The caged birds that inspired my 'Irish Times' debut
ANOTHER LIFE:The sight of goldfinches for sale in a Dublin market began more than 50 years of writing
The flight of birds across the hillside is now sparse but more eventful, as the local finches and starlings sift about in flocks, the better to find food and keep a heads-up for predators. Among them, I assume, are the goldfinches we gloried in all summer as they raised young on the acre. As late as September one cock was still uttering his delicious, swivelling song from the hawthorn.
When the wind went north last month we took out the feeders and opened the big bag of peanuts from Argentina. Days on, as I write, the tubes hang almost untouched from the oaks: even the garden tits must feel they have wild seeds enough.
But goldfinches will be back as the last of the wayside thistles are scalped, until perhaps a dozen are flashing about the trees.
I remember the great pleasure, more than a decade ago, when the first of these finches came to the nuts – a thrill shared at thousands of Ireland’s kitchen windows as a species most at home in a weedy countryside progressively discovered human bounty. There have even been queries to Eye on Nature from innocents dazzled by the brilliant colours: what exotic visitors could they be?
The great change in the bird’s fortunes can be judged from its profile in an early classic of Irish ornithology, The Birds of Ireland, from 1900. “The goldfinch,” Richard Ussher and Robert Warren began, “is a well-known bird in every part of Ireland from which bird-catchers have not driven it, though they have done this for miles around our larger towns and even in many country districts the species has sensibly diminished.”
The popularity of goldfinches as caged birds, many for export to the UK, persisted for decades. In 1930 a young Dáil deputy for Dublin South, Seán Lemass, was resisting the passage of the first Wild Birds Protection Act. It would, he said, bring greater misery to the 300 people who made a precarious living from birdcatching. “If the economic situation becomes better,” he went on, “we can then afford to indulge in luxury legislation of this kind.”
At the end of the 1950s, on a brief visit to Ireland, I was taken around Dublin by a friend. The tour included a Sunday-morning visit to the old bird market in what was once called Petty Canon Alley, later Canon Street, within bell-ringing chimes of St Patrick’s Cathedral. This cramped cul-de-sac, lined with cages holding, all too probably, some goldfinches and linnets along with canaries and budgerigars, was crowded with men in hats and caps who, in retrospective fancy, could have been waiting to join Flann O’Brien in the pub.
The visit moved me to a poem, which began: “There would be something doubly wrong / About a market selling birds in cages / That viewed the hills or other birds / Free to their own trees and refuges. / This market is itself a cell confined / By overpeering sculleries . . .” I was twentysomething, and The Irish Times kindly paid me £10 for it (or was it 10s 6d?) – my debut in these pages, in 1958.
History, local and natural, continues to inspire slim volumes produced with much personal zest and dedication and deserving some notice at this season.