Going home again.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Vacations (Personal narratives)
Wild flowers (Appreciation)
Village communities (Description and travel)
Human beings (Influence on nature)
Human beings (Personal narratives)
Author: Flannery, Maura C.
Pub Date: 10/01/2009
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: Oct, 2009 Source Volume: 71 Source Issue: 8
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Ireland Geographic Name: Ireland Geographic Code: 4EUIR Ireland
Accession Number: 246348902
Full Text: I just got back from a trip to Ireland, the second in six months. Lest you think I fly to the land of my ancestors on a regular basis, I should say that before this year I hadn't been to Ireland since 1971, and I really had no desire to return. My parents, who were born there, were long dead, and whenever I thought of Ireland I felt a twinge of sadness. I pictured going there as just turning that twinge into full-blown pain, and besides this, I had lost contact with all my relatives. In addition, there were so many other places in the world to explore. Then the Internet intervened. I received an e-mail from a cousin in Belfast who had found my name on Google. That message put me in touch not only with her and her two sisters but with her 90-year-old mother, my mother's first cousin. I had had great visits with them when I was a teenager, and this new connection with them made me long for a visit. So off I went the first chance I got, which was last January--not the ideal time to visit a damp, northern island, but the weather was great and the visit even better.

Since the peace accord of 1998, Belfast has revived, and my cousins were proud to tell me that Belfast even had a tour bus, which we boarded. It took us to the sectarian areas where the worst of the violence took place for 30 years. The major reminders of those times are painted murals and a "peace wall" dividing the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. The best part of the tour was a visit to the docks where the Titanic was built. During the 20th century, Belfast was embarrassed by this connection, but now, to lure tourists, they are taking a different tack, with the slogan: "She was alright when she left here."

On returning from a great week in Northern Ireland, I picked up my mail and found a letter from Ireland, this time the "south" or Republic. It informed me that my sister, a cousin, and I were inheriting my uncle's farm. I hadn't thought about Ireland in almost 40 years, and all of a sudden I was not only visiting, but actually owning some of it. This was beyond a surprise, and involves a convoluted saga that has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with family intrigue. Suffice to say that I am not going to be rich, and will be lucky if I don't end up owing something to the Irish government. However, to settle this matter, my sister, cousin, and I went over in June for the auction of the property. I saw this event as extremely sad since my uncle, my father's brother, was the last of the eight children in the family. However, I have to admit that it did have its comical--and quintessentially Irish--aspects. The auction was held in Malachy Burns Pub, and Mr. Burns is, in addition, the local undertaker, so he was involved in arranging my uncle's funeral last year, hosting the "party" afterwards, and dispensing refreshments during the disposal of my uncle's land.

In any case, I fled the auction itself and walked up to Mayo Abbey, the local church with its attendant graveyard, to examine the ruins of the original abbey, which dates to the 6th century. In its shadow rest the remains of some of my ancestors. That is the wonder of Ireland, the way layers of history rest side by side, and added to these layers are the layers of my own personal history residing in the folds of my brain. The last time I visited Mayo, I had just earned my master's degree in biology, but I wouldn't say I was a biologist. It took several years of teaching to make me that, so on that 1971 trip I didn't really look at Ireland through the eyes of a biologist. This time things were different, and you are probably relieved to learn that I've finally gotten to the biology in this column.

Wildflowers & Wild Land

The first evening of the trip, I was walking along a road and was struck by the variety of wildflowers. Hedgerows rimming fields are allowed to be much thicker and more profuse in Ireland. In fact, they are not cut back until late in the summer so birds can nest undisturbed. What are considered wildflowers are also different. Every once in awhile when I was growing up, my mother would buy a potted fuchsia plant, which would last for a short time, but usually languish. It never did flourish in the garden. With its demise, my mother would opine about the way fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica) would grow wild in Ireland. While she often overstated the charms of a land she never wanted to leave, she was definitely right about the fuchsia. Huge bushes grow wild along the roadside, though fuchsia isn't native to Ireland and those wild bushes are descendants of garden plants introduced in the 19th century (Akeroyd, 2008).

There's also plenty of another of my mother's favorites, honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), which is much scarcer in our part of the U.S. One time she was so thrilled to see some growing alongside a Long Island road that she pulled some to try to grow it at home. Not only was her try unsuccessful, but she acquired an impressive case of poison ivy as well. Two of her favorite flowers, wild primroses (Primula vulgaris) and foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea), are also common in Ireland, and when we visited my uncle's farm, I found even more variety. My niece and I took a quiet walk away from the rest of the family who were evaluating the "estate," woodworm and all. There we even found nettles, which sting as much as they did 40 years ago. Also in abundance were buttercups (Ranunculus repens), wild carrot (Daucus carota), silverweed (Potentilla anserina), red and white dover (Trifolium repens and pretense), and poppies (Papaver rhoeas)--to quite literally name just a few. Rain is a wonderful thing, and a major reason that Ireland is so green and blessed with such a profusion of flowers. Sure, it's great when the sun is shining, but later in the trip, I spent a rainy day at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin, and I'm not at all sorry that it wasn't sunny. In fact, there was something nice about the wetness. It was a good reminder of what makes Ireland so beautiful. Take away all that rain and you have rural New York, which has some beautiful scenery and flowers but lacks the green richness of Ireland.

I'm beginning to sound like my mother, waxing poetic about her homeland. I should add that all that rain also means a lot of mold and wood rot, very evident in my uncle's house, which hadn't been lived in for several years. In addition, jackdaws (Corvus monedula) had built a nest in the fireplace, something they are apparently apt to do. We next visited another house that my uncle owned that had been uninhabited for 60 years. It had the impressive name of Brownhall and a really impressive jackdaw nest several feet high in the fireplace. There was also a large array of ferns growing up through the floorboards in one of the bedrooms; nature really does abhor a vacuum. One of the reasons these houses were still pretty much intact was that they had the roofs, rather than thatched ones. Along the roadsides throughout Ireland are the ruins of old houses with trees growing up from what had been their interiors until the unattended thatch eventually rotted away.

Of course, there are some areas in the West of Ireland that were sparsely populated in the best of times. I was lucky enough to have an afternoon tour of such terrain given by Carmel Gallagher, the daughter of a friend of my aunt. That is the wonderful thing about Ireland--people even with the most tenuous of family ties are so generous with their time and friendship. Carmel took us to west Mayo and Galway, including the edge of the region called Connemara. Here wild sheep are the only animals to be seen, the only livestock that can fend for themselves in this mountainous, rocky terrain. There are beautiful lakes and even a fjord, and this is a great area for salmon fishing. Here I just have to mention one of my favorite novels, The All of It by Jeannette Haien (1987), which has great descriptions of fishing--and rain--in Ireland, as well as an odd love story.

During Carmel's tour, we encountered two of several famine memorials that dot the area. The 1845-1850 potato famine was most severe in the West, and huge numbers of people kept marching even further west into the badlands of Connemara, hoping to reach the sea and board ships to the New World (Bartoletti, 2001). Many died during the trek and others during the long sea voyage. Andrea Barrett (1996) has a memorable novella about one of these ships and the yellow fever epidemic that felled so many of its passengers. A great deal has been written about the famine, but I like to focus not on those who died or emigrated in the 1840s, but on those hardy people who survived and emigrated later, because these include my father and his sisters. What life was like in the region well into the 20th century is recounted by the artist Alannah Heather (1993) in her book, Errislannan, a history of her family home in Connemara from early in the 19th century. Like so many Irish stories, there is a lot of pain, poverty, and ill-will, but also like so many Irish stories, there is a lot of humor, beauty, and joy. It was a great book to read when my brief foray into Connemara was still fresh in my mind.


After this adventure in Mayo, I headed to the southern coast, to county Waterford and the town of Tramore, where my mother was born. She, too, had a farming background, but of a very different sort. While my father's family had a small farm where they eked out a living, my mother's father was a horse breeder and came from an upper middle class family, the Halleys, who collectively owned a great deal of land around Tramore. My mother was educated at a boarding school in Dublin, but like my father, ended up in New York for economic reasons. Her father, let us say, was not fiscally responsible.

In Tramore, I met my cousin Nicholas Molloy who raises cows and sheep on a nearby farm and gave me a tour of the area, beginning, of course, in the graveyard so I could see where my great grandfather is buried. Then we climbed a hill on Nicholas's land where we had a great view of the surrounding country. As we were getting out of the car, Nicholas asked me if I knew that Irish crows played golf. Now, that is one of those questions to which one just doesn't know, how, to respond. The answer turns out to be "yes," in a fashion. Nicholas finds numerous golf balls on his hill, dropped by disappointed crows (Corvus frugilegus) who pick them up on a golf course about a mile away thinking that they are potatoes or some other delicacy. By the time they've flown to the hill, they've figured out that they've been badly deceived and drop their loot, leaving Nicholas with up to two bucketfuls of bails in a year, some ripped apart by the hungry birds.

Corvids are smart birds, though the golf ball caper may not be the best example of this, and David Quammen (1985) has an essay, "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?", in which he argues that they may be so smart that they have become neurotic. In any case, corvids are abundant in Ireland. I've already mentioned jackdaws and crow's, and in addition, there are many magpies (Pica pica), which I think are wonderful to look at with their striking black and white feathers, with a dark blue sheen on the wings. But they are loud and a nuisance to many, robbing other birds' eggs among other bad habits.

When I was in Ireland last January I bought a book on Irish birds, so I was a little more prepared to spot birds this time (D'Arcy, 2007). Swifts (Apus apus) and swallows (Hirundo rustica) are common, and it's wonderful to see them flying about because this is a pleasure I don't have in New York. Since Tramore is a seaside town there are a lot of seagulls, including black-headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) and kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla). Nicholas took me to a nearby harbor where kittiwakes nest on the cliffs. Again, this is a sight I don't experience at home, and it was wonderful. Nicholas said the nearby Saltee Islands provide a sanctuary for many seabirds, including guillemots (Uria aalge) and razorbills (Alca torda) (http://www.salteeislands.info/Saltees%20page.htm).

Years ago, when I was in Tramore, I thought the coast beautiful but I didn't really appreciate it until this trip. There are cliffs and inlets all around the Irish coast but those of the south are particularly striking, and I'm not just going on my mother's say-so here. More than 12 miles of shore, beginning in Tramore as its east boundary, is a European Geopark, the only one in Ireland (http:// www.europeangeoparks.org/isite/home/l%2Cl%2C0.asp). It is called the Copper Coast, because of the copper in rock layers in the exposed cliffs. Some of the rock formations here are almost half a billion years old, and there are also remains of Neolithic human habitations as well, so there's a great deal of history here, on several time scales. Nicholas pointed out the remains of a furnace used to burn seashells to extract lime from them. Everywhere we looked, there seemed to be something of interest.

But I've gotten away from Nicholas's hill, from the top of which we could see fields populated with his cows and sheep, as well as bog land. The latter is plentiful in many parts of Ireland and was the major source of fuel, especially in rural areas. Five acres of the land we inherited was bog where my uncles used to cut turf for their fireplace. My uncle never put in central heating, so he continued to burn peat and I met cousins who also still use it. They had just been to their bog the night before to turn the peat, which had been previously cut and was now, slowly drying out for winter use. Peat is definitely a labor-intensive fuel, though it's possible to buy industrially processed peat that has been compacted and is less messy.

How-ever, peat is not a clean-burning fuel, so it's being phased out, leaving bog land that is of little practical use. After peat is cut, the depressions thus created fill with water, and over the years, algae and plants grow over the water's surface, forming what appears to be solid ground until you try to walk across it. One of Nicholas's cows wandered into a bog because, after all, it looked deliciously green. Luckily, he discovered her in time to rope her and pull her out. Being a good farmer, Nicholas worries about his animals. After all, they are Iris livelihood, and so hedgerows and fences are important to him-and keeping gates closed is essential because animals like to wander. I was talking to a farmer in Mayo when several cows and calves wandered down the road toward us. He had just put them up in another field and obviously hadn't closed the gate just right so they had decided to come and say hi. He just got back on his bike and led them away.

A friend had told Nicholas that, of any county in Ireland--and there are 32, including the six in Northern Ireland--Waterford has the most diverse ecology. My mother had always said that Ireland is shaped like a soup bowl, with a rim of mountains around the edge and fiat plains inland. It is the roughness of the mountains and cliffs that makes for the most dramatic scenery, but it is the plains where the best land is to be found. Waterford has both, as well as bog land, marshes, and forests. Most Irish forests are of relatively recent origin. As my mother also pointed out, the English had long ago cut down the trees for export to the motherland. Throughout the 20th century there were reforestation projects, and that's why sizeable woodlands now dot the landscape.


Though this interest in planting trees en masse is relatively recent, trees have been very important in Ireland into the distant past. The pre-Christian Druids worshiped trees and you can get a hint of the depths of this Irish tree culture in Niall Mac Coitir's (2003) Irish Trees: Myths, Legends and Folklore. He makes the case that several species were particularly revered including the oak (Quercus), which was associated with the Celtic equivalent of the god Zeus. Equally important were the ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and the yew (Taxus baccata), trees of the Celtic mother goddess. In addition, the Druids prized the rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) for their magical properties. Mac Coitir goes into great detail on all of this, more than even I, in my revived interested in Ireland, could possibly absorb. But it's wonderful that someone has documented these traditions in a book that also contains information on the trees' practical uses and includes beautiful pen-and-ink botanical illustrations as well as some colored plates.

Another Irishman fascinated by trees is Thomas Pakenham (1996), a writer and photographer who has documented his 60 favorite trees in a spectacular book. The introduction includes the frontispiece of Jacob Strutt's 1830 book, Sylva Britannica, which depicts a twisted tree growing out of a huge boulder. This reminds me of one of my favorite souvenirs front my trip, aside from the crow-pecked golf ball: a photo of what Nicholas described as a "rock with a hairdo." He is great at recording the treasures on his land, and right there, in the middle of a field, is a large rock, with a sizeable bush growing out of it, its branches twisting around the side of the rock. It's obvious that even the present-day Irish, including Pakenham and Nicholas, treasure their trees. It's probably not a coincidence that Pakenham, who is Anglo-Irish, was brought up on the family estate, Tullynally, in county Westmeath. There is a beautiful garden that I remember visiting in 1971, with huge trees that, as Pakenham notes, cemented his love for these botanical giants. But he has not confined his interest to Irish trees, having traveled widely and even written a book on the baobab (2004).

I have to mention just one more tree, one that I had never seen until I went to Ireland, but one that my mother often mentioned: the monkey puzzle, Araucaria aracauna. This species isn't included in Irish Trees because it isn't native to Ireland. It is however mentioned by Pakenham, who gives the story of how it got its name. The seeds were brought back to England by Archibald Menzies, the surgeon and naturalist on the British ship Discovery that explored the Pacific in the late 18th century. Menzies was offered nuts from the tree at a banquet in Chile; he took a few and planted them. The tree got its name from a remark someone made about its spikiness: "To climb that would puzzle a monkey" (p. 136). This conifer has scale-like leaves arranged in spirals and has widely spread branches that give it a very different look from most of its relatives. I have since seen monkey puzzles growing in U.S. arboretums, but they are not commonly grown in gardens here as they are in Ireland. My cousin's parents planted two in their front yard, but only one survived, and Nicholas, of course, had a photo to show how well it's flourishing. This is a great example of how humans have spread plants far and wide, and how these "aliens" have become such long-term residents that they are now part of the landscape and culture of their new homes much as human immigrants are.

I feel very fortunate to have had a chance for conversations with my cousin about sinking cows and golfing crows, monkey puzzles, and sheep that lose their fleeces without benefit of sheering. The latter are not common though Nicholas had more of them this year than he usually has and knows that there's research on the gene that causes this molting. My life is very different from his, and yet we are both interested in the living world and make our livings by it. I learned a great deal from him and treasure my visit to Tramore. While I had stayed away from Ireland because of the pain of missing my parents, I hadn't counted on the joys that come with reconnecting with their kin and learning from them. As to the latter, Nicholas gave me a stack of wonderful, though heavy, books. I cleverly distributed them to my traveling companions, but kept the real gem, Declan McGrath's (2001) Tramore Bay, Dunes and Backstrand. It's a rich resource on the ecology of the area, a beautiful book that focuses on just this small area and its biological and geological wonders. It would definitely warm my mother's heart to know that her hometown had received such loving attention.

Before leaving Ireland, I returned to Belfast to see the cousins I'd visited in January. I'm sure they were thinking that two visits in a year was definitely one too many, but they were nonetheless gracious. We took a trip to see Mount Stewart, an estate on a spit of land east of Belfast. This is a National Trust property which means it's beautifully maintained. Here again I was reminded of the blessing of rain. The flower gardens are amazing, just what you would expect of the British Isles, with a richness that is almost impossible in most parts of the United States. Mount Stewart is a wonderful example of several gardening traditions, including an Italian walled garden, a Japanese garden, and a more traditionally British park influenced by the ideas of the 18th-century landscape architect, Capability Brown (Thacker, 1979). Yes, this is still artificial, and it is not at all like visiting a virgin forest, but a virgin forest won't stay intact very long if too many people visit it, while Mount Stewart was meant to be enjoyed and to refresh the soul. In fact, my whole trip to Ireland did just that. I deepened my roots in a land that I had ignored and discovered a whole new biological treasure trove to explore on future trips. I am afraid that my Irish relatives will soon be sick of me.

Note: I would like to thank the D'Arcys for being so generous in introducing me to the "new" Belfast and its environs. In terms of this article, I am very grateful to Nicholas Molloy for a wonderful day of conversation.


Akeroyd, J. (2008). A Beginner's Guide to Ireland's Wild Flowers. Sherkin Island, Ireland: Sherkin Island Marine Station Publications.

Barrett, A. (1996). Ship Feuer. New York: Norton.

Bartoletti, S. (2001). Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

D'Arcy, G. (2007). Birds. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Appletree Press.

Haien, J. (1987). The All of It. New York: HarperCollins.

Heather, A. (1993). Errislannan: Scenes From a Painter's Life. Dublin: Lilliput Press.

Mac Coitir, N. (2003). Irish Trees: Myths, Legends and Folklore. Cork, Ireland: Collins Press.

McGrath, D. (2001). Tramore Bay, Dunes and Backstrand. Waterford, Ireland: Intacta Print.

Pakenham, T. (1996). Meetings with Remarkable Trees. New York: Random House.

Pakenham, T. (2004). The Remarkable Baobab. New York: Norton.

Quammen, D. (1985). Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature. New York: Schocken.

Strutt, J. (1830). Sylva Britannica or Portraits of Forest Trees. London: Longman, Reeds, Orme, Brown, and Green.

Thacker, C. (1979). The History of Gardens. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


MAURA C. FLANNERY is Professor of Biology and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at St. John's University, Jamaica, NY 11439; e-mail: flannerm@stjohns.edu. She earned a B.S. in biology from Marymount Manhattan College; an M.S., also in biology, from Boston College; and a Ph.D. in science education from New York University. Her major interests are in communicating science to the nonscientist and in the relationship between biology and art.
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