16th March 2017
Melanie Phillip’s comments in The Times that Ireland’s claim of nationhood was “tenuous” caused quite the furore, with even the Irish ambassador to the UK, taking umbrage with her statement.
Resurfacing of an Outdated Ideology
Some have claimed Ms. Phillip’s stance that, unlike Britain, it could not claim to be “a unified power but was divided between chieftains and petty kingdoms” might resonates with an old narrative setting up Ireland in a less than complimentary comparison to Britain. In the 1800s, The poet, Mathew Arnold, viewed the Celts as an emotional and spiritual group. While complimenting their passion in comparison to their ruling neighbours, he also set them out as irrational and in need of rule.
Arnold’s view came at a time when it looked very much like Irish traditions were on the cusp of extinction. Dr. William Wilde, father of Oscar and renowned polymath, bemoaned.
“In some places, all the domestic usages of life have been outraged; the tenderest bonds of kindred have been severed, some of the noblest and holiest feelings of human nature have been blotted from the heart, and many of the finest, yet firmest links which unite the various classes in the community have been rudely burst asunder.”
The doctor’s terminal prognosis was premature with the Irish Revival ensuring that life breathed into these traditions from as early as the 1870s with O Grady’s History of Ireland and, Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde’s call for the de-anglicising of the country.
The categorization and understanding of Ireland’s biodiversity at this time became culturally charged. By defining and interacting with the wealth of our landscape and the native animals which inhabited it, the nation was capable of remonstrating against the threat of a cultural annexation from a foreign society that Hyde warns against.
Below is a snapshot of some writers and writings that demonstrated Irish nature’s importance in galvanizing a national identity in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.
Nature and Wildlife: Reclaiming our Heritage
Emily Lawless, a leading novelist and accomplished botanist, led the charge at the turn of the 19th Century, North Clare: Leaves from a Diary. Angered with our flora defined and belittled from abroad, and outraged when told Ireland has a paltry 34 plants compared to England and Wales sixty-two, she demands a botanical revolution. “Arise botanic Celts, and glut you ire! Let us have an entirely new botany based upon an entirely new system and classification, and let not the name of the hostile and anti-Irish botanist be so much as named in it!”
Annoyed by constant inferior contrasts, she demanded her country be fairly represented and questioned colonial classifications of Irish botany. She felt scientific descriptions from abroad failed to understand local ecosystems. She was at the forefront of the argument that Ireland should have its own scientific models and approaches.
The awareness that Ireland was being defined as a cheaper facsimile of its nearest neighbour was growing. Political activist, William Rooney, echoes Ms Lawless’ sentiments about Irish Topography. He had grown frustrated with what Irish students were being taught in school as it left them with a detailed knowledge of such things as the railway system of the UK but with only the “haziest ideas” about Irish places, “the dimmest acquaintance with the lakes, mountains, plains and rivers that go to make Ireland” and, a bit like some of my contemporary, millennial-era Dublin friends, “somewhat more about Timbuctoo than Tullamore.”
Again, nature is turned to as something which can help ground Irish identity. “The natural features of our land, its hills and hollows, its woods and morrasses, its riverheads and estuaries; all these are plain to the man that can read our topography…. It is a priceless heirloom, for the loss of which no amount of commercial can compensate.”
Indeed, the exploitation and destruction of Ireland’s landscape for commercial purposes was a real threat, with a “mania of tree slaughter” being put down to the folly of foreign rule in William Bulfin’s Rambles In Éirinn. “A wise native Government, drawing inspiration from national needs and national interests…. Under foreign rule Ireland is being denuded of her beautiful woods”
The rise of the land laws gave tenants more claim over the trees they planted and, like Rooney, Bulfin emphasizes the need for information and education through Irish journals on re-afforestation.
Robert Praeger and An Taisce
Three decades later, the importance of Ireland’s flora and fauna was still being emphasized. Robert Praeger, the first president of An Taisce, believed that it was the duty of every Irish citizen to protect Irish heritage. “Were the fauna and flora merely reduced English ones- comparatively little interest might be attached to them. But what we find among our native plants and animals- particularly among the former- a number which do not occur in Great Britain, or which are absent from continental Europe.”
Praeger’s contribution towards Irish botany is beyond doubt. His interest in flora and fauna from the ice age and his invite to Knud Jeessen, an expert in Glacial and Post-Glacial flora, paved the way for the establishment of a distinctive form of paleocology in Ireland.
His appointment as the first president of An Taisce, the oldest environmental organisation in Ireland that seeks to educate, inform and lead public opinion, in 1948 has had a lasting legacy. Their licence to advocate and influence policy, while also managing heritage properties, has been vital in continuing the work of Ms. Rooney and Mr. Lawless with a young Republic needing guidance and, at times, opposition right up to recent times.
In many ways nature and wildlife indigenous to these isles helped bolster the Revival’s attempt’s to show Ireland not as a home of “buffoonery” and supported a nation “weary of misrepresentation.” It holds a historical and cultural currency best saved than squandered.
- Much of the information sourced from this article should be credited to Declan Kiberd and PJ Mathew’s Handbook of the Irish Revival. Abbey Theatre Press. 2015