A Great Black-backed Gull just stood there, staring at me from its place on the top of the stone seawall. I sat on the next step below staring back at it. Less than three feet away from the gull with no offerings of food, it could have easily pecked at my nose, but it didn’t. The gull seemed accustomed to humans, waiting to pick up after them as they left crumbs from meals enjoyed on the steps of the barrier on Howth’s western pier. Gulls are known to be aggressive, and often live off the scraps or easy pickings of others. They are fascinating foragers, who will drop clams onto rocks to get a small meal, or dive for fish swimming close to the surface. And just like the gulls I have watched at home, these European gulls seem obnoxious in their daily search for easy meals.
Howth, Ireland, is a small, historic port city just north of Dublin. I had already roamed the town, enjoying the salty sea breeze brush on my face, before encountering the first gull of my day. The afternoon was comfortable. As the sun beat down, I waited for the ferry to take me to Ireland’s Eye, an island about a mile offshore. The island has had various names throughout the ages, the most recent coming from the Old Norse words for “Ireland” and “island”—Erin’s Ey. For hundreds of years the island has been uninhabited by humans. Full of mystery, in 1852 the death of an artist’s wife brought the island into the public eye, and whether it was a murder or an accident is still debated. Before that, a church flourished on the island but became impractical as its followers increased and the church moved to Howth. There is also an abandoned defensive tower erected a couple hundred years ago. I was intrigued to see the crumbling walls of the old worship house, how the lichen may be clinging to the abandoned tower, and how the flora and fauna reclaimed the majority of the island left behind by man.
The time had arrived for me to see it for myself. At the end of the boat launch was an old Irishman missing a tooth in his big smile. He welcomed me and the other visitors aboard the Christmas Eve. She was a smaller boat than I expected, seating only about 20 people.
It was a short jaunt to the island, by way of Ireland’s Eye Ferries. Taking advantage of the calm water, I scanned the sea surface hoping to glimpse some sort of life underneath. The seabirds hovered overhead, so silent they would have been missed had I not looked up. As we approached the island, a dark grey seal popped its head up in the distance, as if to say “hello” or to see who had come to visit.
The seal disappeared underwater as the Christmas Eve rounded the corner, and the boat landing came into view. It wasn’t much to look at, no wooden platform, just the natural rocks that formed a slight stairway, with metal rods cemented to form a handrail. After the initial rock steps, a small, clear path of smooth rocks continued towards the bulk of the island. One side of the path was lined with boulders and loose rocks, while the other side was carpeted by a type of dark brown seaweed, which looked similar to the seaweed in the tide beds of the rocky coasts in Washington State. A quick internet search revealed it as rock weed, or Fucus serratus.
A spotted, dove grey baby seal covered in the finest velvet fur dozed in the sun on the far side of the seaweed carpet. With its eyes slowing blinking, as if straining to stay open, the pup was alone, unperturbed by groups of passengers coming on and off the island. It looked much like the seal pups I’d seen at home in the Pacific Northwest, and it was about half the size of the one who peeked above the water’s surface earlier.
The young deckhand aboard our vessel picked up a large rod with a metal hook on the end to grab the nearby rocks, and he expertly pulled us close to the path. We climbed out single file. The short path curved right to another set of natural stairs, again equipped with a makeshift handrail for safety. At the top of those stairs the scenery and sound changed. A soft chattering of people, mixed with a chorus of birds, filled the quiet island. In front of me lay the sea with what seemed to be specks of glitter gleaming in the sunlight. Was this the view the artists wife had seen that day when she had arrived on the island? The defense tower loomed to my right; to my left a well-worn dirt path set me on my journey. The path had a slight incline and I set my goal to reach the highest point, near what seemed like the center of the Ey. The higher I went the more forceful the winds became.
Along the way I spotted two chicks guarded by one parent seagull. It was curious how similar these birds were to the ones I watched along the Washington coast of the Pacific Ocean. One chick stood looking at the horizon and the other foraged on whatever treats it could find in the ground, bending its tiny head and pecking at the grassy plateau, but I was unable to discern what it was eating. As a gust of wind came swooping in, one chick stretched its wings as if trying to take flight. The parent seemed to keep a wary eye on me as I crouched lower to snap some photos. How old were these baby gulls? They still had their fluffy grey spotted feathers, so they must still have been fledglings. At what age had they learned to fly?
I later read on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website that these birds were from the same species of Great Black-backed Gulls that I watch at home, and the chicks can start walking around 24 hours after hatching. They stay in the nesting area, with a parent or two, for around 40 days before taking flight.
The sea breeze continued to grow stronger as I climbed higher. At one vista, just below the peak, I was intrigued by the birds’ resilience in the wind. As I stood on the edge of the ridge, it took careful concentration to ensure my body stayed put in the heavy wind gusts. Yet, the birds sat there unmoving, sometimes shaking out their feathers as if they had merely gotten the chills. The birds were no bigger than a football and the wind barely tousled their feathers. Had my long hair not been cinched in a ponytail, it would have blown all around me. These birds had such ease to glide into that powerful flurry and take flight, as if they were oil floating on top of water.
For decades Ireland’s Eye has been a popular day trip for rock climbers and nature lovers. There are no restrictions on who can explore the island, or when it can be explored. The Island is not a dedicated animal reserve. Still, I did notice various parts of the island roped off with signs asking visitors to stay on paths as to not disturb the nesting grounds. These birds were undaunted by me; have they gotten used to the daily visits of humans? Do they no longer see us as threats? Overhead, the birds sailed like a fleet of kites on a perfectly windy day.
I waded through the tall bracken on my last leg up the hill. I playfully imagined that these plants, which resemble sword ferns from my forested home in the Pacific Northwest, had been fertilized with the ‘Eat Me’ cake from Alice in Wonderland. They reached, in some places, up beyond my head. Their stalk circumference was no bigger than a small twig. As a result, the bracken were not very sturdy, and each plant remained upright in the wind only because of the strength it gathered from its neighbors, like matted hair on a poodle who hasn’t been groomed for months. At some points I found it difficult to make my way through this mass of interwoven ferns, and I was grateful for the visitors who had cleared sections of path before me.
At the end of the bracken jungle, careful to not slip on the smooth bedrock dotting the path for the last 20 feet of the climb, I finally reached the peak. Slowly turning 360 degrees, all sides of the small island were visible. Various seabirds were mere dots in the never-ending sky, and the water looked as still as glass. I knew the sea was constantly moving with the tide, but from that vantage, it was as if time had stopped. I looked around the island and noticed the crumbling walls of the abandoned church lay near the middle. Closing my eyes, I could draw in my imagination the missing walls and roof and watch as parishioners made their trek from shore to door.
The strong structure of the defense tower, a Martello Tower, with little deterioration guarded one end of the island. This was constructed in the early 1800’s to defend against a possible French invasion. How long did soldiers live in its safety before it was abandoned? Looking back towards the church and beyond on the opposite coast, I saw the spot where the woman was found dead. Yet, none of these events from the past seem to be of any concern now to what is thriving on the island.
Whether a religious sanctuary, military hold, or place of death, plants and animals are resilient and will occupy a territory however nature allows them. Left alone they will grow and die with no help from us. While plants don’t need us to survive, they can be trained where to not grow. Humans are no longer living on the island, but their visits are daily occurrences, as such the plants along the borders of the walking path do not encroach where new shoots may be trampled upon.
As I finished my exploration of Ireland’s Eye, my thoughts left the mysteries of the past and went back to the birds who seemed to rule this island. I didn’t see many other creatures—only a few butterflies and a bee or two. Later research revealed that the small holes I’d spotted in the ground, leading to underground tunnels I spied along my walk, could belong to rabbits or even burrowing ducks, known as Shelducks, which are short-billed ducks with long legs. Perhaps they were keeping cool from the unusually warm Irish summer sun that day. Or, maybe they didn’t feel as safe as the various gulls, who seemed to enjoy the warm weather and could fly out of human reach at a moment’s notice.
The baby seal was still at its post as I boarded the ferry for the return to Howth Harbor. Slowly, it started to move towards the water’s edge as the boat inched away. Thinking a parent was returning after a successful hunt, I hoped to finally see an animal feeding. But not today—there was no parent nearby. I glanced to my right and noticed that a small, gull-like bird sitting at the edge of the water, likely a fulmar because of its size, also appeared to be watching the seal pup. The pup slowly approached the bird, yet the bird didn’t move. It just sat, like a sentinel, watching. The Christmas Eve slowly backed away from Ireland’s Eye, and I found myself wishing to steal away the peace and tenacity of nature in this place, to keep it with me as I continued my way through life.
*All images taken by Maria Densley 2018