The starling inspired me to start writing after I found her one morning, trapped in the living room of my mother’s old house. She’d fallen down the chimney and dropped the twigs and wool she’d gathered to build her nest. I found them scattered in the dust on the grate as she tore at the window desperately trying to get out. I was so worried that she was going to hurt herself, that I somehow managed to gently grasp the sooty, little body and carry her, slowly like a flickering candle, to the back door. I set her free and as the tiny silhouette disappeared into the pink, winter sky I called out to her:
“Please come back someday – we’re building a new home here too.”
“Look for me in spring trees!” I thought I heard her say and I wrote it down in a little notebook so I wouldn’t forget the message.
In January 2020, I started to keep a diary about our first year back on the family farm on Dechomet Mountain in the Dromara Hills in Co Down. My husband and I had been living and working in Belfast city for many years and we’d built a new home here where we planned to run a music club in the restored barn loft.
I grew up on this small dairy farm where my mother, Maggie, milked eight cows twice every day for years after my father, Nicholas died following a short illness in 1974. I was 12 years old and my sister, Carmel, was eight and for the three of us the loss was immeasurable. But life on the farm had to go on and, together, we took good care of our cows because they were our breadwinners and our friends.
Every morning, three steel cans of cooled milk were rolled from the small dairy beside the byre to the roadside for the creamery lorry to collect. Each Friesian cow had a name and sometimes, in the summer, my mother would wander down into the fields to talk to them – Whitey, Wee Heifer, Toddles and the rest. They would walk up to her and push their big heads under her arm for a cuddle. Cows are kind that way and the bond between us and the animals was strong and unforgettable. I’ve carried that memory like a photograph in my heart all my life and I always knew that somehow, someday I would come back to the fields and the homeplace.
Our barn loft was a traditional Irish farm building with two doors at ground level in the farmyard. One was for the stable, where my grandfather kept his cart horse a century ago, and the other for the calf house where baby cattle were fed up until the 1990s. Stone steps with a red handrail led to the loft where grain was stored at harvest time. My grandmother told stories about ceilis in that loft after bags of corn were heaved up the steps from a trailer on the road. At the start of 2020, I put a tilly lamp in the gable window of the restored barn on the nights we now welcomed our musical friends to play Irish and American jazz, contemporary folk and soul music at the modern-day ceilis we were now hosting in the barn loft.
The inner, white-washed walls glowed in the lamplight as the music spilled out across the yard and into the fields beyond and we were delighted to have broken new ground on the farm, growing music on the mountainside. The whole experience of renewal provided fresh stories and observations for the nature diary I was now writing as part of my creative writing course at Queen’s University in Belfast. “Write about what you know,” they said, so I did just that.
By March 2020, we were becoming more anxious, watching the daily news reports about the Covid-19 pandemic. The world was shutting down to protect all of us from the coronavirus threat and so the music had to stop and our barn went dark. By the end of the month, we were locked down on the mountain, walking the country road like pilgrims looking for hope in the spring landscapes.
On the 26th of the month, we stood in our garden under a cold, crescent moon to applaud, like millions of others, our friends and family members working in the National Health Service. We started to clap slowly, the sound bouncing off the mountain and splitting the darkness. Across the fields, we watched our neighbours come out of their front doors to do the same, the yellow lights warming the chilled air. Within seconds, the countryside echoed with the sound of human hands uniting and the connection was deep and powerful. In a spontaneous moment, Linley lifted his trumpet and played the bright, golden melody of When the Saints Go Marching In and suddenly, for just a little while, everyone was clapping in time, singing loudly and wildly across the valley. The music lifted all of us that night.
By May 1st, 2020, we had adjusted to a new routine of long, daily walks along our quiet country roads and loanins, regularly stopping to talk to neighbours over garden fences where they were home schooling their children. In the unexpected but very welcome heatwave, I spent hours outdoors revisiting childhood haunts in fields and meadows and making notes about the hedgerows and ditches now bursting with cow parsley, chamomile and buttercups. The daily business of the birds had become woven into our lives as we woke early with the glorious chorusing of blackbirds, robins and wrens at dawn.
One bright morning early in the month, I opened the little door of our black postbox which is built into a pillar under the barn loft. On the floor of the box, I found some twigs, wool and straw. I closed the door, blinking back tears, and went into the house to find a plastic container for our letters. Later that morning, I told our postman to use it for our mail as there was a new resident in the box. Within days, my starling friend had built a sturdy nest in there and would shout noisily from the treetops when anyone approached the area. Sometimes, early in the mornings as the sun slipped up behind the mountains, I would lean out the window and whisper to her "I'm so glad you came back". "Me too," I think she said.
Maggie Doyle worked for BBC Northern Ireland as a radio producer and manager for over 30 years. In 2019, she took early retirement and returned to live on the farm with her husband Dr Linley Hamilton who is a musician and educator. Together, they run a music club and mentoring project to support young singer/songwriters. Mountain Notes is Maggie's first book and is based on diary notes she kept during 2020 about walks in the local landscape. The book is an affectionate and lyrical memoir of their reconnection with the natural world and the re-imagining of the farm as a place where music grows. Mountain Notes costs £10 with proceeds going to thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk It is available from No Alibis in Belfast, Bridge Books in Dromore, Painted Earth in Newcastle, Blue Beans Crafts in Castlewellan, North Down Museum, The Turnip House in Leitrim and The Bee House in Bangor or email firstname.lastname@example.org