I am not a good traveler in the sense of planning ahead and being well prepared. This has its disadvantages. There can be great attractions right under my nose that I fail to see because I didn't investigate what's available. On my trip to Ireland last summer, I was lax about my planning as usual, but because I had been to Dublin years ago, I knew of at least a few things I wanted to see: the Botanic Garden, Phoenix Park, Trinity College, the National Gallery, and the National Museum. I had been to all these as a kid and wished to see them again. I arrived in Dublin after a long drive and was relieved when I got to the hotel. Driving in an unknown city is bad enough, but driving through traffic on the ““wrong”” side of the road is a real challenge. I spent the evening exploring the environs and found a bookstore, always an oasis. This was a particularly good one and among the treasures I discovered was Darwin, Praeger and the Clare Island Surveys (Jones & Steer, 2009). This book accompanies an exhibit at the Royal Irish Academy centered on the work of an Irish biologist in the early years of the 20th century that was about to open when I arrived.
One of the advantages of not planning too much is that I could fit in the unexpected. So the next day I visited the Academy. However, I was disappointed to discover that the exhibit was at that point not open to the public because the opening was being celebrated with a two-day conference. I wouldn't be permitted to see it until the following Monday. When I told the guard that by then I would already have left Dublin, he had a typical Irish reaction, a reaction that isn't necessarily typical of guards in other parts of the world. He said ““Well, why don't you go back into the library reading room and speak with the librarian, there may be something she can do.”” And indeed there was. She was equally accommodating and suggested I return the following morning at 11; there would be a tea break for the conference, and I could see the exhibit then. I did as I was told and was rewarded by having the exhibit to myself. It chronicles a 1909 survey of the flora and fauna of Clare Island off the west coast of Ireland. The survey was organized by Robert Lloyd Praeger: ““An engineer by qualification, a librarian by profession and a botanist by inclination, it was as a geologist and later as a naturalist that he made his mark in Ireland”” (p. 6). Influenced by Darwin's ideas on species change, Praeger had as one of his aims in the survey to find support for the idea that Irish species were distinctively different from those of England. Selecting an island for intensive study meant that there was a rather small and defined area to be investigated. Yet Clare Island was big enough to be inhabited and to have a long history. While doing a biological survey, Praeger also arranged for a study of the island's medieval abbey, which was in a remarkable state of preservation.
At the risk of sounding like my mother, I will note that one of the horrors of Irish history is that so many of its magnificent ancient buildings, abbeys, churches, castles, and fortifications were destroyed by the British. If you are looking for ruins, Ireland is definitely the place to go. The fact that Clare Island is so isolated probably accounts for the abbey's excellent state of preservation. Its interior walls are painted murals that were documented in the 1909 survey and restored in the 1990s; they include hunting scenes as well as religious images. It is typical of Ireland that a survey of plants and animals should also include such historical work. In that sense, this was a very 19th-century approach, and the study reminds me that fields of learning were once less separate than they are today, and that they remain interconnected. In fact, the update of the survey that the Royal Irish Academy is in the process of publishing includes a volume on the Abbey. It also provides data on species changes over the past 100 years. For example, a fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) colony has established itself on the island since the 1960s, and the island's harbor has been colonized by Gunnera tintoria, an invasive plant with large rhubarb-like leaves that crowds out native vegetation. As to the insects, ten times more species were found in the new survey, because pupal cases are now collected, rather than just adults. These twin surveys and the exhibit about them gave me a great introduction to the ecological research being done in Ireland. I'm grateful to the kind guard and librarian who made it possible for me to experience it.
One of my planned stops, Trinity College, is in the heart of the city and was designed in imitation of the colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. The buildings are clustered around a central grassy quadrangle. It is in one of these buildings that the Book of Kells is housed, an eighth-century manuscript famous for its magnificent illuminations. It was one attraction I was planning to see, but the long queue discouraged me. After all, you can only see one page. While there, I did pick up a copy of Trees of Trinity College Dublin (Jeffrey, 1997), a little book with great pen-and-ink illustrations by Eleanor Jennings. This is the kind of treasure I love to find when I travel. It's a true biological souvenir, something that wouldn't be as popular as a shamrock or a postcard for the average tourist, but a little slice of the biological life of a place. It's a publication that someone who loves trees and Trinity thought to create, and I am very glad he did.
After leaving the beauty of the Trinity quad, I headed into the bustle of Dublin streets and across town to the area into which Trinity has expanded. There I visited the Science Gallery to see the only new attraction that I had planned on going to in Dublin, an exhibit called ““Infectious: Stay Away.”” It had gotten press in the United States because its opening coincided with the first cases of swine flu (Holden, 2009). Yellow ““caution”” tape decorates the entrance. Each visitor is greeted by someone in protective clothing and given an electronic device that monitors the spread of a ““virus”” that your monitor may or may not contract during your visit. The exhibits range from art to science and from conventional museum displays to sophisticated hands-on activities. At the art end of the spectrum is, for example, ““ Bacteriology Illustrated,”” a dress made from over 15,000 fragments from a book on the ““armor”” that protects us from infectious disease, the immune system. ““Horde”” is an audiovisual installation that compares the immune system to a battle in an ancient Irish myth. There's also ““Kiss Culture,”” where a visitor can kiss an agar plate and contribute to a wall of such ““cultured kisses”” to see what develops over time. In ““Immune Lab”” you can have your DNA analyzed to tell something about your immune system. Altogether, this is a very clever, engaging, and useful exhibit. No matter what your level of engagement in it, you'll learn something about the spread of infection. When I turned in my badge at the end, I was relieved to discover that I hadn't been ““infected.”” Though I was starving, I passed up a visit to the exhibit's caféé: somehow food just didn't seem appetizing in this milieu.
Also on my list of must-sees in Dublin was the National Botanic Gardens. As I set off it was raining —— after all, this is Ireland. But the weather report for the following day wasn't too promising either, and a visit to the Gardens was a must, so I persevered. Among other things, I wanted to see the Palm House designed by Richard Turner, who also designed the Palm House at Kew Gardens in London and part of the one at the Belfast Botanic Gardens. I had seen both of those, so I looked forward to adding this building to my list. The Palm House in Dublin was wonderful, but it didn't strike me as dramatically as the Belfast greenhouse called the Tropical Ravine, where the visitor looks down on a rich variety of rainforest plants in a very different kind of arrangement than what's usually found in glasshouses.
I was amazed at how well maintained the National Gardens are, both outside and in the glasshouses. The rain actually made the whole experience better because it was a reminder of one of the reasons everything looks so good —— there wasn't a burnt leaf in sight. I spoke with one of the horticulturalists in the Palm House. She talked about some of the strange insects and mollusks that they've found there, likely brought in with plants imported from around the world. This makes perfect sense, but it was something I had never considered: an unexpected source of alien species, rendered less dangerous by the fact that they remained inside the glass houses. She suggested I go to the Chester Beatty Library, a place I had vaguely heard of but that wasn't on my list to visit —— more about that below.
Also at the Garden, as an added surprise, there was an exhibit of contemporary botanical art. The theme of the show was plant species that were collected by Augustine Henry (1857——1930). Born in Scotland to Irish parents, Henry studied medicine at Queen's University in Belfast and in 1881 went to China, where he abandoned medicine and worked for the Chinese customs service. While in China, he became interested in plants and dedicated himself to plant collecting in central China. He sent vast numbers of plants, representing more than 6,000 species, to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (Ainley, 2009). This is thought to be largest single collection ever made by a Westerner. When he finally left China in 1900, he spent two years studying at the French National School of Forestry. Next he worked with H. J. Elwes on the seven volumes of The Trees of Great Britain (Elwes & Henry, 1906) and also set up the School of Forestry at Cambridge.
Finally, in 1913, Henry returned to Ireland and became Professor of Forestry at the Royal College of Science in Dublin. I mention all this because Henry is an exemplar of what my mother would call the Anglo-Irish. These were people whose roots grew deep in the soil of Ireland but who were considered outsiders by those, like my mother and her ancestors, who were Catholic and had no ties to Britain. Being a member of the then ruling class —— Ireland was ruled by Britain until 1922 —— people like Henry were more apt to have the benefit of a good education and to become members of the educated elite. But they were Irish at heart and contributed greatly to the intellectual life of the country. Henry remained at the College after ““Royal”” was dropped from its name and gave back to his native country.
Chester Beatty (1875——1968), whose library I visited at the behest of the horticulturalist at the Botanic Gardens, had a very different history. He wasn't Irish at all and was born in New York. He studied mine engineering at Columbia University, worked in mines in Colorado, and became known as the ““King of Copper.”” He moved to England after the death of his first wife in 1911, and his mining expertise proved important to the Allies during World War II. He had collected minerals, stamps, and snuff boxes since childhood, but a trip to Egypt got him interested in decorated copies of the Qur'an, and he went on to travel in the Far East, where he collected Japanese and Chinese paintings and calligraphy. In 1950, at the age of 75, he decided to move to Ireland and build a gallery for his art collection. He was made Ireland's first honorary citizen in 1957 and bequeathed his collection to the state.
The Chester Beatty Library is now housed inside Dublin Castle, which was the seat of the British occupation of Ireland and so has a rather disturbing history. Little of that is visible today, aside from a guard at the gate and the thick outer walls. The structure includes not only a castle but a compound of several buildings with a peaceful garden at its center. In the library are wonderful exhibits of rare manuscripts from around the world. There isn't much of interest here biologically, though some curious flowers and birds appear in a number of the manuscripts. Still, it was definitely worth the trip, and this library led me to another of more biological interest just a few blocks away: Marsh's Library.
Looking up the Beatty Library in my tour book (Davenport & Ver Berkmoes, 2008), I found Marsh's, which the book called ““one of the city's most beautiful open secrets”” (p. 109). Established in 1701, it's officially Archbishop Marsh's Library, named after its founder, Narcissus Marsh (1638——1713), who built it as the first public library in Ireland. It's adjacent to St. Patrick's Cathedral of the then Church of England. Marsh had been Provost of Trinity College, where he taught philosophy, and later in his career returned to Dublin as Archbishop. During his lifetime, he accumulated an impressive collection of both religious and secular books. In the process of developing the library, he also bought other collections, and then erected a wonderful building to house them (McCarthy & Sherwood-Smith, 2001).
It's trite to say, but nonetheless true, that walking into Marsh's Library is like stepping back in time. It's little changed from how it appears in old etchings. I was lucky enough to arrive just as the library was opening a new exhibit, ““Beware the Jabberwock!' Books on the Animal Kingdom in Marsh's Library.”” As the accompanying catalog notes: ““This exhibition draws its name from the nonsense poem about odd creatures written by Lewis Carroll in his well-loved account of the adventures of a little girl called Alice in a wonderland. It is this sense of wonder that she holds in common with the seventeenth-century collectors and investigators gathered in this exhibition”” (McCarthy et al., 2009, p. 6).
It's important to remember that this collection is much as it was when Marsh created it, the only significant additions being the collections of two later Anglican clergymen. This means that the exhibit doesn't include such great works as those of Buffon or Tournefort or even Linnaeus. But there are treasures here nonetheless, including Ulisse Aldrovandi's Ornithology (1637), Konrad Gessert's Animal History (1560), and Jan Swammerdam's General History of Insects (1685). To see all these in the environment in which Marsh saw them makes the experience even better.
Marsh's Library was made for storing and reading books, not for exhibiting them, so the wood-trimmed glass exhibition cases are crammed into the two main aisles of this L-shaped building. This is an advantage for the viewer, who cannot help but be right on top of them and so gets a good look at their contents. Trinity College Library was crammed with people, not many of whom find their way to Marsh's —— definitely a plus as far as I'm concerned. This library and its books haven't been as beautifully restored as Trinity, but that adds to its charm, giving a more realistic overview of the past. There are bookcases on either side of the aisles, and where the legs of the L meet are a few tables, where scholars were busily working away in cramped quarters. Around the corner from the main aisle are what can only be called cages between the bookcases, each equipped with a table and chairs. This was where readers were locked in when examining rare books (see http://www.marshlibrary.ie/the-library). After all, this is a public library, and apparently, even 300 years ago, the Archbishop had problems holding on to his collection.
Another surprise on my Dublin visit was to see some of the collection of the Natural History Museum. I knew that the museum, which is part of Trinity College, has been closed for renovation since 2007, when a staircase collapsed. I can remember visiting the museum as a kid. The skeleton of an Irish elk was the high point; that it was huge and extinct made it doubly memorable. What also sticks in my mind are two Steven Jay Gould essays: ““The Misnamed, Mistreated, and Misunderstood Irish Elk”” (1977) and ““Cabinet Museums: Alive, Alive, O!”” (1995). As its title implies, the first deals with misinformation about the Irish elk, which is a deer, not an elk, and which was found in other areas besides Ireland. Remains have been discovered as far away as Siberia. The animal is associated with Ireland because so many have been found in Irish bogs.
As I mentioned in my earlier column on Ireland (October 2009), bogs are common in many areas of the island and have been a major source of fuel, especially for poor farmers. But they are also a source of surprises. The acidity of the soil slows decay, so cutting into the bogs to extract peat for fuel sometimes uncovers flesh as well as bones. The National Museum has the remains of a number of ““Bog People,”” dating from before 200 B.C. Bogs have been the source of much information about the early residents of Ireland, how they dressed and what implements they used. The National Museum has done a beautiful job of making the most of this information and giving the visitor a real sense of the culture of the time. However, be prepared to encounter a number of shriveled remains in the exhibits, which are good reminders of just how far back into the past Irish history stretches.
But you don't have to go to a museum to be reminded of this history. It is everywhere in Ireland. My father's family farm was called Rathnacreeva, because there is a ““rath”” or fort just behind their house (Rathnacreeva means ““fort of the branching tree””). In prehistoric times, groups would create a ring of earth as a fortification around their homes and outbuildings to protect themselves and their animals from intruders. Apparently the Irish have been a fierce people for a long time. Many legends have grown up around raths, which dot the landscape all over Ireland. They are sometimes called ““fairy forts,”” and it is considered bad luck to plow them over. The fact that prehistoric raths remain on private property today suggests how important tradition is to the Irish. When my sister asked a builder about raths, he said, ““Sure, we don't touch them.”” Some may call this attitude superstitious, and it probably is, but it's also a valuing of land and history that makes sound ecological sense. These raths are obviously great refuges for plants and small animals.
But I have wandered away from the Natural History Museum and Stephen Jay Gould. The second essay recounts his visit to the museum in the early 1990s. He had been there years before and remembered it as a remnant of Victorian times, with old wood-trimmed glass cases housing formidable arrays of stuffed animals. He expected to find that it had decayed since his last visit, as such untouched institutions usually do. However, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that although the building and its rooms had been refurbished, the old exhibits were intact. Now the museum was a Victorian jewel. I was really looking forward to seeing all this, but the ““jewel”” had suffered the collapse of a beautiful stone staircase, one of the treasures of its 19th-century past. There was a group of school teachers attending a workshop, and apparently 11 people on the staircase at one time was just too much for this relic.
The Natural History Museum is getting a thorough renovation, but what precisely will happen to the original exhibits isn't public knowledge yet. In the meantime, some of these exhibits have been moved to the National Museum of Decorative Arts and History. It's housed in an old army barracks, and I just happened to stumble upon it while walking to Phoenix Park, the huge ““Central Park”” of Dublin. I cut my visit to the park short to visit the Natural History Museum exhibit, and there, at the entrance to it, was my old friend the Irish elk. There was also the requisite dinosaur skeleton —— after all, this is a natural history museum, and no matter what the country, a dinosaur is a necessity. In addition, there were cases with row after row of birds, and smaller cases with insects, mollusks, and other invertebrates. It was a hodgepodge, but so was the museum from which these creatures came, and that is what makes it so wonderful: biodiversity in all its multiplicity.
I found this exhibit on the morning I was leaving Dublin, and it was a fitting way to end my visit —— a slice of Dublin's history being prepared for the future. On my way back to the hotel, I walked through St. Stephen's Green, a relatively small park in the heart of the city that is large enough and wooded enough to be a real refuge. It was a great place to spend a few minutes before heading for my car and braving Irish roads again. I had missed some of the ““must-see”” attractions of Dublin, including a ride on the River Liffey and a glimpse of the Book of Kells, but I had what might be termed a biologist's tour of the city. I think that would have pleased my mother, who, after all, had won the All-Ireland Prize in Botany in 1927.