There are no seagulls in Madrid. I am used to gulls as common as pigeons in Dublin, seemingly living without relation to the water. They roost on Helene’s rooftop in Glasnevin and bully tourists for food in the park. Loud, stressed lives passed digging at the edges of our perception.
When I walk the cliffs in Kerry I see the seagulls dive and think: “Why doesn’t every gull choose to live out here? How could life in a city be preferable to life in this great open air? How is fighting over stray chips and the ends of paninis better than diving for whitebait and shrimp?” Which is to say, in typical fashion, I expect idealistic desires of birds that I am unwilling to indulge for myself.
But there is a tragic quality to city birds. Stump-toed pigeons, mangy magpies. Even the swans are slumming it. The unhappy birds—the ones onto which it is so easy to project filth and hardship—they project negative qualities of urban life just a little too personally; Look at this thing, suffering openly. Why doesn’t it fly away, where life might be better? There is nothing keeping it here. What is this canary trying to tell us about the coal mine?
Only the swallows seem happy and untethered, flitting deliriously between rooftops in the long evenings.
I watch from the cliffs and tell myself a children’s story of a seagull flying down from Dublin. How long might it take him? Four hours? Six? The blue of Smerwick Harbour opening beyond the mountains like spilt paint. The night sky, the ragged rocks, all those things about which it doesn’t but might suddenly care. Why doesn’t the gull do this? What’s wrong with it? Do I really need the stray chips? I suppose I do, for now.