DÚLRA almost missed the most interesting offering in Jollyes Pet Shop in Andersonstown last week. Among all the bird seed and canaries, guinea pigs and rabbits was a small stall to the left of the entrance. It wasn’t selling anything – but it had a whole lot to offer at absolutely no cost.
For Shannon Patterson, being here at this stall is a dream come true. She’s passionate about the environment and the natural world and wants everyone else to feel the same. It might be a job – she’s a paid fundraiser for the RSBP – but you get the impression that she’d gladly do this work for nothing. For Shannon, helping save the planet and its creatures is a vocation.
And that battle is firmly rooted in the place she lives. It’s through the old stories about heroes and tragedies that she fell in love with in the countryside.
“My mummy used to tell me fairy stories and ghost stories – they scared the bejesus out of me but as I got older it gave me a deep understanding of what was really important," she said.
“When it came to the Celts, they knew that if you looked after nature, it looked after you. But today we have become disconnected to the countryside and the result is what we see around us – the loss of insects and birds and the damage to ecosystems like we see at Lough Neagh.
“I try to reconnect the public with nature through Irish folklore.”
Shannon – who did a course on Irish folklore and mythology at University College Cork – travels around the North promoting the work of the RSBP – the organisation dedicated to birdlife. She highlights the brilliant efforts to save the curlew – 69 chicks were born on the Antrim hills this year in a special project – and the corncrake, traonach in Irish, which has been successfully enticed back to Rathlin Island through years of painstaking work which included resowing fields with nettles.
The Derry woman now lives in Belfast and thinks nothing of travelling – as a child she spent summer holidays on Lough Erne with her family where those folklore stories came to life among the misty islands.
Not everyone wants to stop at a stall – people often wrongly think it’s trying to sell something – but Shannon said that during her couple of days at Jolleys at the Westwood Centre, she managed to interact with a large proportion of the pet shop customers.
“Especially older people – I love to talk to older people,” she said. “And one thing I hear again and again is that they are struggling with the cost of living.
“Many of them are really upset that they can’t afford to feed the birds any more. It’s really tragic.”
Shannon is an illustrator by trade, and many of the items you can see at her stall – like the picture of the puffin and the St Bridget’s cross – have been painted and made by her.
“Most of my illustrations are about bringing Irish folklore to life. I try to connect people to nature through the folklore, the stories and these pictures. We have a rich heritage that can be used to save the environment.”
She added: “I’m learning Irish now at Turas in East Belfast and I hope to be able to take this stall and this message into Irish language schools. The language and the folklore and the environment are all connected and it’s by rediscovering those connections again that we can help protect the countryside and all the creatures in it.”
Before leaving, Dúlra gave the suggested £1 donation for an RSPB bird badge. With Christmas fast approaching, he avoided the famous puffin or curlew and went instead for the humble robin – it certainly helped that this one was in Irish.
Now he’ll proudly wear his RSPB spideog to remind him of Shannon’s message that Irish folklore and language can help us cherish and protect our environment once more.
If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.