My rather melancholy September project continues. Another bird today, this time the bittern. From “Whittled Away”:
Eaten in Medieval times, it nested in undisturbed wetlands until the mid 1800s. Winter visitors continued until 1900 when the only reliable site was in Durrow, Co Laois. This wetland has since been drained. Bitterns are recovering in the UK and are strictly protected under EU law. They still turn up intermittently as winter vagrants.
In 2015 in his Irish Examiner column Dick Warner records a report of one booming in County Leitrim. He goes on to write:
There is no doubt that at one time they were common, breeding in every county in Ireland. There were two reasons for their decline and eventual extinction. The first was the 1842 Drainage Act. Bitterns need extensive wetlands with reed beds, patches of open shallow water and lots of coarse fish, particularly eels, to feed on. Up to the middle of the 19th century Ireland had more of this type of habitat than most other European countries and bitterns thrived. Then extensive land drainage started to shrink the reed beds.
The second factor was hunting pressure. Gordon D’Arcy documents this in his excellent book Ireland’s Lost Birds. Bitterns were regarded as a great delicacy, fetching a higher price than the larger and meatier grey heron, and were eagerly sought after by amateur and professional wild-fowlers.
Other birds that were driven to extinction here have managed to recolonise, even without human help. The buzzard and the great spotted woodpecker are examples. Could the bittern come back? It’s not impossible. There still is a small amount of suitable habitat left but the population base in Britain is tiny and this is where any colonisers are likely to come from, so it’s not very likely.
A friend of mine has a 19th century stuffed bittern in a glass case in his study. He is a fine singer and one of his party pieces is The Yellow Bittern, Thomas McDonagh’s wonderful English translation of Cathal Buí Mac Ghiolla Ghunna’s ‘An Bonnan Bui’.
It’s the closest most Irish people are likely to get to this iconic bird.
Here is Al O’Donnell performing The Yellow Bittern on the Bibi Baskin show in 1990:
And here is McDonagh’s translation . Poignant that the corncrake, which is just about not extinct in Ireland, is listed as a “common bird”:
The yellow bittern that never broke out
In a drinking bout, might as well have drunk;
His bones are thrown on a naked stone
Where he lived alone like a hermit monk.
O yellow bittern! I pity your lot,
Though they say that a sot like myself is curst —
I was sober a while, but I’ll drink and be wise
For I fear I should die in the end of thirst.
It’s not for the common birds that I’d mourn,
The black-bird, the corn-crake, or the crane,
But for the bittern that’s shy and apart
And drinks in the marsh from the lone bog-drain.
Oh! if I had known you were near your death,
While my breath held out I’d have run to you,
Till a splash from the Lake of the Son of the Bird
Your soul would have stirred and waked anew.
My darling told me to drink no more
Or my life would be o’er in a little short while;
But I told her ’tis drink gives me health and strength
And will lengthen my road by many a mile.
You see how the bird of the long smooth neck
Could get his death from the thirst at last —
Come, son of my soul, and drain your cup,
You’ll get no sup when your life is past.
In a wintering island by Constantine’s halls
A bittern calls from a wineless place,
And tells me that hither he cannot come
Till the summer is here and the sunny days.
When he crosses the stream there and wings o’er the sea
Then a fear comes to me he may fail in his flight —
Well, the milk and the ale are drunk every drop,
And a dram won’t stop our thirst this night.
Finally, here’s the original:
A bhonnán bhuí, is é mo léan do luí,
Is do chnámha sínte tar éis do ghrinn,
Is chan easba bidh ach díobháil dí
a d’fhág i do luí thú ar chúl do chinn.
Is measa liom féin ná scrios na Traoi
Tú bheith i do luí ar leaca lom’,
Is nach ndearna tú díth ná dolaidh sa tír,
Is nárbh fhearra leat fíon ná uisce poll.
A bhonnáin álainn, is é mo mhíle crá thú,
Do chúl ar lár amuigh romham sa tslí,
Is gurbh iomaí lá a chluininn do ghrág
Ar an láib is tú ag ól na dí.
Is é an ní a deir cách le do dheartháir Cáthal,
Go bhfaighidh sé bás mar siúd, más fíor,
Ach ní hamhlaidh atá, siúd an préachán breá
Chuaigh in éag ar ball le díth na dí.
A bhonnáin óig, is é mo mhíle brón
Thú bheith sínte fuar i measc na dtom,
Is na luchaí móra ag triall chun do thórraimh,
Ag déanamh spóirt agus pléisiúir ann;
Is dá gcuirfeá scéala in am faoi mo dhéinse
Go raibh tú i ngéibhinn, nó i mbroid fá dheoch,
Do bhrisfinn béim duit ar an loch úd Bhéasaigh
A fhliuchfadh do bhéal is do chorp isteach.
Ní hiad bhur n-éanlaith atá mé ag éagnach,
An lon, an smaolach, nó an chorr ghlas,
Ach mo bhonnán buí, bhí lán de chroí,
Is gur chosúil liom féin é ina ghné is ina dhath.
Bhíodh sé go síoraí ag ól na dí,
Is deir na daoine go mbímse mar sin seal;
Níl aon deor dá bhfaighinn nach ligfinn síos,
Ar eagla go bhfaighinnse bás den tart.
Is é a d’iarr mo stór orm ligint den ól,
Nó nach mbeinnse beo ach seal beag gearr;
Ach dúirt mé léithi go dtug sí an bhréag,
Is gurbh fhaide mo shaolsa an deoch úd a fháil.
Nach bhfaiceann sibh éan an phíobáin réidh
A chuaigh in éag den tart ar ball;
Is a chomharsain chléibh, fliuchaíg bhur mbéal
Óir chan fhaigheann sibh braon i ndiaidh bhur mbáis.