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Bechbretha

At a garden-party in Hillsborough, County Down,
ten or more summers ago
a swarm of bees
rolled all its thingamy
into one ball
and lodged in the fork of a tree.
There was mayhem.
A few of us had the presence of mind
to grab another canapé
and hold on to our glasses of wine.
Mostly, though,
there was a mad dash for Government House.
Once inside, I found myself
smack up against Merlyn Rees
who was hugging his breasts
like a startled nymph.
I’m not sure what possessed me
to suggest he ask Enoch Powell
over from Loughbrickland.
I suppose that when I think of bees
I think of a row of hives
running up the side of an orchard
in Loughbrickland,
and then I think of Enoch Powell.
Believe it or not,
Merlyn took me at my word
and dispatched an equerry
to make the call.
I was stifling a chuckle
at the notion of Enoch Agricola
(and half-remembering how those hives are fake)
when the equerry slunk back
and whispered something in Merlyn’s ear.
They both left the room.
Now that I had the floor to myself
I launched into a small meditation
on Loughbrickland.
I described the ‘brick’ in Loughbrickland
as ‘a stumbling block’
and referred to Bricriu Poison-Tongue
of Bricriu’s Feast.
Then I touched on another local king,
Congal the One-Eyed,
who was blinded by a bee-sting.
This led me neatly to the Bechbretha,
the Brehon judgements
on every conceivable form
of bee-dispute,
bee-trespass and bee-compensation.
My maiden speech was going swimmingly
and I was getting to my point
when a cheer went up
and everyone crowded to the windows.
A man in hat and veil
(whom I still take to have been Enoch Powell)
had brushed the swarm into a box
and covered it with the Union Jack.
Try as I might to win them back
with the fact that 90 per cent of British bees
were wiped out by disease
between 1909 and 1917
I’d lost them …
Merlyn had chosen this moment to reappear
through a secret door
in the book-lined wall
(which raised a nervous laugh
among the Castle Catholics)
and, not to be outdone,
called for order as he reached
into his mulberry cummerbund.
‘This,’ he said, ‘is the very handkerchief
that Melmoth the Wanderer
left at the top of the cliff.’
by Paul Muldoon, first published in Meeting the British (1987)

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