On a glorious spring morning during a late morning walk on the East Pier, on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, to be precise, I spotted a lone pair of Brent Geese.
During winter, gaggles of geese tend to congregate in the seaward side of the pier, just after the Victorian bandstand. Today, only this pair could be seen, the last two Brent Geese in Dún Laoghaire enjoying the spring sunshine before setting off for Canada.
The last geese in town floated leisurely in the water. Then, I heard the unmistakeable cry of a brand new summer arrival, the Arctic Tern, who is believed to travel longer than any other migrating bird, a round trip of at least 80,000 kilometres per year.
Arctic Terns follow the summer around the planet, so they are believed to catch more sun in a year than any other creature on earth. They live for approximately 30 years, which makes their accumulative annual migrations over a lifetime equivalent to three trips to the moon and back.
I was enjoying this joyous juxtaposition of wintering birds with spring arrivals, when, out of nowhere, two swallows darted into view, twisting and turning and sleekly gliding through the air in that inimitable way that only swallows can.
In Don’t Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions Jonathan Eyers reveals that according to sailing superstition swallows are a good omen. This probably arose from the fact that swallows are generally land-based birds, so their presence tends to inform a sailor that they are close to shore.
Traditionally, the arrival of these migrants from Africa heralds the beginning of spring and they are associated with love, loyalty and peace. As spirit animals, they are considered to be joyful, decisive and full of hope.
Terns are also known as ‘sea swallows’ because they too are aerodynamic summer migrants. Seeing both species instantaneously for the first time this year was thrilling. It was as if the geese were waiting for both the swallows and sea swallows to check in before they departed.
It struck me that in order to survive the arduous undertaking of long-distance migration, wild birds must be far more intelligent than we think. How exactly they manage it remains a mystery that humanity cannot fully comprehend, or explain.
It’s also striking – and highly apt – that the harbour was hosting all these seasonal comings and goings. Tens of thousands of people departed from Dún Laoghaire in search of a better life over the last 200 years, especially during the Famine, and a wave of post-war emigration in the latter half of the 20th century.
Our fellow countrywomen, men and children were forced to flee from starvation and destitution, or the complete lack of opportunity and employment, in the land they once called home.
While we have faced unprecedented challenges in the last year, we are in far better place than our impoverished ancestors during the 1840s. However, poverty, homelessness and inequality are still scourges upon our society. Many of our citizens have been disproportionately impacted by the horrors of Covid.
There has been some talk about the old ferry route being revived, as Brexit and the pandemic have conspired to completely upset the apple cart of life on these islands.
Perhaps the era of cheap flights and pumping tonnes of toxic fumes into the atmosphere should be made history. Boats and trains are a much cleaner way to travel, and the re-opening of the ferry link to Holyhead would have an enormous positive effect on Dún Laoghaire and beyond.
In the meantime, let’s breathe in and enjoy the sea air, slow down, and appreciate nature over the coming weeks and months.
Winter is finally over.
This is a beautiful piece Éamon. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot since you published it, and learn so much about my locality from your wonderful articles.