The Irish Butterfly Book: A Complete Guide to the Butterflies of Ireland, by Jesmond Harding, published privately, 328 pp, €35, ISBN: 978-0-9560546-1-6
One afternoon at the end of May 2009, my wife and I stood with friends in a woodland clearing on the shore of Lough Carra, Co Mayo, watching a steady stream of painted lady butterflies on their way north. We were witnessing a phenomenal irruption of this migrant species to these islands from central Spain: many hundreds were observed making landfall at Kinvara, on Galway Bay, where some immediately started to feed on flowers of red valerian. The 2009 migration was one of the great, visible events of insect life.
With their combination of ephemeral beauty and fragility, butterflies have always been especially cherished by watchers of the living world. During the Victorian period, when natural history was imprinted throughout fashionable society, cases containing pinned and mounted butterflies were exemplary displays of the cruel fascination of the era. Late in his illustrious life, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov summarised the pleasures of lepidoptery in these terms: “Few things indeed have I known in the way of emotion or appetite, ambition or achievement, that could surpass in richness and strength the excitement of entomological exploration.” From a much less scientific perspective, WB Yeats was intrigued by the tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies that got trapped in his tower house in Galway; for him these frail creatures became emblems of the soul trying to escape from the confinement of history. Yeats’s interest was consistent with ancient Greek usage, where the word psyche meant both soul and butterfly.
There is no greater signal of early summer in this cool climate than the sight of orange-tip butterflies flitting among a field of lady’s smock, their food plant; and nothing captures the atmosphere of high summer better than a flowering buddleia decorated with small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies. Even a modest hedgerow will be enlivened with the speckled wood, that species of shady, wooded places, and a couple of species of white butterflies usually add their buoyant life to a typical suburban garden.
Ireland’s butterflies, of which there are only thirty-five species, have now got the study they deserve in this extraordinary, landmark publication by Jesmond Harding. Harding, who is indisputably the leading national authority on the subject, has been studying and recording this insect group for many years; remarkably, in an age of specialism and science, he works independently of any institution. His Irish Butterfly Book is the latest in a long and distinguished amateur line of Irish natural history, which includes William Thompson’s Natural History of Ireland (1849-56), Robert Lloyd Praeger’s Irish Topographical Botany (1901), RF Ruttledge’s Ireland’s Birds (1966), and Zoë Devlin’s Wildflowers of Ireland (2014).
The bulk of Harding’s book is comprised of species accounts, with a wealth of detail on the different life stages, flight periods, plant associations and habitats, much of it based on the author’s own observations. The photographs are a true wonder of this publication, showing typical adults of both sexes, as well as egg, caterpillar and pupa stages. The author has even managed to capture butterfly eggs on typical host plants, such as the pale duck-egg shade of a holly blue, or the tiny rice-grain eggs of clouded yellow and brimstone. The beauty of freshly emerged adult butterflies is celebrated here in large, exquisite photographs; at the same time, the larval and pupa stages have wonderful forms of their own, all of them meticulously illustrated and described.
As well as being exquisite creatures in themselves, butterflies are also important indicators of biodiversity and the health of natural landscapes. Keen butterfly hunters will be drawn to the rich Burren grasslands, coastal dune and machair systems, unimproved grassland with scrub, and our remaining oak woods. On a balmy evening in late summer, the dedicated watcher of an oak wood canopy might be rewarded with the sight of a purple hairstreak, an elusive species usually confined to this habitat. A late summer visit to the Burren limestone might be crowned with a view of its equally scarce cousin, the brown hairstreak, flying along an undisturbed woodland margin with plenty of blackthorn scrub. On the other hand, to find the pearl-bordered fritillary, you would have to go to the Burren earlier in the summer, in May, and search rocky areas with an abundance of violets.
Many of our butterflies have quite narrow habitat requirements that make them vulnerable to land reclamation and habitat loss, such as the large heath, which has declined because of the drainage of wet bogs. In fact, these beautiful insects are generally declining because of the sterilisation of our farming landscape and the removal of so much “wild” growth to comply with farm payment schemes. The geographical picture of their distribution is treated in this book by an account of forty-three especially rich sites. The distribution of these sites reflects the author’s own searches in Leinster counties, as well as frequent forays to the limestone landscapes of Clare and Galway. Fieldworkers in other counties might reasonably ask why their areas do not figure here. A fuller account of Irish butterfly habitats and distribution is currently being prepared by the National Biodiversity Data Centre, whose forthcoming Butterfly Atlas will present the results of several years’ fieldwork up to 2021.
Ireland’s butterflies have a particular appeal as a “way in” to the wider patterns of wildlife and biodiversity. There are not many species in total, and anyone can begin to study butterflies in suburban parks and gardens. They are intrinsically visual creatures, so they offer themselves to the viewer, and as such are readily identifiable in the field. A few species, such as the fast-flying wall brown or the inconspicuous small blue, do provide challenges to the naturalist, but this is a normal ingredient of any satisfying field pursuit. The more unusual or localised species can be the highlight of a visit to an undisturbed patch of territory, and, as butterflies do not fly until the weather warms up, their abundance is a true mark of summer. One of the most striking observations in this book, of approximately 170 purple hairstreaks seen in July 2018 on oaks in the Phoenix Park, suggests that you do not have to travel far to make exceptional discoveries.
Harding’s Irish Butterfly Book is a treasure of fascinating detail and no doubt will motivate many wonderful summer excursions in future years; it will be an indispensable reference book for experienced nature watchers, and it should charm and inspire less specialist lovers of Ireland’s natural heritage. In time, also, it is to be hoped that this superb book will have a future life as a redesigned pocket guide, perhaps in a second edition from a commercial publisher.
Seán Lysaght is a poet and nature writer. His prose includes Eagle Country (2018) and Wild Nephin (2020). He has published several collections of poems and translations with Gallery Press, including The Mouth of a River (2007) and Carnival Masks (2014). His forthcoming collection, New Leaf, will be published by Gallery in May.