Swans and Seagulls

By Joanna Chen

It’s raining on our first morning in Ireland but my daughter and I struggle into Dublin city for a little exploration. Armed with an umbrella, bundled in jackets, scarves, and boots, we wander through Grafton Street, Dublin’s main drag of high-end stores. People with rustling carrier bags bump up against us; I feel trapped, and long for an escape route. As a child I was fascinated by Lucy’s adventures in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, how she escaped the pressures of war-torn England by traversing the fur coats and entering the wardrobe through to the other side. Here’s the rain, the gloom of existence, and I am about to enter my own wardrobe of escape.   

We walk along a little more and come to an intersection where there are road works that make crossing over difficult. There’s mud, metal barriers, workmen in hard hats and luminescent jackets, a policeman with a whistle, waving his arms, directing the traffic and wayward pedestrians who step off the sidewalk and into the road. St. Stephen’s Green, cordoned in by metal railings, awaits us on the other side of the road. We circumvent the obstructions and join a steady stream of people walking into the green, entering through Fusiliers’ Arch, a stone construction that still bears the marks of bullets fired during the 1916 Easter Uprising. As we enter, the rain clears a little and a faint sun peeks out through lime trees that line this property.

A certain hush falls over us as the clamour of the high street melts away. People are slowing their pace, strolling through the winding paths first laid down in the 1800s. This is 2017 but it could be anytime at all. My daughter, who has been here before, promises me swans and a lake and as we walk through I hear the beating of vast wings and a flock of swans rises up into the air and circles the lake. My daughter corrects me: those are just seagulls, not swans. She points out a couple of swans stretching their necks in the water, cygnets close by. I stand there, transfixed, unable to believe that right here in the middle of the city such an oasis of natural beauty could possibly exist. I’d planned on visiting the writers’ museum in order to understand better the literary roots of this city, but it is here that the roots manifest themselves as I recall Yeats’ words from “The Swans of Coole”:

All suddenly mount 
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings 
Upon their clamorous wings.

His words reflect the search for lasting beauty in a troubled, changing world — and as the birds, whatever they are, circle above us I am struck with the idea that this is precisely it. St. Stephen’s Green, named after a church erected in the area during the 13th century, was originally marshy ground close to a lepers’ colony, used for grazing cows and sheep. In the 16th century, it was converted into a private park for the use of residents living in the vicinity, on condition that each resident plant six sycamore trees on the perimeter of the park. Today, those trees grow tall, their trunks thick and gnarled. Robins and wrens flit between the trees; mallard and yellow-legged gulls waddle along the paths waiting for breadcrumbs brought by visitors.

In the 1800s, Sir Arthur Guinness renovated the park, and opened it to the public once again. Today the paths are the same paths walked upon so many hundreds of years ago, and an air of timelessness hangs over it. I half expect ladies in crinoline dresses holding parasols to be walking here, but there are only families with children, couples arm in arm and the occasional solitary visitor, sitting on a bench by the lake or leaning forward to smell the aromatic shrubs that grow there.

The memorist and socialist Seán O’Casey is mentioned in an essay written by Wiliam J. Maroldo in Reflections Upon the Mirror, describing how in 1923 Casey “[hurried] to the Green to sit in serenity beside the lake to try and sort out things out, too, among the indifferent ducks and drakes”. He did so after witnessing a firebomb attack carried out by a “lilting cyclist” on the nearby Free State Barrack, the subsequent screams of the injured and the wail of the ambulance siren arriving some minutes later. Perhaps Sean O’Casey did not sort things out — Ireland has suffered its fair share of wars and bloodshed on its way to independence — but at least the green offers space in which to think, pause and reflect. My daughter and I wander along the path, stopping to admire a fountain, the formal flowerbeds and soft lawns. I’ve visited several parks within cities throughout the world, including Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, and New York’s Central Park, but have never experienced such immense tranquility. Perhaps it’s the particularly intense juxtaposition between the two, the way the city peeps through the railings, the way the birds fly above the grimy office blocks on their way for a dip in the lake.

We exit the park as dusk falls. A uniformed policeman stands at the gate, rubbing his hands together against the cold. Soon everyone will leave, the gates will be locked and only ghosts will wander the pathways. It begins to drizzle again, and we zip up our jackets, lower our heads against the biting Irish wind and prepare to battle home through the crowds.

Later, I read about St. Stephen’s Green and am surprised to discover it spans more than 20 acres. I’m confused, sure that my daughter and I walked the length and breadth of it in the hour we spent there. Now I am more convinced than ever of the magic that hung over our afternoon there: the self-contained oasis, the confidence to slow down, the comradeship that comes from watching swans, or seagulls, together.

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