I was sitting in the little courtyard at the back of my bookshop one morning — it was a bright, clear, cold spring day, blustery, the kind of day that gets daffodils all juiced up and dancing on the spot like loons — when
Tra-la-la-la-la-la-la / Tra-la-la-la-la-la-la
Tra-la-la-la-la-la-la / Tra-la-la-la-la…
— cascading rounds of church bells, six or eight or ten of them, sounded out in this out-of-season, west of Ireland, surf and turf country town, which, so far as I was aware, was not a bell-ringing town at all — not this kind of bell-ringing anyway — a funeral bell maybe, and the Angelus, but that would be about it.
Then, one or two at a time, the bells began skipping and inter-weaving among one another, new ones leading the line at each succeeding round.
These were not like the big, imperial bells you get at St Patrick’s or St Paul’s, Volkswagen-Beetle-sized mother-bongers that BOooom domination out over a territory and all folks in it — no, these were more a leaping and skipping and turn-her-round-and-do-it-again kind of chorus.
But the really amazing part about it is that they were just nearby! — just on the other side of the back wall of the Bookstore courtyard! Sacred Heart of Shivering Christus, I didn’t even know there was a church there!
The properties on south side of Bridge Street—which included my bookstore — were built up against an old churchyard wall, however full-grown towering trees screened the church itself from view. So, OK — truth to tell — I did know there was a church there — the Abbeystrewry Church of Ireland — but I was not actively conscious of it, let’s put it that way: Church of Ireland people aren’t exactly noisy neighbours, nor are they ostentatious in any other way, quite the opposite. Indeed, other than crow-calls and breeze in the trees, before this morning I’d never heard anything out of the grounds there — and certainly no bells, much less six or eight of them sounding out in syncopated harness and harmony!
Now, while I didn’t know dick about bells or bell-ringing, there’s no mistaking the real deal when you encounter it — I mean real bells rung by a well-drilled band of ringers. Ninety-eight and a half times out of a hundred when you hear a peal of bells in Ireland — I’m talking about rural Ireland here — you’re not actually hearing bells at all, in fact: what you’re hearing is a recording of bells. And it’ll be a Roman Catholic church — they’ll have a couple of bell-ringing tracks on a disc (or maybe an old-fashioned analog-tape system) and it’ll probably be a copy of a copy of a copy of a recording which they’ll play on a shitty sound system with bullhorn megaphone speakers, the kind of things you’d find at an agricultural show in Ballyscutter circa 1982 — “Will the boys of the Corkalee Boys Band make their way to the main stand, please; Corkalee Boys Band to the main stand” — the kind of speakers that Jackie Healy-Rae type politicians used to mount on the roof-racks of their cars at election times and drive around asking you to give them your ‘Number 1’.
But this was proper bell-ringing — Tupelo honey kind of bell-ringing — know what I mean?
And then, with this astonishingly well-executed peal of bells which I couldn’t explain still ringing out, this snow-white bird — which looked to me like a dove (so radiantly white it could have been in a DAZ ad) came down out of the clear blue sky, descending slowly — coming down like one of those fighter aircraft that do vertical take-offs and landings — working its wings furiously but with little or no noise to achieve a suitably graceful descent, which it executed perfectly.
This dove-like creature, with its strikingly yellow eyes, landed on the ivy-covered church wall at the far end of the courtyard — about five or six meters away from where I was seated bathing myself in the piss-weak warmth of the first of the Irish springtime — the rich waxy leaves of the ancient ivy, and the Advent-before-Easter morning sunshine, making the bird seem incredibly white.
For a couple of loopy seconds I thought “Jesus Christ … is this like the Holy Ghost or what?”
If someone had clicked a picture of me with my mouth half open as that bird was landing, there’s a good chance I would have looked like one of those girls that’ve experienced visions of the Virgin Mary on rock-crops in Mayo or rural Portugal and the like.
OK, so, firstly, Abbeystrewry had just installed a ring of bells in its belfry and, this morning of which I write, was the morning the men installing them finally attached the clappers to the bell-cups and gave them a show-off workout. The bell engineers were English (West Country) men who’d come over to do the installation; and all of them, of course, expert bell-ringers.
And the bird was not a dove, it was a pigeon. A gang of pigeons live in the Abbeystrewry church belfry, and when this newly installed set of bells rang out all at once, a sound the Abbeystrewry pigeons had never heard before, terrified they flew out of there in eighteen different directions; one of them, this white one, alighting on the wall of the courtyard.
And, finally, there is — or seems to be — a genetic mutation in the gene pool of this Abbeystrewry pigeon-cluster because I’ve since noticed that there’s nearly always an amazingly white one amongst them (never more than one, oddly enough). Every now and again you might not see a white one for a little while, but give it 8 or 10 or 12 months and the mutation reappears (wild pigeons live for about three or four years, generational turnover is fairly rapid).
There must have been a fair amount of pulling and hauling and banging involved in getting those bells up into that tower, the largest of which is larger than an old-fashioned tea chest (which — in case you’re not familiar with the tea chests of old — is about a metre cubed), however, I didn’t hear a rap nor a tap nor a “Mind-your-backs” of any of it, which was why I was so shocked and awed. I put this down to the fact that up until this particular morning it had been winter-time-like and, consequently, I’d never been tempted to venture out into the courtyard.
Moreover, in the bookstore I’d nearly always have music playing, Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau or some such; and, aside from that, almost all my focus almost all the time was on (firstly) making the rent, (secondly) making enough to eat, and (thirdly) making a surplus (the latter being a stretch goal) — this was a used bookstore in a small country town in the west of Ireland, a town that was not much more than a strong-limbed village really, and I didn’t have great stock (in fact, my stock of books was not much better than what you’d find in an average charity shop, which, indeed, is where I frequently went netting for them, which I’d buy for about €1 and subsequently offer for sale for €4) — so that a group of West Country bell-men could have slaughtered and butchered a herd of mountainy sheep in that churchyard and I would not necessarily have been aware of it.
So this is The Dove from Above episode. I refer to it as such because while I didn’t really think that this white pigeon was the Holy Ghost of church teaching — for one thing I don’t believe in any of that dogma, and for another, even if I did, I’ve enough education and natural intelligence to understand that the Holy Ghost as a white dove is just a painterly convention (one designed to get a sense of the thing across to illiterate consumers) — nevertheless, despite my familiarity with the gist of the mainstream of western thought from the Enlightenment through to the work of, say, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, the fact of the matter remains, in that awe-struck moment as I sat there with my mouth open, it was something that occurred to me — in fact, it was the thing that occurred to me.
And secondly, even though as I say, my belief was that the bird was not a dove, much less A Dove from Above — at least, after a moment’s reflection this is what I settled on belief-wise — nevertheless I took it as A Sign…
[This is a draft of the opening section of something I’m writing at present, a memoir, provisionally titled Waiting for Godot in Skibbereen (©Perry O’Donovan, which please respect). I’m putting it up here because I want to get my blog beyond Christmas (the last post I did was the ‘Happy Holidays’ one) and because, now that it’s the 6th of January, this piece represents new beginnings, awakening, and all that sort of bright, fresh stuff.]