Cuckoo spends a few months in Ireland every year. It places her eggs in other birds nests; in fact she wreaks much havoc because lays as many as four eggs at a time in up to 20 nests and in the process evicts the original eggs out of those nests. That is a lot of eggs and a lot od displaced chicks. Cuckoos are the serial killers of the bird world. I recall seeing them as grey black birds, smaller than pigeons and hawk like, being agile in flight and nearly always in the company of other birds.
What is it about this creature that gets to us? Why do we like them so much? On the face of it, their natures are not very endearing, they are interlopers, and savage when they visit us, murdering up to 20 chicks per nest in the process. They then leave their eggs to be hatched and fed by other birds and in their final act of betrayal they leave their own offspring to find their own way back to warmer climes in the autumn. It is real survival of the fittest stuff. You’re on your own Jack.
The cuckoos are generally a shy and retiring family, more often heard than seen. Their birdsong is simply the repetative cuckoo sound, technically, there is nothing so special about it at all. Yet, it epitomises nostalgia, a bygone era, it is a familiar sound from childhood, a summer sound. This bird is celebrated as a symbolic marker for nature. It is recognised by it’s distinguishable twofold cry which echoes across hills and valleys, yet we rarely see one. There is mystery in that. It is as if the Cuckoo does us a favour, like we are the chosen one to hear it. And we are, that is the thing. We are indeed blessed.
The Ancient Druids had a sect that studied the behaviour of birds and believed it were possible to divine prophecy based on their insights. Diodorus Siculus, an ancient Roman writer, told of Druids who predicted the future from the flight of birds.
“An Irish version of the Historia Brittonum, by the Welsh historian Nennius, includes an ancient poem which refers to six Druids who lived at Breagh-magh and who practiced ‘the watching of birds’.”
Part of this tradition of ‘the watching of birds’ survives in Irish piseogs. One such piseog states that you should listen to sharp-tongued people and the Cuckoo. Another;
“Má labhríonn an chuach ar chrann gan duiliúr díol do bhó agus ceannaigh arbhar.-
If the cuckoo calls from a tree without leaves, sell your cow and buy corn.”
Here the cuckoo gives a warning of the season to come. If the tree on which it is perched, is barren, one would be wise to sell the clan’s riches, (which ancient Irish measured in cows) and buy corn.
And another warning, (from Mawie Draoi) it is very unlucky to hunt, maim or kill a Cuckoo or to break it’s eggs. It is considered the ultimate act of treachery and no good would come to you if you do.