I don’t like to write downbeat articles but Autumn is always somewhat tinged with sadness. Maybe poignancy is a more accurate term. Summer has ended, yet another summer, and lying ahead of us are days getting progressively shorter and colder, and the usual barrage of head colds and flu viruses. This year in Wicklow it’s a little bit sadder than usual because we have lost Robert Jennings, a champion of local heritage.
Canon Robert Jennings, to be exact, was a Church of Ireland clergyman with a profound interest in history, archaeology and the world in which we live. He died almost one month ago but his funeral only took place two weeks ago. He was a very nice man. The reason I’m slow writing about it is I wanted to dig out some photos I had of him, albeit from an event in 2011.
Often, over the years, when I would be out walking in the middle of nowhere, looking for wildlife, I would encounter Canon Jennings. He would amble out along a path as if by magic, and he would frequently point out some remarkable artefact which had escaped my notice, or have some profound point of interest to relate. He was always doing something, searching for something from far back in our past – sometimes the remains of a church, sometimes evidence of a Bronze Age site. He also surprised quite a few people a few years ago, including me, by revealing he was a veteran of the Korean War. Remarkably, he died at the ripe old age of 93 most people under the illusion he was far younger than he really was. By all accounts he was still out walking and exploring, although not quite so much as he used to do. He was author of quite a few books and they are worth getting if you can find them:
He also really knew how to showcase archaeology and heritage to maximum effect, as you can see in the following photos:
Canon Jennings will definitely be missed, being not only a respected scholar and clergyman, but I will miss him as a character, as a person who was very much himself part of the landscape.
Today is a beautiful sunny day, perfectly marking the first day of the Celtic spring. But it is a very cold day with a biting breeze from the north carrying Arctic winds to Ireland. And it is a sad St. Brigid’s Day too, because on Friday news came of the passing of James ‘Shay’ Fagan, a well-known ‘birder’ in Co. Wicklow.
Shay Fagan, originally from Dun Laoghaire in Dublin, came to live in Newcastle in Co. Wicklow in the 1980s chiefly because he had become friends with Ireland’s most famous ornithologist, Major Robin Ruttledge, who lived in the village. Although Shay had a day job as a salesman he was a dedicated ornithologist and contributed to articles and scientific papers, along with conservation efforts with the Irish Wildbird Conservancy, which later merged with another wild bird conservation charity to form what is today Birdwatch Ireland.
Shay lived a very exciting life and travelled the world birdwatching. He admitted he had struggled with ill-health for many years, so his accomplishments are even more extraordinary. I remember well one May morning in 1990 when my younger brother Trevor and I mitched off school to instead go birdwatching with Shay. Unfortunately Shay was almost knocked unconscious when we were walking through a thicket of gnarled blackthorns looking for a Chiffchaff warbler, when Shay walked straight into a long branch which he couldn’t see as it was pointing directly at him. He was struck between the eyes and knocked onto his back where he was then struck by his heavy binoculars. When we helped him to his feet and asked him if he was okay he replied ‘that happens every now and then’,
He had many incredible true stories. In the late 1960s Shay spent two weeks out on Charlie Haughey’s island off the Kerry coast with a small group of ornithologists. Mr. Haughey had an enormous interest in nature and wildlife. According to Shay ‘I was just a ghillie so they left me to look after all the luggage and I was going to go over on a boat because there wasn’t room with them all in the helicopter. And then the pilot told me to hop up into the seat next to him. I ended up with the best view on the flight.’
When the helicopter landed Shay said he was left to unload the luggage while his fellow ornithologists ‘went exploring’. He then became aware of another person who joined in unloading the luggage, and over to find Charlie Haughey himself was helping him with the heavy lifting. Shay said he got on very well with Mr. Haughey and was surprised to find himself consulted almost as much as the academics present.
Unfortunately Shay Fagan was a very shy man and for this reason I have no photo of him to add to these words, but this shyness also is largely responsible for a series of misadventures Shay would have much preferred to avoid – those involving a man who was impersonating him. Unfortunately the impersonator, who came to be known as ‘Mad Shay’ led to Shay’s own reputation being somewhat damaged, because this impersonator (who exactly fitted his description, with thick spectacles and grey beard) , liked to add in all sorts of extraordinary unheard of details about birds, before recounting his exploits with the CIA and KGB as a double-agent and his work as a test-pilot with NASA.
Fortunately the real Shay Fagan had a great sense of humour (although this was sometimes sorely tested) and despite his long battle with illness he lived an exciting and interesting life studying the birds to which he was devoted. He was himself part of the wildlife of Wicklow and will be sadly missed.