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Luca Truffarelli

Opinion Does the behaviour of gulls in the city need to change - or do we?

Artist Shanna May Breen found herself mulling over this after seagulls nested near her flat. Now she’s made a theatre show in tribute to the bird.

EVER PRESENT IN our skies, high above our heads, waddling at our feet, bathing in our city rivers – you will see them. Their grockling and their squabbling over scraps of food, a constant soundscape to our capital city, Dublin: (sea)gulls.

Are they gimlet-eyed monsters or moments of freedom and flight? I know what I think.

My imagination always tended to look outwards at nature to draw creation from. My childhood Playdough sculpted trees developed into teenage poems about meadows, which transitioned into my adult career as a climate artist. So when a colony of gulls built a nest on the roof of my tiny rented flat in Rathmines, Dublin, my mind started squawking in synergy with their calls.

After borrowing my mum’s binoculars (all street credit lost in one fatal swoop), I began to observe the gulls in the city centre. I watched them glide through the skies on a constant hunt for food, following the flow of people through the streets as if we humans were the currents of an ocean holding food just under the surface.

Swooping low and swiping up a chicken fillet roll with a slap, like a salty mackerel to bring back to their young. Since observing the gulls, I recognise how integral we are to their daily survival, as the people who live in the city.

I found records suggesting that the gulls set up house in Dublin city in the early 1970s. They were merely tourists before that, floating in above fishing trawlers and hunting the day’s catch that had already been hunted. This commute inland allowed them to understand the glory and messy access of the city, at a time when their natural habitat was deteriorating. The Black Back gulls and the Herring gulls began to switch out their ancient cliffs for newly-built office blocks – another kind of stoney grey habitat.

I became absorbed with these alleged “city villains” and decided to compose a project dedicated to them. GULL is a co-commission by the Abbey Theatre and Dublin Fringe Festival that will take place between the 21 – 25 September at 6.30pm each evening.

The project is an ambitious outdoor meandering city performance, crafted by a group of commissioned artists, biodiversity experts and a colony of city gulls. A journeying experiment that moves between performance, ornithology and empathy to gather a nest of observations and opinions on this misunderstood species.


Throughout the making of the project, I have been collaborating with a group of artists from all different genres including poetry, dance, sound and writing to develop the premiere of this new work. The creative process has also been underpinned by the expert opinions of BirdWatch Ireland and University College Dublin.

So far, I have been amazed by how little I knew about the millennial history of the Irish landscape and the long evolution of the Irish gull. Little things surprise me each day, such as gulls can live for 20 years or more. That could mean that floating around our capital city’s rainy sky are third-generation Dublin city gulls. Wow. I also discovered that gulls sound different from place to place. Or that the gulls were once believed to be the souls of sailors lost at sea or witches.

As I enter deeper into the project, I feel great empathy with the city gulls and my once suggested “unbiased project” has become extremely biased. The gulls are one of the only other dominant city species we have to share our space with. If they were not here, what would be left? A sprinting fox at night or a curious seal making its way up the Liffey.

If 70% of the world’s population are to live in cities by 2050 (UN-Habitat Research) and if we do not have an increase in biodiverse habitats in these cities, I ask again, what would be left?

Last night I was out for dinner with a group of friends and I shared these thoughts. They listened but at a certain point they said: “I still hate them, Shanna, they wake me up at 4 am every morning”, and I do understand this.

I understand the noise and I understand the food attacks. However, if they are your friend or foe, one thing still rings clear: they are here because of us, because of our failed city waste systems – the bins – and because of our detrimental impact on their natural habitat, the coast.

So I am left with the question, does the gull’s behaviour need to change or do we?

Inspired by climate conversations, performance artist Shanna May Breen creates multi-platform artworks in an attempt to carbonate change. Previous works have seen her compose a travelling sound project on board a coastal train, build a miniature mega city live on stage and plant 1000 native Irish trees in her hometown. Shanna recently completed a postgraduate diploma in Climate Entrepreneurship at Trinity College Dublin where she received a distinction for her study.

GULL runs from 21 September – 25 September at 6.30 pm as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the Fringe website.   


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