Morrigan’s choice

Outdoor Living

CRASH LANDING Corbie the young crow, lying where she fell. Crows are often called ‘The Morrigan’ after one of the guises of Morrigan, the shape-shifting Celtic goddess. 

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

Summer flowers lined the narrow boreen – tall umbellifers topped with creamy coloured panicles, purple knapweed, heady clouds of meadowsweet and more. Cow parsley, with its somewhat industrial scent, sported large numbers of soldier beetles. Whatever it was about this particular day, with its sultry heat and dark, humid shadows, I cannot say, but every one of those carnivorous beetles was in the mood for love, so all were mating.
Although many of the tall, late summer grasses are developing seed, there are plenty still flowering. It is too easy to pass by these graceful plants with their beautiful pastel shades. In order to appreciate them better I use a jeweller’s loupe with 30x magnification. By resting one hand upon the other I find it possible to hold steady enough to see into this otherworld of symmetry and artful design. James is of the firm opinion my brain has addled.
“Just look.” Always eager to share new discovery, I tried to encourage him.
“Go away with that,” he said, coughing his way through the tail end of a summer cold. He turned his attention to the brown hills instead. “Not a nip of grass until May, on account of all that rain, and not another nip now, on account of the sun. How will those sheep survive at all?”
Branches swayed as something moved in the thick canopy above our heads, and we craned our necks to see what was there. For two minutes nothing stirred. I knew, though, that whatever it was hadn’t left, but must certainly be peering down and watching, waiting for us to move on. Well, I have great patience in such circumstances. I could wait it out.
James gave an explosive cough and the creature took off, or tried to at any rate. It got as far as the end of the tree cover then took a downward spiral, pitched into the side of a hawthorn and crashed to the ground.
“Look!” I exclaimed, running across to where it lay. “A young crow!”
“It’s The Morrigan,” yelled James. “I’ll get a stick.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort. The poor thing’s only a baby, not long out of the nest. She’s not rightly found her wings yet. Besides, she isn’t The Morrigan at all. It’s not her fault she’s a crow, any more than it’s your choice to be who you are.”
James gave me a frown, then gestured back to the hills. “A hundred and twenty years ago next month, that was The Morrigan’s own garden, where she picked the fruit of the fallen, helping herself to the eyes of kings and the tongues of the poor, besides many more alike. She’ll have known them all.”
He was referring to French General Humbert’s march from Ballina to Castlebar, which took place in August 1798, and the subsequent massacre and execution of the uprisen Irish.
We stooped over the fledgling bird to examine her without picking her up. Crows are full of mites that can and will bite humans. Even if they don’t, the sensation of an army of them marching over the skin is horrible. They can live for weeks without feeding, and being miniscule in size are impossible to find. They are tough too, and survive showers and baths, scratching and itching, rubbing and scrubbing, lotions and potions alike.
James went on: “In any battle she’d fly over the men on both sides, filling some with courage and others with dread. How she’d know who’d win, well, that’s within her. She’s be a hag one minute and a heifer the next, or an eel or even the Caróg here. Whatever she’d be, she’d be better dead. If you let her live, how many other things will die? Look at her beak and the slaughter that’s in it.”
“We should give her a name,” I said. “Corbie. That’s what they call her in parts of Scotland. That’s it then, Corbie.”
“Then you won’t kill her?”
“No. If I did, and without cause, wouldn’t I be as bad as The Morrigan herself?”
As we decided her fate Corbie looked up at us uncertainly. A blood-fattened tick had its head buried in her lower eyelid. I examined it with my loupe, and looked into the milky depth of her eye. It felt right to let her live. We left her in her bed of bracken, surrounded by tall grasses and those summer flowers.
“Did you ever walk the Humbert Way?” James asked.
I said I hadn’t. He’d been watching Monty Python again.