Books Old and New, Part 3: Irish Natural History

3 Ireland

McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, Canada (1997)

This series of blog posts (1, 2) is called “Books Old and New” because I’m covering some that I read years ago and others that are recent publications.  A book that was published 20 years ago, but is new to me is Nature in Ireland (Foster, 1997), a collection of essays that runs the gamut from geological history to present-day issues in forest conservation.  There is botany here, but I didn’t read this book primarily for that, but rather because I am attempting to finally get to know my parent’s native land from the biological perspective.  I’ve been steeped in its culture and history from birth, and since my mother did win a school prize in botany, I learned something of its plant life.  However, this mostly amounted to her complaining about plants that grew well in Ireland, such as primroses, but had to be coaxed in hotter and drier New York.

My mother learned in school that the Irish terrain resembled a soup bowl in that most of the mountains were along the coast with flat plains in the center.  Nothing is that simple, of course, but the first essay, “The Testimony of the Rocks” by John Feehan explains why this is so.  Feehan does a good job of illustrating how the Irish landscape came to be, and why the land in many areas is so rugged and filled with limestone.  His work is a good reminder that in order to understand plants, it’s necessary to understand the substrate on which they grow.  The most intriguing thing I learned here is that oldest known land plant, Cooksonia, can be found in Silurian fossils (428 Ma) from Devil’s Bit Mountain, a name I remember because my grandmother came from near there, and my mother explained that the gap in the mountain was said to be caused by the devil taking a bite out of it.

Several chapters deal with the history of Irish nature study, noting that the first written accounts date from a St. Augustin (not the St. Augustine) in the 8th century, a work studied by the biologist/polymath D’Arcy Thompson.  The next such treatment was by a visitor named Giraldus in the 12th century; some of the information there may have come from natives.  The first report of Irish plants to go into print appears to be that of Richard Heaton, a British cleric posted to Ireland in 1630.  By this time the country was well under Britain’s thumb, so much of the work that follows was done by Anglo-Irish or British botanists.  Arthur Rowdon was a prominent landowner with one of the first greenhouses in Ireland.  He is important to botany because he was a friend of the botanical collector Hans Sloane through whom the British botanist William Sherard came to live at Rowdon’s estate, perhaps as a tutor for his sons.  Sherard studied Irish plants and eventually became professor of botany at Oxford.  He was a friend of another Irishman, Thomas Molyneux, who acquired a herbarium created by the 17th-century pharmacist Antoni Gaymans.  This collection was annotated by Sherard and is still extant (Heniger & Sosef, 1989).  These are the kinds interesting side paths that run through the book.

Another one involves Caleb Threlkeld, who wrote the first Irish flora in 1727.  There is evidence that he must have seen a copy of Heaton’s work, and some of his text is derivative, using material from John Ray’s treatment of Irish plants.  However, Threlkeld made a real contribution of his own by noting when and where he saw the plants he described.  Also, present-day Irish botanists have studied old specimens at the Trinity College, Dublin herbarium and make a case that these were collected by Threlkeld, thus substantiating his observations (Doogue & Parnell, 1992).  The Trinity herbarium was also home base for the algologist William Henry Harvey, who added substantially to its collection with specimens from South Africa and Australia, including his reference herbarium from his visit to the latter.

When I met the Trinity herbarium’s present keeper, John Parnell, he emphasized that Harvey did many of his own illustrations, even to the point of making the engravings, because he wanted to insure the accuracy of what went into print.  Harvey’s work is magnificent, but it is not among the few botanical illustrations reproduced in the book, which is generally short on images.  There is, however, a chapter on “The Art of Nature Illustration” by Martyn Anglesea that cites several noted Irish artists, and highlights two who worked at another Dublin herbarium, that of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland.  I have seen some of the work of Lydia Shackelton and Alice Jacob at the garden and it is amazing, especially the watercolors they did of orchids for Frederick Moore—a herbarium curator and expert on the family.

Before leaving this book, I have to mention Robert Lloyd Praeger who wrote The Way I Went, what some consider the best book for the general reader on the natural history and topography of Ireland.  He is most noted for his leadership of the Clare Island Survey (1909-1915), which involved over 100 amateurs and professionals and resulted in a landmark publication that set the bar high for future such European studies (Jones & Steer, 2009).  The Royal Irish Academy added to its value by funding a new survey of the island to mark the hundredth anniversary of the first.


Doogue, D., & Parnell, J. (1992). Fragments of an eighteenth century herbarium, possibly that of Caleb Threlkeld, in Trinity College, Dublin (TCD). Glasra, 1(2), 99–109.

Foster, J. W. (Ed.). (1997). Nature in Ireland. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Heniger, J., & Sosef, M. S. M. (1989). Antoni Gaymans (ca 1630–1680) and his herbaria. Archives of Natural History, 16(2), 147–168.

Jones, R., & Steer, M. (2009). Darwin, Praeger and the Clare Island Surveys. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.

Praeger, R. Ll. (1937). The Way That I Went. Dublin, Ireland: Hodges, Figgis.

Threlkeld, C. (1727). Synopsis stirpium Hibernicarum alphabeticæ dispositarum. Dublin, Ireland: Powell.


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