the music of what happened in the running of the bulls

The starling inspired me to start writing after I found it one morning, trapped in the living room of my mother’s old house. She had fallen down the chimney and had dropped the twigs and wool that she had collected to build her nest. I found them scattered in the dust on her grille as she yanked on the window desperately trying to get out of it. I was so worried that she would get hurt from it, that I somehow managed to gently grab the sooty little body and carry her, slowly like a flickering candle, to the back door. I released her, and when the tiny figure disappeared into the pink winter sky, I called out to her:

“Please come back some day, we’re building a new home here too.”

“Look for me in the spring trees!” I thought I heard her say it and wrote it down in a little notebook so I wouldn’t forget the message.

In January 2020 I began journaling about our first year on the family farm on Dechomet Mountain in the Dromara Hills in Co Down. My husband and I had lived and worked in Belfast City for many years and had built a new house here where we planned to run a music club in the restored barn.

I grew up on this small dairy farm where my mother, Maggie, milked eight cows twice a day for years after my father, Nicholas, died after a brief illness in 1974. I was 12 years old and my sister, Carmel, eight and during the three of us the loss was immeasurable. But life on the farm had to go on and, together, we took good care of our cows because they were our livelihood and our friends.

Sheep on Dechomet Mountain

Every morning, three steel cans of chilled milk were rolled from the small dairy next to the barn to the roadside for pickup by the dairy truck. Every Friesian cow had a name, and sometimes in the summer my mother would go down to the fields to talk to them: Whitey, Wee Heifer, Toddles and the rest. They walked towards her and pushed her big heads under her arm to hug her. The cows are kind in that sense and the bond between us and the animals was strong and unforgettable. I have carried that memory like a photograph in my heart all my life and always knew that somehow, one day I would return to the fields and home.

Our barn loft was a traditional Irish farm building with two doors at ground level into the courtyard. One was for the barn, where my grandfather kept his draft horse a century ago, and the other for the calf house where baby cattle were fed until the 1990s. Stone steps with a red handrail led up to the loft. where the grain was stored at harvest time. My grandmother would tell stories about ceilis in that attic after bags of corn were carried up the steps of a trailer on the highway. In early 2020, I placed a tilly lamp in the gabled window of the restored barn on nights when we welcomed our musician friends to play Irish and American jazz, contemporary folk and soul music at the modern ceilis we were now hosting. in the barn loft.

The whitewashed interior walls gleamed in the lamplight as the music spread across the yard and fields beyond and we were delighted to have broken new ground on the farm, growing the music up the mountainside. The whole renovation experience provided new stories and insights for the nature journal I was now writing as part of my creative writing course at Queen’s University Belfast. “Write about what you know”, they said, so I did exactly that.

By March 2020, we were getting more and more anxious to see the daily news about the Covid-19 pandemic. The world was shutting down to protect us all from the threat of the coronavirus, so the music had to stop and our barn was left in the dark. At the end of the month we were holed up in the mountains, walking the country road like pilgrims in search of hope in the spring landscapes.

On the 26th of the month, we stand in our garden under a cold, crescent moon to applaud, like millions of others, our friends and family who work in the NHS. We began to clap slowly, the sound bounced off the mountain and split the darkness. Across the fields, we watched our neighbors walk out the front door to do the same, yellow lights warming the cold air. Within seconds, the field resonated with the sound of human hands coming together, and the connection was deep and powerful. In a spontaneous moment, Linley raised her trumpet and played the bright, golden melody of When the Saints Go Marching In and suddenly, for a moment, they all clapped at once, singing loud and wild throughout the valley. The music cheered us all up that night.

Our donkeys Neilly and Sasha

Our donkeys Neilly and Sasha

By May 1, 2020, we had settled into a new routine of long daily walks along our quiet country lanes and loans, regularly stopping to talk to neighbors about the yard fences where they were homeschooling their children. . In the unexpected but very welcome heat wave, I spent hours outdoors revisiting my childhood haunts in fields and meadows and taking notes on the hedges and ditches that are now overgrown with parsley, chamomile and buttercups. The daily chores of the birds had become woven into our lives as we awoke early to the glorious dawn chorus of blackbirds, robins and wrens.

One bright morning earlier in the month, I opened the little door on our black mailbox that is built into a column under the barn loft. On the floor of the box I found some twigs, wool and straw. I closed the door, blinking back tears, and went into the house to find a plastic container for our letters. Later that morning I told our mail carrier to use it for our mail as there was a new resident in the mailbox. Within days, my starling friend had built a sturdy nest there and would yell loudly from the treetops when anyone approached the area. Sometimes, early in the morning when the sun was hiding behind the mountains, he’d lean out the window and whisper, “I’m so glad you’re back.” “Me too,” I think he said to himself.
Maggie Doyle worked for BBC Northern Ireland as a radio producer and director for over 30 years. In 2019, she took early retirement and returned to live on the farm with her husband, Dr. Linley Hamilton, who is a musician and educator. Together, they run a music club and mentoring project to support young singer-songwriters. Mountain Notes is Maggie’s first book and is based on journal notes she wrote during 2020 about hiking in the local landscape. The book is a loving, lyrical memoir of her reconnection with the natural world and the reimagining of the farm as a place where music grows. Mountain Notes costs £10 with proceeds going to thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk It is available from No Alibis in Belfast, Bridge Books in Dromore, Painted Earth in Newcastle, Blue Beans Crafts in Castlewellan, North Down Museum, The Turnip House in Leitrim and The Bee House in Bangor or email magysfarm@gmail.com

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