Believe me, we were for the birds

 

Sport is to Corkonians what wine is to the French - in our blood. It is said that in France top shelf wine is usually found hidden in a box under the table - reserved for the palates and pleasures of the domestic market. Likewise, here on Leeside we harbour some sporting secrets; secrets rarely exposed to the non-native.

High up on the northside of my town there is a pub, and where once hung a rings board now stands what might be described as an altar. It is dedicated to the memory of one of Ireland's unsung sporting heroes and Cork's best kept secret - Lofty Boy, a racing pigeon. And like Lenin in his tomb, Lofty Boy is preserved behind glass surrounded by rosettes, medals, cups and trophies: his shrine, now a place of pilgrimage.

At Christmas-time children, accompanied by their parents, deposit pet toys and pet food at Lofty Boy's claws. The offerings are then distributed to the disadvantaged pets across the city. Meanwhile at Easter, children arrive with sick animals in the hope of a cure. And every year, as the Holy Communion season draws near, fathers and sons come just to stand in the presence of Lofty Boy.

Last Saturday morning, I witnessed just such a father and son pay homage at the shrine of our super bird. The father swaying there, pint in hand and pointing at the glass case, saying, "Listen to me son, if you keep the head down and work hard - maybe one day you too could be as successful as Lofty Boy." Talk about parental pressure! How any nine-yearold boy could aspire to the dizzying heights of that pigeon among pigeons is beyond me.

As morning drifted towards afternoon, I found myself perched at the bar, enveloped in conversation, admittedly much of it going way over my head. The talk was of birds, sporting birds and heroic birds. Seemingly, during the Great War, a pigeon from Wolfe Tone Street was awarded the Dickens Medal for bravery, the ornithological equivalent of the Victoria Cross. And, of course, there was the pigeon from Greenmount who saved a boy from drowning in the Lough out by Ballyphehane . . . But the conversation never strayed too far from the exploits of the late and great Lofty Boy.

Lofty Boy's record speaks for itself, representing his country and gaining recognition at the highest international competitive level: Frazerburg (475 miles), Lerwich (635 miles) and even at Thurso - the Grand National of pigeon racing. But all agree that Lofty Boy will be best remembered for his role as mentor and his work with younger pigeons, bringing them on from local to national level and ultimately to the international arena.

It was time for tea so my homing instinct kicked in; one final salute to Lofty Boy and I headed for the door. That was when the barman asked had I heard of The Battle Of The Birds which took place over the skies of Cork city in 1621; of course I had. Anyway, on my way home, I picked up Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. It would round off the day nicely for me.

The Birds (1963), based on a story by Daphne du Maurier, is a psychological thriller. Fellini described The Birds as a filmic poem and who am I to disagree with the main man? In truth, this film is not a story in the real sense of the word. It never attempts to explain where the birds came from or where they went. As for the fate of the characters, Hitchcock leaves us guessing and chose not to display THE END credit, which was de rigueur in all films of the time, thus giving the impression of unending terror or a story without an end - in effect not a story at all. The film is basically a series of vignettes fuelled by suspense as Melanie Daniels, played by Tippi Hedren, is followed around an isolated Californian community by a flock of blood-thirsty birds. As the crowned Master of Suspense, once again Hitchcock keeps us hanging there. Watch out for the director's cameo appearance at the start of the film walking past the pet shop with two white terriers.

On Monday, I visited the library to check out The Battle Of The Birds over the skies of Cork in 1621. Sure enough there it was in The Cork Anthology (UCC Press 1993) edited by Sean Dunne (p.347). Allow me give you a brief, edited version: ". . . seventh of October, Anno 1621, there gathered an unusual multitude of birds called starlings - they met to fight the most bitterest and sharpest battell at this Citie of Corke - they mounted the aire and encountered each other with violent assaults - and fell into the city streets, upon houses, and into the river, wounded and slaughtered - all found dead in the streets, rent, torn and mangled."

Now I don't know, but disciples of Hitchcock will tell you that the bird attacks in his film are a metaphor for loneliness or fear of abandonment. What other reason could there be for such a wild narrative leap of faith unless . . .?

Unless, Daphne Du Maurier, who spent much of her time with the Puxley family in West Cork, was inspired by stories of battling birds that always seems to be doing the rounds in Leeside since - well, ever since 1621. Because here in Cork there is nothing metaphorical about mad flocks of birds; we just choose not to talk about it.