One morning I opened the patio curtains and there, in the centre of the small patch of frozen grass and weeds that is our lawn, was a slice of bread. It seemed unnaturally large and white lying there under the late winter sky. I was puzzled. Surely the cats wouldn’t bother stealing bread. Or would they? If they did have some crazy notion to steal bread, how would they carry such a large piece, in near perfect condition, into our backyard? Or are our neighbours in the habit of tossing things over their fence? We had only been in the house a couple of weeks, so I couldn’t be sure. The answer came to me a moment later when a flock of gulls swept across the sky, their voices ringing like the sea.
Toddlers say the truth without flinching. I was walking up the stairs of our new house, toddler holding one hand, newborn cradled in the other arm, when my two-year-old remarked: “This is our new house.” “It is,” I replied. There was a moment’s pause before she continued: “It’s very untidy.” I could only laugh. It had been a busy time for us: we moved house, had Covid, Henry did a major job interview, and our newest family member made her arrival. We had very little time and energy to unpack and organise our things after the frantic move. The result is an untidy house with piles of laundry, pictures and art stacked in the rooms, curtains in the hallway, mattresses on the floor, and toys all over the place. But something is taking shape in my mind, something I can best describe as the essence of the house. I’m starting to think of it as The Gull House. A halfway house, a meeting place, a harbour of sorts where people and ideas will come and go. A place that is temporary in meaning, but still essential.
My theory that an over-eager gull had dropped the bread during his daily commute gained strength when I saw one of our neighbours tossing leftovers to the birds one grey morning. The world was wet with water and energy after the previous night’s storm the gulls glided effortlessly on the stormy currents, squabbling over bread crusts while looking utterly graceful and confident. I lifted my eyes above the peaked roofs, the cement walls, the planted birches, and kept my gaze fixed on the ominous sky with its elegant dancers, I could easily imagine we were standing at a harbour with the ocean calling our names… The reality is that we live nowhere near the ocean.
Birdwatch Ireland has an informative article on the gulls that have moved away from the coast to make rural and urban inland habitats their own. In Dublin, you’ll find herring gulls, lesser black-backed gulls, and greater black-backed gulls. I struggle to tell them apart, to be honest, but apparently, the majority of urban nesting gulls are herring gulls. According to a survey undertaken between 2015-2019, all three species have increased their numbers over fifteen to twenty years. Their findings suggest herring gulls, previously listed as a species of concern, had recovered from their earlier decline.
Thousands of seagull nesting pairs might not sound ideal to Dublin’s human inhabitants who’ve had their food thieved or who had been hit by flying guano. But people and birds know: There’s something about living in Dublin. The city has a vibrancy; There’s a lively energy. You can sense it in the fascinating tension between old and new; the cranes erecting new houses and hospitals, and the graffitied derelict buildings. Between the human world infringing on the natural, the natural world on the human and the blurred lines in between. And, of course, the pleasures of suburban life: the coffee, the community, and the bird song. Which increasingly includes calling seagulls. For some the sound might be nostalgic, for others, it’s more foreboding. I often hear people refer to seagulls as loud, rude, and crass… They are seen as the playground bullies in the bird-neighbourhood. But that’s not all there is to these avian creatures. All about Birds write that gulls engage in complex social behaviours:
Sounds a bit like Dublin city to me! The seagull version of “community” appears to be important as is choosing the right “home” and birds will often return to the same nesting area. A nesting pair of birds communicate with each other when choosing the best location for their nest. The birds vocalise and point to what they consider a suitable spot, called a chocking display, hoping to convince their mate. Apparently, domestic disagreements occur even among our feathered neighbours. The location of a nest is a big decision and one not always easily made:
Finding a house in Dublin is just as complicated and often frustrating. We were lucky to find The Gull House. We are privileged to have a space to call our home. But despite it’s attributes, this will only be a halfway house. A place of temporary rest and belonging, as rentals often are…
Some folklore tales personify gulls as souls lost at sea. The gull’s cry echoed the dead man’s voice and it was thought best not to touch a gull to avoid injuring the deceased man. (I can’t help but wonder why you would want to touch a gull and whether a gull would allow you to!) This belief, like others, came from sailers who were often at the mercy of elements beyond their control and who, consequently, had many superstitions about sea birds. Killing sea birds, especially an albatross, was seen as bad luck. There’s a belief that superstitions arise from not feeling in control. Writer and psychology professor Stuart Vyse explains, “When something important is at stake yet the outcome is uncertain, then superstitions are likely to be used to fill the gap and make us feel more confident.” This is why we often perform certain acts or rituals to make us feel more in control even if we know they don’t really do anything.
I can’t say I’m superstitious but there are some rituals around moving into a new home that are important to me. Putting up my pictures, placing my plants, settling my cats and, more recently, settling my daughters and finding a spot their things. Also, creating a garden of sorts. I repotted all my garden plants before the move and that’s where most of them will stay at The Gull House. Although, I probably won’t be able to resist some gardening even if I know we won’t be here for long. But for now, this life is good. We have our home, even if it is untidy, we have our cats and our daughters, and our small patch of grass. I can enjoy the seagulls sweeping over us each morning, those lost souls who migrated to the city, feeling content that we aren’t lost at all. Right now, we’re home.
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Have a wonderful day.
Further reading and sources: