St Kevin and the birds
The little monasteries of early Christian Ireland derived their monastic ideals from the desert fathers of Egypt. But instead of some cave or remote hill top such as was to be found in the Libyan desert or in Sinai, they remained faithful to the notions of the ancient Celts, whose religious shrines were, as Julius Caesar described them, clearings in the forest of north Europe.
These forests were then alive with animals and birds of all kinds. And this environment has left its mark on both the saints and the poetry they wrote. Their constant praise of God was conditioned by the bird song that surrounded them.
Glendalough in the south mountains of Wicklow, which is associated with the legends of St Kevin, is a model of its kind.
At the time of the Norman-Welsh invasion in 1169, one of those who came to Ireland with the new overlords was Gerald de Barri (known also as Giraldus Cambrensis). A leading author of the day, he wrote about Ireland in his book The History and Topography of Ireland, which circulated widely in Europe in the following centuries.
He wrote the book as a result of his visits to Ireland made while his Norman relatives who were busying themselves in saving Ireland for the true faith, as the old-fashioned beliefs of the Irish were highly suspect in the eyes of Rome and Canterbury, and incidentally in the eyes of the king of England when he took control of the invasion in the 1170s.
The book has many curious tales in it, and what he says about St Kevin quickly became an established legend.
A few facts about St Kevin first may set the scene. He was said to have been born in 498 and to have died in 618 (according to the Annals of Ulster) at the truly patriarchal age of 120. Nevertheless there can be no doubt about his historicity. Gerald de Barri, however, moves in the realm of miraculous legend. This comes from the second part of the book, and opens with some extraordinary tales of the wonders and natural sensations of the country, a delightful collection of ‘traveller’s tales’. He then moves on:
Now let us come to miracles, and let us begin with Saint Kevin, a great confessor of the Faith, and abbot.
At the time when Saint Kevin was distinguished for his life and sanctity at Glendalough, a noble boy, who was a student of his, happened to be sick and to ask for fruit. The saint had pity on him and prayed for him to the Lord. Whereupon a willow-tree not far from the church brought forth fruit that was health-giving to the boy and to others that were sick. And to this day both the willow-tree others planted from it around the cemetery like a wall of willows bring forth fruit each year, although in all respects, in their leaves and branches, they retain their own natural qualities.
This fruit is white and oblong in shape, health-giving rather than pleasant to the taste. The local people have a great regard for it. Many bring it to the farthest parts of Ireland to cure various diseases, and it is called the fruit of Saint Kevin.
On the feastday of the saint, the ravens at Glendalough, perhaps because they spilled the milk of the same student, are prevented by a curse of Saint Kevin from alighting on the earth or taking food. They fly around the village and the church, making a great noise, and on that day enjoy neither rest nor food.
Once upon a time the same Saint Kevin fleeing during Lent, as was his wont, the society of men, was by himself in a small cabin which warded off from him only the sun and the rain.
He was giving his attention to contemplation and was reading and praying. According to his custom he put his hand, in raising it to heaven, out through the window, when, behold, a blackbird happened to settle on it, and using it as a nest, laid its eggs there.
The saint was moved with such pity and was so patient with it that he neither closed nor withdrew his hand, but held it out in a suitable position without tiring until the young were completely hatched out. In perpetual remembrance of this wonderful happening, all the representations of Saint Kevin throughout Ireland have a blackbird in the outstretched hand.
(Translation from the Latin of Gerald de Barri by John J. O’Meara, in The History and Topography of Ireland (Dundalgan Press/Penguin Classics)
St Kevin began his holy life as a hermit and retired to a nearly inaccessible cave, now known as St Kevin’s Bed. At the end of his active life spreading the new faith and founding monasteries he renewed this way of life, away from settlements, at home in the wilderness, so to speak.
We have to remember that the Wicklow mountains in those days were very different from they are today. Then they were a part of the great chain of forests that ran across northern Europe, from Donegal to the foothills of the Urals.
This was territory that lay beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, and the men of the south saw it a place of legend and danger, filled with strange peoples and stranger animals. In reality this forest shaped the minds and outlook of the peoples of the North. They saw reality in quite a different way to the people of the Mediterranean. The people of the south had the sun and the sea; the people of the north had the gloom of the trees and (as in Ireland) the ever-changing skies that never rested. (Think of the contrast in the imaginations between Albert Camus and Franz Kafka.)
Yet St Kevin in the forest was an image of God’s creation, a complete place in which the birds and the animals he loved had a natural place, as indeed had man. Despite our modern expression of love and concern for nature and animal life, we still see them as separate. We need to regain the gift of St Kevin to see God, nature and humanity as all part of one system, to accept that we have not a superior place, but an equal place, perhaps even a secondary place, in creation.
When today we visit Glendalough we should not be so much conscious of the glories of the past, but of the future wonders of the wilderness to be restored. For which perhaps we can offer a prayer to St Kevin.
Gerald Manley Hopkins and the birds of Heaven
The hills and mountains of Dublin and Wicklow were a source of delight to the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins in the last years of his life, when he was sent to Dublin to teach classics at the University College, then run by the Jesuits. Living in No 86 St Stephens Green, he was lucky enough to have behind the house the delights of Iveagh Gardens, while in front the Green itself spread out its ponds, lawns, shrubs, flowers and trees.
The dawn chorus must have been astonishing to hear in those days before the noise of cars drowned everything natural. To wake to it must have been magnificent, a delight to begin the day.
Though in these last years of his life Hopkins poetic output was limited, we can perhaps in some special way count him as an Irish poet by adoption. There has always seemed to me an affinity of soul between Hopkins and the poets of Early Christian Ireland, though Hopkins seems to have been quite unaware of Gaelic poetry of any kind or any period; though Desmond Egan reminds me that he was trying to learn a little Irish. Hopkins met the young W.B. Yeats in his father’s York Street studio near the college, but Yeats was then only 16: the Irish literary revival was just emerging.
Like the poetry of early Christian Ireland, Hopkins’ poems, are filled with images of birds. The most powerful of all from his poem As kingfishers catch fire:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
One particular poem of Hopkins has been a source of special delight to me from my schooldays. This is the Windhover.
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
The few poems he wrote in Ireland have often seemed to reflect a deep unhappiness. This view has been vigorously disputed by Desmond Egan. But at another level we know that whatever about his personal woes and the difficulties he had dealing with the ill-mannered sons of the Dublin Catholic middle-classes he had to teach, who saw their college degree as a mere step to professional careers free of poetry or literature, or English converts with Oxford accents.
Hopkins found solace in nature always, in the fields around Oxford, the hills of North Wales, and the open lands of Leinster. And though he knew nothing of ancient Irish poetry, remnants of the environment which inspired those early poets were still alive with animals and birds and he could see and hear on his expeditions.
One place he much enjoyed was the glades of the Massey Estate in the Dublin Mountains. As children we used to visit there for summer evening picnics and it was and is a delightful place. But such joys are for only a few people at a time. There is little consolation to be gained from modern mass tourism.
Indeed the dominant image of early Christen poetry is the monk sitting in the open air over the manuscript which he is carefully copying, replicating the word of God to pass on to future generations.
A hedge of trees surrounds me.
A blackbird’s lay sings to me.
Above my lined booklet
The trilling birds chant to me.
In a grey mantle from the top of bushes
The cuckoo sings.
Verily—may the Lord shield me!—
Well do I write under the greenwood.
8th or 9th century.
Translated from the Gaelic by Kuno Meyer.