DÚLRA doesn’t make many home visits, but he made an exception for Pat Rice. The octogenarian former school teacher/politician noted linguist was given bird feeders as a Christmas present by his son and wanted some advice on how best to put them up.

“Many people get an interest in birds from their parents, I got my love of birds from my son Paul,” smiled Pat.

When Dúlra visited, it was clear that the birds of Pat’s Poleglass garden are well looked after. And they certainly have a wide choice of food to choose from, including a range of exotic fruit – that’s no surprise considering Pat’s wife Martita comes from Ecuador.

Just as we stepped out the back door, we were met by a heartwarming omen. A wood pigeon with a large twig in its mouth swooped down towards us and disappeared into the depths of the garden fir tree. It was just the sixth of February and already this bird was bidding farewell to winter and building a nest. And right outside Pat’s kitchen window. Fantastic!

Dúlra put two feeders up – one on the fence and the other hanging from a branch of a thicket of ivy which had grown in one corner. He filled them with sunflower hearts and left the bag with Pat for refills. Pat will need to do that regularly as sunflower hearts are like a drug to garden birds. An average feeder will be emptied in a week, but you never can predict by which species of bird. Here, so close to Colin Glen, you could attract greenfinches, siskins and even redpolls, along with the more common tits. And those wood pigeons – colm coille in Irish – will sweep up any fallen seeds on the ground below.

Refilling those feeders will take some effort, but Pat is up for the task. “My father used to say, ‘Time and patience will take the snail to Jerusalem.’ I have the same philosophy – I’m slow and careful but I get there.”

Pat may be a pillar of the West Belfast community, but as that saying hints, he’s actually a country man, brought up on Sturgan Brae above Camlough Loch. And he carries with him still the lore and traditions of that beautiful South Armagh landscape.

“The birds are probably watching us putting these feeders up and saying, ‘They’ve had some poor body’s blessing,’” Pat said. “My granny would have said that – it means that the poor people were especially listened to by the powers above.” Pat’s granny would welcome homeless travellers to her hillside home, desperate people who would be given a meal and/or a bed for the night. It’s incredible that those times are still within human memory.

And Pat’s reward to Dúlra for putting up the feeders? A precious horde of bird books. Pat’s house is coming down with books – quite literally. He made a rough count of them and arrived at the incredible figure of 5,000 – probably more than some libraries! But one incident made him realise that he had too many.  “We were in bed at about one o’clock in the morning when there was this almighty crash. Martita thought it was a bomb. In fact, three bookshelves had collapsed and if I’d been at my desk I would have been hurt.”

Books line every wall in every room. And they seem to be in every language under the sun. Dúlra had to ask – So how many languages do you have Pat? 

“I would have dabbled in at least 15,” he said modestly. Fifteen! And for Pat, ‘dabbling’ means the ability to at least read a book in them. He’s so fluent in five that he can do TV or radio interviews. Languages he can read novels in include Catalan, Portuguese, Italian and Scots Gaelic, among others. But how does he get the time to learn them all? Well, it’s fair to say he doesn’t waste a second. 

“I studied Japanese for two years and the only time I could do it was between half six and half seven every morning before I went to school,” he said. He never drove and walked everywhere at a brisk pace, including the fair distance from his then home in Glengoland up to St Mary’s every morning. 

If there’s one language that’s closest to his heart – besides his native Irish – it’s Basque, renowned as one of the most difficult languages to learn. “The only thing I would still like to do is translate a book directly from Basque to Irish,” he says.

Pat’s interest in languages led to a life filled with travel. And giving languages to so many young people as a teacher in St Mary’s was like giving them a passport to explore the world. Not that he ever forgot where he came from. He dipped his toe into politics in 1985 when he stood as a councillor for Sinn Féin in Lisburn – although he had been assured he wouldn’t get elected. But he was delighted to win. 

“By about teatime on election day I had election fever myself because I saw the people coming out and voting for me,” he said. It was a seat he held until 1997.

Before Dúlra’s visit, Pat had sifted through his books and picked out a few relating to nature.  “You can have them if you’re interested,” he said. Dúlra had arrived at Pat’s home with an armful of seeds – and he left with an armful of books. 

There’s no doubt who got the most out of that visit!

• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.