Nature in Ireland:
A Scientific & Cultural History

by John W. Foster, Helena C. Chesney,
658 pages,
ISBN: 1874675295

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History Through Natural History
by Kildare Dobbs

From Lilliput Press in Ireland comes this big, beautiful volume on the history of natural history in Ireland. A collection of learned essays by various hands, it is in some sense an international collaboration, since the general editor, John Wilson Foster, though a native of Belfast, is a professor of English at the University of British Columbia, and though the contributors are mostly Irish, they include English, Welsh, and American scholars and scientists.

What they have in common, aside from their knowledge, is their gift for lively, readable prose and their sense of humour. Not only is the result a wonderful book, delightful to read, but it is wonderful in a new way, a way that's both professional and in the best sense amateur.

Not that coming at science through history is a novel approach-for the common reader, this is often the most congenial path to knowledge. But the approach to national identity through natural history is (if only to me) a new idea. After all, you don't have to sing a national anthem to the accompaniment of brass or pipe bands-the humbler creation is content with lowlier lays. You let the Virtuosi with their butterfly nets and the Dilettanti with their microscopes and binoculars show you the wonders of your own parish, your own townland, country, and province. And of course there's far more to be shown than meets the eye. Nor does the natural history end with Ireland; Irish naturalists have often left their native shore to work overseas and in the British Empire, in which they have been both colonized and colonizers.

In form, Nature in Ireland is what Frye called an "anatomy". It opens with "the heritage of the rocks", a description of Irish geology by John Feehan, a lecturer at University College, Dublin, whose most recent book (with Grace O'Donovan) was The Bogs of Ireland. (Another essay by Feehan near the end of the book considers Irish attitudes to nature from the time of the Celts and their mysterious forerunners to modern environmentalists and greeners.) The story of the rocks is immediately followed by Foster's "Encountering Tradition", which surveys the human influences that have shaped Irish landscapes for some nine thousand years.

The meat-and-potatoes of the book are essays on the history of natural history and its component disciplines: botany, entomology, mammalogy, ornithology, ichthyology, geography, and meteorology. In addition to all the ologies, there are studies of various environments: woodland, bogland, demesnes (the home lands of great estates). Each essay is followed by a select yet inclusive bibliography-the name of Pierre Berton appears more than once. There are also brief lives of some of the great Irish naturalists abroad-Admiral Beaufort of the Beaufort scale; Edward Sabine, who accompanied several Arctic expeditions and observed the declination and dip of the magnetic compass in those latitudes; Henry Chichester Hart, whose achievements in botany and mammalogy were matched by literary essays on animals in the Bible and Shakespeare and the like. He also glanced at the Ulster dialect of English in which, as he reported, "`She' also represents `he', `she', or `it'. I asked a Fanet man, `How old is that bull?' `She's two years old but she's not bullin' any yet, damn her.' This is an Irish bull and no mistake," he concluded. (A similar usage prevails in Ontario.)

In a fascinating and important essay, David Cabot surveys "Essential Texts in Irish Natural History". Cabot, not surprisingly, is a Bostonian, educated at Oxford, Dublin, and Galway, and the essential texts begin with Irelands Naturall History in 1652. The author, Dr. Gerard Boate, was a Dutchman anxious to promote investment in a British fund "for the reduction of the Irish", in which lands confiscated from the natives were granted to subscribers. His book was the first to incorporate the "new philosophy" of the Invisible College which became the Royal Society. It was offered as "conducing to the Advancement of Navigation, Husbandry, and other profitable Arts and Professions", a motive that continued to inspire the colonist landlords and gentry throughout their Ascendancy (as the oligarchy of the so-called Anglo-Irish became known). An interesting fact that emerges from the study is the contribution to natural science and the improvement of husbandry and agriculture made by this caste, both individually as naturalists and through such institutions as the Dublin Society, later the Royal Dublin Society, which founded professorships in the ologies, botanical gardens, library, zoo, and museums and today runs the Horse Show and bloodstock sales in addition to providing an excellent library, concerts, and lecture series.

The implications of this contribution provoked controversy over the nationality of nature. Foster discusses the issues, noting that the words nature and native are connected. Other writers explore the questions of vocabulary, native or scientific. I recall that in my own county Kilkenny in the 1930s, nomenclature was mixed; the word for newt was Gaelic while the word for ant was the Biblical pismire. I was told that the newt was dangerous and eager to jump down your throat. A man had been cured in a Kilkenny hospital when someone held a plate or rashers and eggs in front of his mouth; eager for the treat, "out marched the old one with six young ones after her." (But I am not to contribute to science, merely to review it.)

In 1684, Roderic O'Flaherty of Galway wrote A Chorographical Description of the Territory of West or H-Iar Connaught, "being a true and ample Description of its Situation, Greatness, Shape, and Nature; of its Hills, Woods, Heaths, Bogs; of its fruitfull Parts and profitable Grounds, with the several ways of manuring and watering the same.." No doubt it was useful to colonists.

Richard Heaton, Dean of Clonfert, is credited with the first systematic study of the Irish flora. But the first original Irish book on botany appeared in 1712, by Dr. Henry Nicholson, first professor of botany at Trinity College, Dublin. The book is a list of plants in the college's Physic Garden of medicinal herbs.

Two years later appeared a small text called The Experienced Huntsman, by Arthur Stringer, a professional huntsman.

Thus right from the beginning it's clear that the interests of the gentry-farming and hunting and fishing-engendered the study of nature and inspired the founding of learned societies. In Foster's closing essay, "The Culture of Nature", we encounter the problems for nativists and nationalists who thought that themselves alone should confront Irish Nature, and see it with Gaelic eyes. But I have only touched on the riches of fact and idea with which this compendium abounds, majestic in its inclusiveness. It's a book that every library should possess, and that every Irish reader, native or sea-divided Gael, can enjoy and return to over and over again. 

Kildare Dobbs's most recent book is The Eleventh Hour: Poems for the New Millennium (Mosaic).


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