St Bueno and the Curlew

St Beuno (pronounced Bayno) was a 7th century Welsh abbot, and quite a character by all accounts.

 He is most famous for helping establish Christianity in Wales and replacing severed heads.  But there is another story about him, a rather beautiful one that makes me smile - he blessed a curlew.  

St Beuno and the curlew painting in St Beuno's Jesuit retreat house in N Wales

Legend has it that St Beuno was sailing off the coast of Wales and dropped his prayer book into the water.  A curlew flew over, scooped it up and took it to the shore to dry.  The saint was so grateful he blessed the bird and said curlews should always be protected - which is why it is hard to find their nests.  Other versions had Beuno actually walking on the water, or crossing a causeway which is now long gone.  But however he was out at sea, this is a nuanced and layered story that requires reflection.  

Curlews in Wales were traditionally associated with doom.  A cry of the curlew at night heralded death in the family - a curlew calling over a fishing boat would forewarn of a storm at sea, and fishermen would head for home.  

The "curlee" call itself was often considered cold and sour, not beautiful.  In some places the nocturnal cries of a flock of curlews was associated with the terrifying concept of the seven whistlers - an eerie group of birds that flies through the heavens calling forth disaster.  In some tales they are six curlews in constant search for the seventh member.  When the day comes that the birds are reunited it will be the end of the world.  Quite a burden for the poor curlew to carry.

Interesting then that St Beuno's precious book was saved by a curlew - turning the bird of death into the bringer of life. What is this myth trying to tell us?

St Beuno's feast day is April 21st - the first day of my walk (and coincidentally, John Muir's birthday)

Here is a specially written folk song, written by Baron Brady, based on this tale. Thanks to Si and Ros for this lovely ballad.