How starlings stir the artistic spirit

An Irishwoman’s Diary: ‘One of the great ballets of the world’

‘It’s really incredible to feel the birds, to hear how they surround you, to watch those rolling waves. It’s a tsunami of birds in the air,’ says painter and printmaker Vincent Sheridan.  Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

‘It’s really incredible to feel the birds, to hear how they surround you, to watch those rolling waves. It’s a tsunami of birds in the air,’ says painter and printmaker Vincent Sheridan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Mon, Mar 18, 2013, 06:00

Starlings are an improbable source of artistic inspiration. They hang around in the most pedestrian of places – the telegraph poles of the main street in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, for instance, emitting a chorus of cheeky clicks and whistles on winter afternoons – and at a glance, they look like just another unremarkable black bird.

Yet they have had some startlingly high-profile admirers. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart kept a pet starling for three years. When it died, he was reportedly so distraught that he staged an elaborate funeral, complete with a poem written specially for the occasion.

The starlings in my locality perform virtuoso impressions of fellow birds. One minute you’ll hear a cascade of wren-style arpeggios; the next, a convincing oystercatcher call brings the seashore to your back door. It’s easy to see why they would appeal to a musician. Then again, look more closely at that “unremarkable” plumage and you find that, as the American poet Mary Oliver puts it, there are “stars in their black feathers”.

So it is that even the most unassuming of urban starlings can take us into the shape-shifting world of artistic experience, opening what Seamus Heaney calls “a door into the dark”. But it is when they flock together in large groups that starlings really come into their own. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, sitting on the coach to London in the winter of 1799, captured the surreal beauty of this behaviour in his notebook: “Starlings in vast flights drove along like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition . . . some moments glimmering and shivering, dim and shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening.”

The painter and printmaker Vincent Sheridan has spent years studying starlings and other flocking birds, observing the extraordinary patterns they paint in the sky and capturing them on canvas and, more recently, in video. At the Black Church print studio in Dublin’s Temple Bar, where he is a director of the board, Sheridan shows me a film he made last year on a lake near Mullingar.

It begins quietly. But as the birds gather in ever-larger numbers, the sky darkens and the sound of wings increases in volume until it resembles the falling of heavy rain – which is why we call it a “murmuration”. “It’s one of the great ballets of the world,” Sheridan says. “It’s really incredible to feel the birds, to hear how they surround you, to watch those rolling
waves. It’s a tsunami of birds in the air.”

Watching with human eyes, it’s hard to understand why there aren’t any fatal crashes. “They’re probably doing 40 or 50 kilometres an hour – maybe more,” he says. “One moment it’s a one-way street. The next it’s two-way. And then there’s chaos. It seems chaotic, but it’s not. I’ve never seen a bird fall out of the sky.

“Sometimes they’re attacked by hawks, and then there’s even more bedlam in the group. They get into massive balls and swirl around. You’ve probably seen similar photographs taken underwater when sharks attack a shoal of fish.”

Sheridan’s interest in starlings began when he was growing up on a farm near Prosperous in Co Kildare. “I was drawn to a place right at the edge of the Bog of Allen. I’ve done other things in my art over the years – but I’ve come back to the starlings, and to the natural world in general.”

His prints are on display at Draíocht in Blanchardstown for the next six weeks. “The show, I hope, will speak for itself,” he says. But his work often, also, inspires people to talk back to the artist. “People see my work and then I’ll get a call from Kerry to say ‘Oh, there’s a great bunch of starlings down here’. It opens up a whole book of stories and folklore. You start to find all about people’s lives. I love that.”

This connection between “them” and “us” is what Brendan Kennelly is getting at in his poem A Glimpse of Starlings . It’s a poem about grief, about the unremarkable rhythms of everyday life. But it ends with starlings lifting suddenly over field, road and river, “a fist of black dust pitched in the wind”. Artists one and all.