As the Crow Flies: A Lyric Play for the Air

by Austin Clarke
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The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1145

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As the Crow Flies, a radio play, opens on a late summer evening, as two monks, Virgilius and Manus, sit in a boat moored in a creek near the Shannon River. The abbot of Clonmacnoise—the major monastery on the Shannon at the time—has sent them to cut rushes for thatch. Manus, a stolid, dependable, and unimaginative man, is uneasy that the youngest member of their group, Brother Aengus, has not yet returned from a foray into the forest; Virgilius, wiser and more patient, says that Aengus must satisfy his youthful urge to know “the meaning of Creation,” and that God will protect him. There is an aura of the unusual, the miraculous, the ominous about the scene: The reeds are gigantic; storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. Finally Manus calls to Aengus, who returns, breathless, with news of a cave that he feels must once have been occupied by a holy hermit. As they set off homeward up the Shannon in their laden boat, a sudden and furious squall strikes, and as its roar obliterates their voices, the monks are resolving to take shelter in the holy cave Aengus has found.

Scene 2 is set inside the cave, where the clerics discuss the suddenness of the storm. Virgilius remembers the “Night of the Big Wind” fifty years previously, when the Shannon rose and flooded the monastery; his concluding words, “never have I known/ So bad a night as this,” are echoed by spirit voices, and Aengus glimpses “a demon bird with eyes of glassy fire.” To calm the younger men’s terror, Virgilius announces that God’s miracle has let them hear the voices of the fallen. As the storm rises again, the three men pray together.

The third scene takes place in the nest of the Eagle of Knock. Terrified by the presence of something preternaturally cold next to them, the eaglets call on their mother to kill the intruder. The intruder, however, claiming to be a “poor old crow,” weak and frozen, distracts the eagles with stories of her lifetime experiences, stirring them to curiosity about the same question the monks have just raised in the cave: Has there ever been so bad a night as this one? The crow tells of a Shannon River flood that drowned a holy man, and of the Hag of Dingle who changes her skin during a storm every two hundred years; pressed by the eaglets, however, the Crow claims never to have known such a stormy night as the present one and suggests that the Eagle question the Stag of Leiterlone, sheltering nearby. The Stag claims memory back to the time of the Fianna (Finn mac Cumhaill’s band of legendary warriors, said to have lived in Ireland in the third century) but refers the Eagle to the Blackbird of Derrycairn, perched upon its antler. The Blackbird recites a poem which begins:

     Stop, stop and listen for the bough top     Is whistling and the sun is brighter     Than God’s own shadow in the cup now!     Forget the hour-bell. Mournful matins     Will sound, Patric, as well at nightfall.

This is Austin Clarke’s adaptation (later printed separately in Ancient Lights, 1955) of the beautiful Fenian poem Binn sin, a luin Doire an Chairn (“That Is Sweet, Blackbird of Derrycairn”), said to have been recited to St. Patrick by Oisin, son of Finn, who on his return to earth from a three-hundred-year stay in the Land of Youth finds the Fianna gone and Ireland taken over by Christian clerics—to whom he tries to explain the joys of his former life in the pagan, natural world. The Blackbird repeats the song obsessively, ignoring the Eagle’s query, until the Crow refers the Eagle to another ancient being: the Salmon who lives under the falls of Assaroe. Concerned about leaving her eaglets on such a stormy night, the Eagle is reassured by the Crow, who promises to “tuck them in despite the storm,” and tells the Eagle to summon the Salmon by the name “Fintan”; the name alludes to Fintan, son of Bochra, in the medieval Lebor Gabála Érenn (“The Book of the Taking of Ireland”), the survivor of a group of settlers who arrived in Ireland before the biblical Flood.

Scene 4, set inside the holy cave, finds Aengus and Virgilius wakeful at night, while Manus sleeps soundly. The two clerics have both heard the animals’ voices. Virgilius identifies them as “delusions of the senses,” sent to try their faith; but Aengus, remembering a half-glimpsed story in a schoolbook, trembles at the mention of Fintan and asks if he is still alive. Virgilius reassures him that Fintan has gone to Limbo. As Aengus tries to go back to sleep, he prays that he will not dream of “evils that afflict/ The young,” and that the Archangels will save him from “the dreadful voice beneath the waters.” The noises of the storm become more shrill as the scene ends, and gradually the sound of a waterfall also becomes audible.

As scene 5 opens, the Eagle is heard above the falls of Assaroe, calling out to Fintan; when the Salmon answers, the Eagle again asks the question: Has he ever known a storm as violent as this? The Salmon unfolds in his reply his dreadful, maddening ancient knowledge of “horrors that had shrieked/ Before creation,” of the shame of impure, carnal life that calls religious faith into question. As the storm rages and ice forms on the Eagle’s wings, the Salmon tells his history: how he survived the Flood by changing from man to fish, yet still has human consciousness, still pities the “unchanging misery of mankind.” Hearing of the violence of the Deluge, the Eagle is delighted to have her question finally answered and blithely ignores the Salmon’s bleak pessimism. The Salmon, however, tells the Eagle that the visitor in her nest is the sinister Crow of Achill, who has lured her away in order to eat her chicks. With a cry of alarm and despair, the Eagle flies off through the storm.

In the final scene, the monks are rowing up the Shannon the next morning, admiring the calm after the night’s violence. Characteristically, Manus is eager to be home and safe. Virgilius, praising the beauty of God’s Creation, suddenly alarms Manus by involuntarily reciting the Blackbird’s song. Before Virgilius can dismiss this behavior as “illusions of the night,” Aengus calls the monks’ attention to an eagle speeding back to the cliff face and dashing herself against the rock above the cave mouth: validation of their night’s visions. It is young Aengus, frightened and shivering with the impact of his new understanding, who speaks the play’s last lines: “Father, Father, I know/ The ancient thought that men endure at night./ What wall or cave can hide us from that knowledge?”

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 234

As its subtitle, A Lyric Play for the Air, indicates, As the Crow Flies was written for radio, not stage, performance; thus its major effects are gained through voices, language, and sound effects. The most important sound effects portray the rising and falling of the storm, whose shrieks and howls, drowning out voices and threatening even to smother prayer, form a constant, ominous background to the dialogue and suggest a wild, supernatural presence. The eaglets’ clamor to know whether this storm is unprecedented calls attention to the weather and emphasizes its symbolic significance.

In the absence of visual spectacle, the poetic dialogue creates pictures in the imaginations of the hearers. Mythical characters are easily incorporated into the play and are distinguished from one another and from the human characters not only by voices but also by their own individual metrical patterns. The monks converse in blank verse; the animals’ speeches generally adhere to a basic eight-or nine-syllable line. The song of the Blackbird of Derrycairn comprises four stanzas of five nine-syllable lines each. The aural effect of the poetry gently suggests an artificial world, harmonizing with the mythical and fabulous nature of the plot. The first stanza of the Blackbird’s song, quoted above, illustrates many of Clarke’s typical poetic devices: syllabic meter, alliteration (mournful matins), internal rhyme (listen:whistling), harmonic cross-rhyme (bough top:cup now), assonance (hour-bell:sound), consonance (bough top:brighter).


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Sources for Further Study

Halpern, Susan. Austin Clarke: His Life and Works. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974.

Harmon, Maurice. Austin Clarke: A Critical Introduction. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1989.

Irish University Review 4 (Spring, 1974).

Mercier, Vivian. “Austin Clarke: The Poet in the Theatre.” Chimera 5 (Spring, 1947): 25-36.

Mercier, Vivian. “The Verse Plays of Austin Clarke.” Dublin Magazine 19 (April/June, 1944): 39-47.

Ricigliano, Lorraine. Austin Clarke: A Reference Guide. Indianapolis: Macmillan, 1993.

Schirmer, Gregory A. The Poetry of Austin Clarke. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

Schirmer, Gregory A. Reviews and Essays of Austin Clarke. Lanham, Md.: Littlefield, 1995.

Tapping, G. Craig. Austin Clarke: A Study of His Writings. Dublin: Academy Press, 1981.


Critical Essays