On the Natural History of Ireland

From The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 34, February 16, 1833


SIR,--It has been remarked by the celebrated Mr. White, of Selbourne, and Sir William Jardine, "that Ireland has hitherto been unexplored by the naturalist." This assertion, though rather sweeping, is on the whole, nearly correct; for, although our island has produced many able naturalists, no one has ever given to the world any thing approaching to a general view of its natural history! One has studied its botany—another its mineralogy, and a third its geology; and these gentlemen have published their remarks either in a separate form, or read them before some of the many societies in different parts of the British islands. One endeavours to give you an account of the natural productions of a particular parish or county, and another confines his researches to one of the departments of natural history in a particular province, or perhaps extends his investigation over the greater part of our island.

These are all highly desirable, but why has not some one stepped forward--collected these valuable materials together--made researches of his own--and with the assistance which he could derive from naturalists in all parts of the kingdom, have brought the whole into one book, and given it to the world, as "a Natural History of Ireland," as complete as the most diligent researches, and the most extended assistance could render it? Why has this not been done? Why have England and Scotland produced from time to time different systems of natural history--innumerable works on their zoology, botany, and geology--natural histories of the Orkney and Shetland isles--of most of the dependancies of Great Britain, many of them far inferior in importance to Ireland? Why, I ask, has Ireland sent forth no work descriptive of its natural history? merely because in this department of science, as in many others, no one has thought Ireland sufficiently deserving of such an honour. The flowers are left to "waste their sweetness on the desert air," unplucked by the hand of the botanist; the feathered tribes may wheel aloft their airy flight, and make their annual migrations unheeded by the ornithologist; the geologist examines the country in his own neighbourhood, but leaves whole districts elswhere unexplored; the entomologist collects the insects of one district or county, and forms a cabinet tolerably complete in this department of zoology; but is it not a notorious fact, that there exist whole districts--I might say counties, in the south and west of Ireland, never trodden by the foot of the naturalist, whose recesses have never been penetrated for the advancement of science, and where specimens different from any hitherto seen might be discovered?

Of upwards of two hundred islands surrounding Ireland, how few have been ever visited for the purposes of ascertaining their natural history? Why the natural history of one of the groups of the Orkney or Shetland isles, insignificant as they may appear, is at this moment, I will venture to say, as well, if not better known than that of Ireland, forming as she does, so considerable a part of the British isles.

It unfortunately happens that those persons who feel most anxious for the advancement of science, are those who are possessed of the poorest means for accomplishing the wished for object, while those who have the means in their power, and could if they were willing, do much in its favour, are those who pursue natural history rather for the mere pleasure and gratification it affords them to possess a good collection of specimens, than for the purpose of making those researches by which they would not only gain reputation for themselves, but would assist in elevating their native country to that rank to which she is entitled among her more fortunate neighbours.

And surely Ireland is worth exploring. Many plants have been found in it which were not before known to naturalists; among them I may mention the Rosa Hibernica, Orobánche rùbra, and about twenty others, discovered by the late Mr. Templeton, of Belfast, who, had he been spared a few years longer, would in all probability have given us the only "Natural History of Ireland" ever published. Some of your readers may say, that different works bearing the title have been published--true, but what were they? works relating to the antiquities of the country, or statistical accounts of Ireland--not a systematic arrangement of its natural history. This desideratum is still wanted, and how pleasant it would be to all lovers of natural history, were this void filled up by some scientific hand.

Many rare birds have from time to time been procured in Ireland, and placed in the cabinets of different collectors. The first specimen of the Scolopax Sabine, a bird allied to the common snipe, and one which has been now added to the British Fauna, was shot in August, 1822, in the Queen's County, and but another specimen of this bird has been since shot, while little or nothing is as yet known as to its habits or manners.

From the situation of our island--its numerous bays lochs and islets, and its precipitous headlands, against which the surges of the Atlantic beat in awful grandeur, it is eminently calculated as a resort of the feathered tribes which seek their food in the waters of the deep, and consequently its ornithology is particularly rich in this department. Every headland round its shore contains its feathered inhabitants, but these are much more numerous along the western coast, exposed as it is to a tremendous sea, and where whole districts in the immediate neighbourhood of the Atlantic are unfrequented by man. Here in these solitudes, where, excepting their own cries, nothing is heard but the winds or the breaking of the billows on the base of the cliffs, where they have taken up their residence, the different species of sea fowl find an asylum where they can rear their young in safety, unmolested, and surrounded by a profusion of plenty.

On the summit of one of these head lands, may be seen the sea eagle watching with piercing eye, the motions of her destined prey, reclining near the surface of the water, many hundreds of feet below : further down the precipice, every projecting point of rock is tenanted by the different species of gulls and guillemots, and near to the base, the cormorant sits half dosing after a hearty meal. In the little sandy niches which here and there indent the coast, the purre, ring-dotterel, and sanderling, may be seen eagerly seeking their food on the edges of the retiring waves; while reclining on the bosom of the deep, the different species of divers, with here and there a flock of gulls and guillemots and puffins, sit eagerly watching the rising of their finny prey to the surface.

Such a sight affords a rich treat to the ornithologist, and every facility is afforded him of enriching his collection of sea fowl. In many places, they are totally unaccustomed to the sight of man, and consequently become an easy prey to the collector; while in the summer season their eggs are found deposited in numbers on the various projections of the rocks.

But I have rather digressed from my subject. I have been led to make these remarks in the hope that some scientific man, interested in the welfare of his native land, may step forward and remove the cloud which at present over-hangs the state of natural history in Ireland, by collecting all the materials already prepared, making additions to these by his own investigation, and publishing the whole as soon as circumstances would permit.

I have not the smallest doubt that many naturalists, and others interested in the study, would be found willing to add whatever information each had obtained in the department he had studied; and remarks might thus be gathered together which would form on the whole as complete a natural history of Ireland as in the present state of our knowledge could be expected. Each department of this delightful study has its adherents, and every one must have had opportunities of making observations never noticed before.

We see works on the natural history of almost every country on the globe, but Ireland, daily issuing from the press--magazines, journals, cyclopaedias, &c. &c., all teeming with information on the various subjects on which they treat. Surely Ireland might be able to supply a cyclopaedia or some such work, which would treat of the natural productions and antiquities of the country--a work which every Irishman connected with science, or desirous of advancing his country, would be anxious to possess. Oh! that a spirit dormant could be awakened--that some zealous naturalist would endeavour to accomplish this very desirable undertaking. It would be a national work, and as such, I have no doubt it would be well supported. The Irish are proverbial for their liberality, and were the ice once broken, and the first number of a "Natural History of Ireland" but published, I feel confident that the work would find numbers both able and willing to advance it.

But I have now, Sir, already occupied too much of your journal. I shall if possible, from time to time furnish you with notices of some of our native birds, and trust that others actuated by a desire similar to mine, (viz.--the desire to increase the taste for natural history in this country) will also furnish you with such remarks as may occur to their notice; so that by this series of communications, others may be led to examine the works of nature with more care than hitherto, and impart to their countrymen any information they may have thus acquired.

Belfast, Feb. ----

J. D. M.