The summertime is coming... And the birds are sweetly singing.
So runs the evergreen chorus. As I write I am conscious that when this piece is published, summer will have been in residence long enough to be a familiar figure.
Summer’s PRO, to wit the bar -brown cuckoo, freshly arrived from Morocco, has already made several pronouncements in places as far apart as Knockanure and Newcastle West.
The gist of his revelations is that the season is legitimately under way now that he has established himself in a ready made next, manufactured to measure by a brace of innocent and well meaning blackbirds whose offspring he simply heaved over the side to make way for his ample African posterior. For sixteen years or so now, since I first subscribed material to this paper, I have unfailingly made mention of the cuckoos arrival at this time of year.
I have published every report I have received, devoting lengthy paragraphs to the more meritorious. Yet there are people who regularly come along and ask me why I never write about the cuckoo.
These people know very well I write about the cuckoo. Whey they are really asking is why I do not write about their own special cuckoos or rather the individual cuckoo which they have only heard. How true is the saying that there is no cuckoo like your own cuckoo. On reflection I must honestly add that maybe there is no such old saying. If this is so I hereby sponsor it for inclusion in the next anthology of old sayings.
By this time many of my readers will have hear a particular cuckoo. It is possible that substantial numbers may have heard the same cuckoo. If this is so, console yourself with the fact that just as surely as no two cuckoos are alike so also are not two notes from any one cuckoo alike. The cuckoo’s voice changes from day to day and fades away altogether after a few weeks residence in his summer home.
Recently I read a distressing story concerning the decline in the numbers of the cuckoos visiting this country during the summer. Despite the fact that the same applies to featherless visitors from America and England should not make our concern for the cuckoo any the less. While many multiplies all over the globe the number of birds, particularly cuckoos, tends to decrease. The chief reason for this is that man requires more room and sacred retreats where cuckoos once advertised themselves are now housing estates and factories.
I am not arguing against these. What I am trying to do is to warn readers against a time when we will hear fewer and fewer cuckoos. A time will come when certain luckless individuals will wait in vain for that magical call which is part of the fabric of every Irish summer. This is sure to give rise and distress among the more susceptible of readers and it is only fair that they should be warned against the likelihood of summers without cuckoos. Personally I dread the thought myself but I have long since insured against it and I would strongly advise others that they should do the same.
In the event of cuckoo failure in the not-too-distant future we should be on the lookout for other signs of summer.
It takes a long time for summer to establish itself. For the first week or so it’s no different from its predecessor. Gradually, however, it takes hold. More flowers appear and birds grow excited. The sting dies in the wind and all the cows are calved. There are many manifestations and each of us has his own special means of confirming that the season is well and truly launched.
For me summer comes with arrival of a balding, sixty-year-old Clare man, a chap of roving eye and rosy cheek. For many years now he has presented himself at my bar counter at this precise time. He is as constant as the cuckoo, or if you’re that way inclined, the Northern Star.
One each visit he brings a female companion of far tenderer years than he. No later then last Sunday he presented for inspection at 12.30pm. He had with him a stout lady who might have been twenty-five or thirty. He seated her and called for a drink. The two brandies with the barest tint of port wine in each, if you please and where would we get a good lunch, not too exotic ?
I shake hands with him and he introduces me to his girl of the moment. This is pure exhibitionism. He wants to show what a randy womaniser he is. The girl smiles demurely adjusts her more-than-adequately buttocks on the seat and pulls an inadequate tweed skirt affectedly over fad red knees that nobody wants to see.
After this covert exercise our man winks lewedly as if to suggest that although a pornographic display had been publicly averted there was every likelihood of a comprehensive sexual debauch before the night grew pale and yielded to the dawn. Nobody believes this. He is as prime an example of a frustrated cock virgin as one would wish to behold. I am reminded of Titus Andronicus:
“This is the monstrosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite and the execution confined”, which is merely another way of saying that bullocks notions will avail you nought.
But let me describe this man who arrives unfailingly every summer. His chariot is an ancient Morris Minor. His women are invariably fat and serious faced. His scant hair, died titian, is so cleverly combed that on part of the crown or poll of his head is without a rib or two of hair.
He has the best in false teeth, upper and lower. Two biros and a fountain pen adorn his breast pocket. He belongs to yet another decade. You might say that the man is dead but won’t lie down. He was weaned in dance halls where paraffin lamps hung from the rafters and grated candles mixed with dance crystals glazed the uneven floor. Yet he was publicly acknowledging the arrival of another summer.
His chance of courting a woman are slim, of carnally knowing a woman slimmer, of outright possession slimmest of all. Still he would subscribe to the Shakespearean theory, again to be found in Titus Andronicus:
“She is a woman, there maybe wooed,
She is a woman, therefore may be won.”
Outside in the street the people are coming from Mass. The fancies of boys and girls turn to thoughts of love. The fat girl becomes restive. Her thoughts are far from love. A trickly of saliva emerges from her mouth. Our man is pensive now, nothing the other customers, particularly two good looking girls who are seated opposite him. They are not, as yet, aware of his existence, yet he along of all the people in the pub has paid his tribute to summer. Now that he has, however, he is mute. He has become a spent force. He is a smolt who will never again return to the clear and sparkling waters of the upper river reeds.
But he has accomplished his mission and this for me, is the important thing. He has reminded me that it’s high time I went into the kitchen and took the wife in my arms to remind her that summer is here and that love doesn’t really change or grow grey. It’s time to go some place, to get out and away into other places where we can be free for a while.
You can have your daffodils and your primroses, I don’t begrudge them to you. Summer’s representative has come from Clare. I return to the pub. I address him; “You’ll have a drink in honour of your visit.” His face lights up. Hope sparkles in his eyes. He nudges his girlfriend when I turn my back. His worth has been recognised. He day is made.
In acknowledging or saluting the arrival of summer. I am making much of its representative, treating him with the courtesy and respect that I would normally reserve for accredited ambassadors. I am also publicising the fact that there is more to the arrival of summer than the throaty chorling of cuckoos.
This article by the late and great John B Keane was first published in the Limerick Leader in May 1977.