Traces of wild wings and wonder

Staying In

MAJESTIC The white-tailed sea eagle has a wingspan of over two metres (six feet) and a body length of around one metre. Before their recent reintroduction to the country, the last wild pair bred in Co Mayo in 1912, according to BirdWatch Ireland.

‘Eagle Country’, by Westport-based author and poet Seán Lysaght, is ‘a quest into the wild places of Mayo and the west of Ireland’ in search of traces of eagles past and present

John Shelly

When Seán Lysaght’s ‘Eagle Country’ (Little Toller Books) arrived in the post I tore open the parcel, sat by the stove with a mug of coffee and immediately delved into the 14-page introduction. Midway through this the author asserts that ‘Eagles are now extinct in Mayo’ and adds ‘I write this and immediately want to contradict it ... they are absent, (not) extinct’.
That eagles formerly thrived locally is well proven by the rack of place names uncovered by Lysaght’s impeccable research. We have Eagle Island, Eagle Rock, Eagle Crag, Eagle’s Nest and Eagle Ridge, among many others, and everywhere the wings of these majestic birds took them they were persecuted, poisoned and shot, or destroyed in the nest before the wind could take them until ultimately, as the author writes, ‘they passed into the otherworld of history and taxidermy’.
I paused and looked from my window before immersing myself in the main body of text. There still remain, surely, enough wild moors, woodlands and lakes, enough rugged hills in which might hide an eyrie, and sky enough in which to fly an entire convocation of eagles, if only we might try.
When I picked up the book once more it was to read the first chapter, ‘April’, which takes us to Eagle Ridge between Newport and Castlebar and the Nephin Beg Range’s Mount Eagle and Birreencorragh in an exceptionally warm spring. Our author’s poetic pedigree reveals itself in the form of a ‘stream from the deep core of the mountains still chuckling with long memories of wet weather’, close to where an eyeless, near dead sheep lingered over it’s last breath. Lysaght’s careful observation brings these pages to life, and I already recognise the cords of new work, even before they are drawn from his pen.
The following day I plunged into chapter 2: ‘May’. Perhaps it was the longer days that provided inspiration, or new colour in the landscape, but this is a fine piece of writing, topographical and naturalistic by turn, run through and bound about with poetic phrase. Yet I reach page 60 and no eagles, not even ‘above Lough Cullydoo’... where ‘the corrie was a theatre haunted by ghosts of eagles past.’
‘Eagle Country’ takes us through the year, but only as far as October, and ends close to Ballinrobe, with a fleeting glimpse of ‘a huge bird... in a murky swirl of clouds and drizzle, with a swarm of corvids in pursuit ... We were sure it was a sea eagle.’
The only disappointment was in coming to the end of the book. I wanted more. But then it came to me. This wasn’t the end at all, but merely the beginning. The void left by our vanishing raptors could yet be filled. If it was the goal of Seán Lysaght to instil hope, to inspire aim and ambition in regard to these birds I’d say the job is well done.
With a text that soars and glides and periodically brings us to earth with a bump, and is supplemented by a selection of black and white photographs portraying elements of Ireland in their current raw and empty state, this is a book that will be thoroughly enjoyed by all with an interest in the natural history of this country.
It sets our eagles firmly in context; these gargantuan raptors struggling to find a home against the aesthetic backdrop of National Parks and State-owned gardens, under the eager gaze of tourist and naturalist alike, these laden onto buses and boats and ferried to Garinish and Mountshannon, and soon to spill from their tenuous toehold and once more be found on Eagle Island, on Eagle Rock and Eagle Ridge.
‘Eagle Country’ braids together the numerous elements that make Ireland’s west unique and makes an insightful and compelling read. Anyone who reads it will surely agree: Eagles might be absent from Mayo, but they need not.