The Brent Geese & a Tribute to a Teacher

26 Apr 2021

Aidan Ring, formerly a student of Belgrove Boys School, and currently an environmental activist doing a Masters in Environmental Psychology, recently wrote the below piece for the Ecopsychology & Ecotherapy Association of Ireland

It's a beautiful tribute to Mr Joy, who many Belgrove boys will remember. Joy has a great influence on Ring and what ultimately became his career, by bringing the lads on nature trips to the Bull Wall. 

Gifts from the Natural World: Air

Brent Geese Journey

One of the earliest fully-formed memories I have of interacting in any meaningful way with the natural world was at the age of 10 when my 6th class teacher, a man called Noel Joy, brought myself and my class out into the fresh air on a nature trip to the Bull Island in Clontarf.

Now, Noel Joy was a man of excellence who deeply cared about, and related to, nature. He made it a priority of his teaching to impart some of that fondness to his students. His reputation of passion for birds and wildlife preceded him (and laid some very fertile grounds for humour… all good-natured of course – we were 9). Even on the trips down the Bull Wall, I can’t even remember if I was paying much attention or just taking advantage of being out of school to do a bit of messing (it is highly unlikely that the trip passed without any horseplay at all). But Mr Joy, while certainly respected, was not the sort who dished out punishments or got upset at messers messing; indeed his teaching style was so effective because he had a way of letting boys be boys while also making you want to learn – these nature trips were, perhaps, the ultimate expression of that.

The moment I recall most distinctly from that first trip to the Bull Island in Clontarf with my class and Mr Joy, was the moment when Mr Joy drew the attention of the class (well, the ones who were listening anyway) to the Knot, a small species of wading bird. At least, I think it was the Knot and so does Mr Joy – I contacted him to confirm. These all seemed to be mobilising on the ground with a sense of purpose. Our polite interest was soon transformed to legitimate awe when, all at once, the entire flock took flight in a vast, graceful, rolling, rippling formation. This glorious visage, looking like a single organism, rose and fell, ducked and weaved, hovered and dived through the air, all around the bay, for several minutes. It took my breath away; even the most devout messers were momentarily silenced. How could you not be? Nature had just served us a delicious dish of pure visual poetry and music.

It was highly formative and I will never forget it.

​A Bit of History

Now, where this all took place, the Bull Wall in Clontarf in Dublin might never have existed at all. The North Bull Wall has, over time, caused the formation of the Bull Island, a bizarre feature of Dublin Bay which. A 15-minute cycle from the house I grew up in, this biodiversity hotspot is protected by local and EU laws.

The story behind it is as curious as the island ecosystem itself. A wall was originally proposed in Dublin Bay North by Captain William Bligh of ‘Mutiny on The Bounty fame. This wall was designed to eliminate excessive silting in Dublin Bay by holding back the silt and, effectively, making the mouth of the River Liffey deeper. The North Bull Wall, designed by architect George Halpin, was eventually constructed in the early 1800s. In the subsequent years, the resulting conglomeration of sand and later plants and dunes, has turned into one of the richest bird sanctuaries in Ireland. In a rare case of human intervention creating an ecosystem rather than destroying one, George Halpin had inadvertently built one of the most biodiverse areas on the entire east coast!

​More Recent History:

Mr Joy knew all of this and told us all about it on the way to and from the island as well as in class. But what really stood out and baffled his class was his intricate knowledge of the bird species which called the island their home, some permanently, some seasonally. Most prominent amongst these species were the Brent Geese, a type of water-goose which Winters in Ireland and Summers in Canada. Entirely unconcerned with COVID travel restrictions, every Autumn, these intrepid travellers take to the air and travel around 4,000km to come and hang out in Dublin Bay (of all places!). Indeed, the arrival of the Brent Geese is an annual natural phenomenon in my local area. They drift around the skies of Clontarf and Raheny, sometimes in magnificent v-shapes, squawking a goosey squawk. If during a goose fly-by, I’m ever in the company of someone who isn’t familiar with the story of the Brent Geese and their seasonal visits, I take great pleasure in telling the story (the story of the Brent Geese that is, not ‘Brenkies’ as my friend Lucy once hilariously misheard). Indeed, I’m proud of knowing something so fundamental about the natural heritage of my own backyard!

Why these geese picked Ireland for their seasonal stay is unclear (ask any Irish person about our Winters) but nearly the entire population of this species Winters here. How do they find their way through 4,000km of sky? We do not know exactly but we suspect it’s a combination of memory of the terrain (such as islands along the way) and magnetoreception. The latter is a weird and wonderful sense organ that many migratory birds have which is synchronised with the poles of our planet telling them true north, a sense we can’t even conceive of.

But is it worth it for them to come to the Bull Island? It is becoming less of an appropriate environment for them as time goes by. Already, one of their prime feeding habitats here in Clontarf has been slated for development with the building of apartments despite strong local opposition (see here for more information). The sea around Dublin, which they depend on for food, is getting murkier and more polluted with each year that passes. Noise pollution, dogs and low flying aircraft are just some of the other threats to these and many other bird species that hang out around the Bull Island during Winter. All of this is concerning; I find these seasonal visitors a very comforting addition to the calendar – I usually forget they’re coming but luckily they never forget they’re coming! You’re walking along one day and then there they are, flying overhead, squawking away. I just love thinking of the fact that they don’t need bridges, tarmac, airline tickets or check-in baggage to get from Canada to Ireland. All they need is the air. For them, we cannot even really say that the sky is the limit!

So thanks to an engineering fluke from the 1800s, this natural magic - the seasonal presence of Brent Geese and the permanent presence of many other bird species - is available to us all the time at Bull Island…. And yet many of the humans simply drive past on the Clontarf Road and take little notice (myself often included to my shame). Perhaps some people might look out the windows of their cars, the walkers certainly stop and drink it in. I recently spoke to Mr Joy, or Noel as I now call him, and he remarked that ‘I’m always amazed that more people don’t stop and look at these amazing things on our doorstep!’

Indeed, it is only the Mr. Joy of the world who really engage, who get to know what they are looking at and impart the glory of it to others. When I see the Brent Geese drifting around above us and know the full depth and context of what they have done to get here, I must say, I am thankful to have been introduced to their story.

Long may it last.