Half a billion years of natural history in Ireland

A book review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Conor W. O’Brien: Life in Ireland: A Short History of a Long Time, Merrion Press, Dublin 2021

ISBN: 9781785373848

RRP: €16.95

This journey through time in Ireland, with its focus on how landscapes, flora and fauna have changed in deep time, would make a great present for the Irish-identified naturalist teenager in your midst. Or the curious general reader, of course.

It gives an admirably plain (i.e. not scientific) account of the changes in Ireland since long before humans. Did you know Ireland boasts a Dinosaur trackway on Valentia Island, though evidence of actual dinosaur remains are scanty (the only bone remains are two tiny slivers of leg bone just 6cm and 10cm long, dating from 200 million years ago, found as recently as 13 January 1980)? The only classified dinosaur in Ireland was an armoured herbivore, and O’Brien speculates it was Scelidosaurus, and among the smaller dinosaurs weighing in at just one-quarter of a tonne. The story of this dinosaur’s coming into focus is a recent one (2017) and told with flair on a Cambridge University website. It dates from Pangaea, but so far as I can tell, this class of dinosaur is limited to Europe, although the group to which it belongs includes Muttaburrasaurus Langdoni (discovered in Muttaburra, in far north-western Queensland). 

I’d have loved to have seen in this admirably pitched book more discussion of what happened to the two halves of Ireland when Pangaea started to break up. For that kind of information, my go-to source is J. P. Mallory’s The Origins of the Irish. Mallory is a palaeolinguist from Queen’s University Belfast, who also has an interest in archaeology and plate tectonics. He describes one half as migrating from the area around the modern Gulf of St. Lawrence (Canada) and tropical east coast Australia. O’Connor alludes to this amazing and dramatic scenario, but does not make much of it.

If Ireland lacks evidence for land-living dinosaurs, it makes up for that in huge reptilian and underwater dinosaurs, some of which were amphibian, some of which evolved to give birth at sea to live young (rather than by laying eggs on land). Evidence for the existence of ‘sea dragons of Ulster’ was found on the Antrim coast as recently as 1991 in the form of ichthyosaurs, including the Minnis Monster, some 250 million years old. These ichthyosaurs could be as small as two metres or as large as a modern whale. Their form, resembling that of modern porpoises, was designed for speed in hunting.

Humans came late to Ireland, 12,500 years ago, after the retreat of the ice. By then, the dinosaurs and marine reptiles had gone and the mammals which had flourished alongside the dinosaurs, came into their own. Because the glaciers held the water, forests were in retreat. Another recent find in County Down was of the giant tooth of a Paaeoloxodon, a straight-tusked elephant, related to its African cousin, one of the largest mammals to walk earth. It was doomed when the weather turned colder, and gave way to woollier creatures.

There’s much to fascinate in this book: tarpans (wild horses), spotted hyenas and brown bears (extinct in Ireland only 3000 years ago), and of course the more famous Giant Irish Deer (which also, with the reptiles and amphibians, succumbed to colder weather). The re-afforestation of Ireland after the Ice Age is another intriguing story, if you imagine, as I did, that Ireland’s forests dated back to far antiquity. Rather, O’Connor tells a story of a land denuded by ice and turned into desert that over 2000 years transformed into a verdant woodland which colonised the rich soils eroded by melting ice, aided and abetted by a retinue of woodland creatures and birds stashing away acorns. Birches were succeeded by alder, ash, hawthorn and wild cherry, before the oaks took hold.

There’s a lot to find out about in this book, including birds and animals currently in Ireland, and conservation activities, and it reminded me of how much I’ve missed out on by confining myself when in Ireland to cultural pursuits in cities. This book would be a superb companion for a long walk or pilgrimage in Ireland.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.