Birds of heaven lost in Irish airspace prompted a few skipped heartbeats in ornithological circles almost six years ago. Lorcan O’Toole of the Golden Eagle Trust still remembers being happily afflicted.
"A good omen," he said of the sighting of a flock of Grus Grus or Eurasian cranes over north Cork in autumn 2011. The same bird had become extinct in Ireland all of three centuries before. The peata corr, as it was known, had been third most popular pet here after dogs and cats during the time of Brehon law.
Artist Gordon D'Arcy has written in Ireland's Lost Birds of how it was a Middle Ages custom to keep tame cranes before table at dinner, with the bird kneeling or bowing the head when a bishop gave a benediction.
The bald red patch on the crane’s crown was depicted in the Book of Kells, while St Colmcille was known as the “crane cleric”.
When not hunting for eagle nests in Bluestack mountains, O’Toole found himself consumed with “crane notions”. Hence the subtitle to a book he has now written about the enigmatic species. In it, he recalls how the crane bag was a well-known magical container in our ancient folklore, which had associations with Manannán Mac Lir, the great sea god, Lúgh and Fionn Mac Cumhaill.
O’Toole didn’t have the sort of time or budget afforded to North American writer Peter Matthiesen, whose similar obsession with the bird known for its complex courtship dancing took him from Siberia to the Sudan.
As Matthiessen documents in The Birds of Heaven, cranes are sacred in many societies from Japan to India to Australia, but their cultural standing has not been enough to protect their wetlands from the impact of man – be it drainage or hydro-electricity.
In Ireland, their significance is reflected in Irish placenames. O’Toole has counted about 37 such locations, including Cormongan, Corglancey and Corloughlin in Co Leitrim, and Cornawall or Corr na bhfál in Co Monaghan. While “cor” usually translates as a round hill, he thinks it is far more likely to be associated with the pet bird.
Irish words such as cornasc, as in a leg spancel or hobble, corrach, meaning a fetter or shackle, and the Spanish word corral evolved from terms associated with tame or pet crane devices. A Scots Gaelic phrase, corracha margaidh, translates as "jailbirds" – market herons, birds or people who frequent markets or places where they are likely to pick up leftovers.
Similarly, the old Irish word corrmarguighidh, meaning “rabble”, is very similar and “could relate to tame or feral cranes”, O’Toole says.
O’Toole focuses in his book on 12 aspects of the crane in Irish history, ranging from the first Christian settler on the Aran Islands being named Naomh Éanna or “king of the birds”, to the “white crane” totemic symbol of early Atlantic animist peoples, to the reasons for the crane images on the base of an 8th-century high cross in Co Tipperary.
An ancient veneration for cranes among Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist philosophies, and the roots of European words are also touched on in his exploration. He imagines an “earlier pacifist and animist Atlantic civilisation” that was “drowned out by humanist waves and scribal ink” . He notes that the tales of King Arthur emphasised a belief in reincarnation from the mythical island of Avalon, and wonders if this reflects a belief that people were buried along crane migration routes.
Then there’s the Táin Bó Cúailnge , which talks of a great flock of silver-chained birds eating all types of vegetative matter. O’Toole notes several scholars, including Prof TF O’Rahilly, have questioned whether Queen Medbh was based in Cruachán, Roscommon. This has opened up an “alternative geographic footprint” for the Táín saga, and he suggests that same footprint could be more accurately traced to Co Wicklow.
The birdman does not claim to be an expert, and says that many of his ideas are speculative. However, he notes that there is an emerging conviction that our ancestors were far more advanced spiritually than we give them credit for. He is hoping to generate a debate on the issue – perhaps even a movement towards recreating the bird’s habitat in midland bogs.
For there is far more to a crane than an immobile symbol of "success" on a Dublin skyline. Corr Scéal – Crane Notions by Lorcán Ó Tuathail (Careful Publications), and is available from Kennys bookshop in Galway at €19.86