Off in their skeins, high in the sky

No sign of the geese yet. At least, not in this part of the world. I’ve been keeping an eye out for them, scanning the sky beyond the church steeple. But it’s a little early, I know.  Still, I can’t help glancing skywards, listening for their harsh rruk calls.

Plenty of geese up in Strangford Lough. Pale-bellied brent geese have been arriving in their thousands. Left Canada in August; stopped off in Greenland and Iceland. Now they’re in Northern Ireland, catching their breath before dispersing to the rest of the island. A good portion will spend the winter in Dublin, and I’ll watch them fly back and forth across the bay, measuring time and distance in rapid wingbeats.

There’s an old radio documentary that follows the brent geese on their 4000km journey from Bathurst Island in Arctic Canada to Dublin, Ireland. You can listen to it here.


Last year, I was lucky enough to meet Dermot Healy. Healy’s work includes A Fool’s Errand, a book-length poem about the annual migration of barnacle geese from their breeding grounds in Greenland to their wintering quarters in Sligo. His book captures his joy at the birds’ return, ‘….they come – from gaggle to skein – in beautiful stitches/along a thread.’ But there’s sadness too: the death of a friend, the passage of time. Healy’s subsequent death adds to the poignancy.

Then comes the day
they pass overhead unnoticed  —

a rich warm day.
You’re thinking of other things,

to get something done
right to the end, see
something finished and, in a break

from lifting stone, sit looking inland
where life goes on.
Then, just before dark,

they break overhead in thousands
with a marvellous

pouring of song
into the beyond.

I’m thinking of buying a bird feeder, but I’m not sure about the etiquette. My neighbour leaves out nuts and seeds for the birds once the weather turns cooler, and I’ve been benefitting from her thoughtfulness. Yesterday, two coal tits entertained me by attacking her feeder in well-marshalled turns, almost emptying it within the space of twenty minutes. (Coal tits are hoarders, I read, taking food when it’s plentiful and hiding it for later.)

Lots of birds visit our garden in summertime, thanks largely to a prolific raspberry bush. But the winter is quieter. A bird table would bring some welcome guests, but might it be the equivalent of opening a fancy restaurant beside the old neighbourhood café?


I’ve been thinking about where this interest in birds comes from. The people at Entropy Literary Magazine have made space for my musings. You can read my essay On Not Looking here.


Relative Merit

Pigeon Towers from Dollymount Strand

We don’t do grand here in Dublin. Not architecturally. No shiny skyscrapers. No glass shards. The city is a low rise anomaly in a high rise world.

Same with nature. The Dublin Mountains are really hills, less than a thousand metres at their highest. The River Liffey is a third the length of the Thames.

The tallest structures in the city are a pair of decommissioned chimney stacks that stand on the Poolbeg Peninsula, at the mouth of the Liffey. You can see the chimneys for miles around, their distinctive red and white stripes as familiar to Dubliners as O’Connell Bridge or Trinity College.

You’d be hard-pressed to call them beautiful.

Their construction in the 1970s was greeted with outrage. The stacks broke the city’s horizontal axis; their jaunty colours were at odds with the muted greys typical of Dublin sky.

Still, the chimneys grew on us over the years. On still days, steam from the chimneys rose in a straight line; on windy days, it blew at a ninety-degree angle. When fog rolled in, only the tops of the chimneys were visible, floating over the peninsula in ghostly suspension.

Some of us started loving the chimneys, watching out for them on long flights home, using them to orient ourselves or plot directions. We noted their decommissioning in 2010, surprised to find our eyes still drawn to them, even in the absence of function.

We began to value their role in drawing attention to the landscape they interrupted; the way their height accentuated the sweep of the bay and the long, low stretches of the coast. We began to walk towards them on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons, approaching from Dollymount Strand or Irishtown Nature Reserve.

In summer, we were rewarded with the sound of skylarks nesting in the chimneys; occasionally we saw peregrine falcons. In autumn, we watched hundreds of Brent Geese feed on the grass beside the chimneys, bulking up before heading back to Arctic Canada to breed in the Spring.

Recently, there’s been talk of taking down the chimneys, but the  council passed a motion preventing their demolition. Now there are proposals to turn them into museums or tourist attractions.

Meanwhile, they stand at the city’s edge, greeting cargo ships and ferries, cruise liners and airplanes. The geese come and go.

Some of us are glad.


Early Bird

Early Bird