Dodging gurrier seagulls on a bombing mission in the melting, moulting heat

An Irishman’s Diary: Birdies, ducks and the outer plumage of the Ouzel Galley Society

‘A squadron of Dublin gurrier seagulls swooped low overhead, two of them dropping ordinance within metres of where I stood.’ Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Bird themes seem to be following me around of late. Not ducks this week, alas. The quartet of mallards that spent mating season on our front lawn has definitely departed. Their reproductive mission appeared to be doomed by predators. Which being the case, the next thing on their annual agenda is the moulting season. It seems they don’t need human help for that.

Humans have been moulting – if not melting – too this week. Recovering from a wedding on the shores of Lough Erne last Sunday, friends and I sat outside in shirtsleeves, struggling to do anything more vigorous than sweat, while marvelling at the sight of swallows flying within inches of the ground on the nearby golf course.

It used to be proverbial that swallows flying low meant bad weather. Conversely, by tradition, “when swallows fly high, the weather will be dry”. And there is logic behind this. When it’s warm, the air rises, taking insects with it, so that birds dining on insects must soar too.


But here we were in a heatwave, with swallows skimming the ground like miniature dive bombers. Someone suggested it was the effect of pesticides, which had reduced insect numbers generally, forcing the birds lower regardless of temperature. I don’t know.


The day before, defying the tropical conditions although still in a suit, I had gone for a stroll around the wooded fringes of the golf course. There I wondered for the first time why avian metaphors were so popular for describing that sport’s low scores.

As I now know, it’s an accident of American slang. In Atlantic City in 1903, supposedly, a player expressed admiration for a “bird of a shot”, meaning it was a thing of excellence. The rest was verbal inflation. Once “birdie” became the name for a hole in one-under-par, two-under had to be an “eagle” and three-under (being a rare bird) an “albatross”.

Neither of those last two creatures were flying over Lough Erne, I’m sure. But around the time I was pondering this, from some great height, unseen, an unidentified bird defecated. Having the whole course to aim at, it hit the lapel of my suit. A lucky birdie, perhaps. I just hoped that, as superstition insists, the luck extended to me.

Back in Dublin, on Wednesday, I had to give a talk at a dinner of the Ouzel Galley Society. The bird reference here was incidental. “Ouzel” is the old name for a blackbird, and is still used for the ring ouzel, a cousin of the blackbird on the thrush side.

But the Ouzel Galley was a 17th-century ship, with a story to rival the Marie Celeste. It left Dublin in 1695, bound for Turkey, with a crew of 37. When it didn't return for years, it was presumed lost with all hands. So the insurers paid out and, in some cases, the presumed widows remarried.


Then one day in 1700, the ship sailed back up the Liffey, amid great excitement, with the original crew, a hoard of treasure, and the excuse of prolonged imprisonment by Algerian pirates, with whose loot they had now escaped.

The financial complications were dealt with by an arbitration body called The Ouzel Galley Society. The romantic complications were dealt with – in part – by the invention of “ouzeler”, a Dublin word for children of uncertain paternity. But in time, the OGS evolved into a group comprising past presidents of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and other notables.

It retains a membership similar in size to the crew and still uses maritime terminology. But on formal occasions, it also shares at least one characteristic of the ring ouzel: its members wear black tie.

Thus it was that on Wednesday evening, while tar melted, I had to don a tuxedo. Elsewhere in Dublin, the Barristers Tea Room Restaurant was advising members that, in light of the weather emergency, “jackets may be removed”. Encouraged by such anarchy, I carried mine to the venue and only put it on when I was near. No sooner had I done which – I swear – than a squadron of Dublin gurrier seagulls swooped low overhead, two of them dropping ordinance within metres of where I stood.

Maybe a second strike in a week would have guaranteed me a Lotto win. Even so, I ducked into a doorway to avoid one. Then, mercifully undecorated, I continued to the venue. Where, sure enough, every male attendee was formally attired. But it was a great relief to everyone when the society’s captain opened proceedings with the announcement that, here too, outer plumage could be shed.