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Home Uncategorized Shaping ‘Nature’

Shaping ‘Nature’

Michael Cronin

Nature and the Environment in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, Matthew Kelly (ed), Liverpool University Press, 231 pp, £75, ISBN 978-1789620320

RIC barracks on fire. Roads alive with truckloads of vengeful militia. Not the ideal circumstances for reflecting on the natural order in Ireland or maybe, oddly enough, it is. Lois in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929) is making her way from a tennis party at Mount Daniel to her home in Danielstown. She finally spots the demesne trees surrounding the house and thinks, “it seemed to Lois they lived in a forest; spaces of lawns blotted out in the pressure and dusk of trees. She wondered they were not smothered; then wondered still more they were not afraid. Far from here too, their isolation became apparent. The house seemed to be pressing down low in apprehension, hiding its face, as though it had her vision of what it was. It seemed to gather its tree close in fright and amazement at the wide, light lovely unloving country, the unwilling bosom where it was set.” If the forests were the redoubtable refuges of rebellious kerns during the Tudor conquest, they had now become the lingering symbols of a beleaguered Ascendancy. What becomes all too apparent in Bowen’s evocation is that nature in Ireland is never distinct from the human. The increasingly necessary scare quotes around the concept “nature” indicate that it is perpetually indexed against political, social and cultural anxieties. Historically, nature has been more about fight than flight – the struggle against whatever tyranny is seen to usurp the natural order, itself a bitterly contested notion.

Nature and the Environment in Nineteenth-Century Ireland brings together a set of essays which examine how the natural world was mobilised in the fractious politics of the century. As Matthew Kelly points out in his wide-ranging introduction, many of the environmental developments of the nineteenth century have cast a long shadow over the present and future sustainability of the island:

Adopting commercially-driven pasture-based agriculture in the nineteenth century[…]was not just socially disruptive but, thanks to ungulate metabolism, also increased Ireland’s production of greenhouse emissions, contributing to global climate change. It is now clear that as human health and longevity improved, so the capacity of the natural world to sustain life in all its variety diminished. Despite its reputation as a place of natural beauty, Ireland was no exception. Thanks to its island geography, historical disafforestation, intensive farming, and weak environmental lobby, Ireland is now exceptionally bereft of wildlife.

Once the Napoleonic blockade ended and Britain had access to cheaper continental grain markets and producers the smart money was on animals not crops. The move away from labour-intensive tillage also meant a surplus population that moved to the cities, took the boat or starved. As more and more of the population found themselves on poorer land which was not suitable for pasture the miracle of the potato becomes the monocultural catastrophe of single-crop dependency. While Irish agriculture became a part of an intensely commercialised system heavily focused on external markets (in the 1830s more than 85 per cent of total English imports of grain, meat, butter, and livestock came from Ireland), “improvement” emerges as the watchword of commentators who see agricultural reform as a natural antidote to political incivility and papist cussedness.

Helen O’Connell. in her essay “The Nature of Improvement in Ireland” points out that Irish improvers such as William Hickey (who wrote using the pseudonym Martin Doyle), Robert Parker, Mary Leadbetter and William Blacker were intent in post-Union Ireland on “working towards the eventual absorption of Ireland into the anglicized and homogenized mainstream”. The latest techniques in agricultural science would be promoted to nurture a pre-industrial fantasy of self-sufficient homesteaders scrubbed clean of stupor and superstition. The problem for many of the Improvers was that in Ireland there was too much “nature” – wild, uncivilised, uncouth – which needed the steadying hand of Whiggish improvement. An unwillingness to engage with the land-transfer legacy of conquest and with the incorporation of Ireland into imperial food supply chains meant that “Improvement” was more often a tendentious, moral scold than an effective economic remedy. Paradoxically, it is the very force that Improvement was set to contain, Irish nationalism, which will incorporate a number of its tenets in the development of the co-operative movement at the end of the nineteenth century.

Attitudes to the natural world were part of the public self-presentation of major Irish political figures in the nineteenth century in a way that is now unimaginable. Daniel O’Connell claimed that he was not “a ferocious demagogue” but “in truth a gentle lover of Nature”. As Huston Gilmore reminds us in an elegant contribution on nature and the environment during the Monster meeting campaign of 1843 O’Connell was sensitive to the historical and religious resonance of particular landscapes. The gentle lover of Nature knew that the Great Outdoors was not so much an escape from politics as an introduction to it. So too did his opponents. Reporting on the Monster meeting at Tara the chief secretary for Ireland informed Downing Street that “[t]he meeting at Tara was very large & so far formidable more so perhaps from the spot and associated recollections than from any peculiarity in the meeting itself”. The physical landscape was more site (of popular associations with the high kingship of Ireland and more recently the 1798 Rising) than sight in the anxious foreboding of the crown administrator. For Isaac Butt. who will come to prominence after the death of the Liberator, “Nature” was a reminder less of past wrongs than present misfortunes. He declared in The Irish People and the Irish Land (1867: “I care nothing for the abstract prosperity of mountains and villages and plains – I care a good deal for the comfort and happiness of the people whom God has now placed on them.” Butt was critical of the romanticisation of settings of human desolation just as he was equally impatient with the moralisation of poverty.

Colin W Reid exploring “Butt and the Irish Land Question” describes his subject’s hostility to the neoclassical model of economic individualism and  the thinking behind the Poor Law Act of 1838 which in his words made the “fatal mistake” of believing that Irish poverty was “the accident of individuals, instead of considering it as the essential and general condition of a class”. For Butt, insecurity of tenure was evidence of everything that was wrong with the Irish land system. He was particularly appalled when in the Glenveagh evictions in 1861 the mass removal of tenants was enforced by “a large body of the Queen’s troops”. How little has changed was in evidence on August 12th, 2020 when nine tenants were evicted from a property in north Dublin in the presence of uniformed gardaí. The front door of the house was broken down and several men wearing all black, face coverings, caps and sunglasses, entered the house and instructed the tenants inside to leave and then boarded up the front door and windows. None of the gardaí present intervened at any moment to halt the terrifying ordeal of the evicted tenants. Jack Power, in an Irish Times report on the eviction, noted that “legal representatives of the property’s owner attended Mountjoy Garda station on Wednesday ‘to inform Gardaí that they intended to secure their premises”’. In this chronicle of an outrage foretold what emerges in a sorry line from Glenveagh to Phibsboro is a triumph of possession over protection, diligently watched over by state authority. Ironically, one of the consequences of attempts to bring about an end to the insecurity of tenure Butt so rightly deplored was that the Land Acts and the subsequent land transfers made the rights of private property even more sacrosanct. Matthew Kelly demonstrates that even in Killarney in the early twentieth century when the takeover by the State of Muckross House and estate was mooted as a public benefit, grappling with private interests proved to be a formidable challenge. One clearly legible consequence of this culture of possession is that the notion of the environment as a collective good in modern Ireland has been repeatedly sacrificed to real estate privateers and their political patrons.

In the 1980s, at the time of an earlier collapse of the foreign tourist market due to domestic tensions and international terrorism, the Irish Tourist Board launched a campaign with the slogan “Bet you haven’t seen the half of it”. The aim, before the term gained Covid currency, was to encourage the Irish to go on staycation. The marketing approach was not novel – show the viewer a set of brightly lit, depopulated landscapes in remote regions and the people will come. The more recent tourist branding of the “Wild Atlantic Way” was driven by a similar belief ‑ there is wealth in wilderness. The difficulty in becoming a hostage to romantic cliché, as the environmental historians in this volume point out, is that stories of ecological destruction and human loss are often masked by the photo-ops of the hospitality industry. As Kelly notes, “[t]he US parks might be based on notions of wilderness, and Glenveagh [National Park] on nineteenth-century scenic ideals, but both stem from violent acts of appropriation. The US park authorities expelled indigenous populations and later arrivals with a ruthlessness that mirrors Adair [Glenveagh landlord].”

In reality, The Wild Atlantic Way is nothing if not a long via dolorosa of economic dispossession (poverty, emigration) and ecological dislocation (deforestation, soil erosion, species extinction). The history of tourism in Ireland itself plays out as a recurrent tension between landscape as resource and landscape as commodity. Ronan Foley, in his essay on “therapeutic landscapes”, shows how the spa town and sweat-house (teach alluis) both evolve as social practices related to the presence of water in a specific place. The sweat houses emerged in the early modern period and were usually built from stone and sod. Looking somewhat like igloos from the outside, they had a narrow entrance and a hole in the roof for steam to escape. The stones were heated by turf fires and the patient sweated out their impurities in the confined space. Foley remarks on the crucial difference in purpose between the spa and sweat house: “The sweat-house was a co-production of stone, grass, water, and turf put to use in a relatively non-commodified way. In this way it was in distinct contrast to the spas, where that nature healing was made scientific, medical and commercial to produce what might be now seen as an early example of medical tourism.” The commodification of natural resources has the unhappy outcome of further promoting a culture of possession over a culture of dwelling. The incessant mobilisation of the environment by the hospitality sector as both backdrop and marketing ploy (the eco-friendly destination) leads to an inevitable distortion of the view of the natural world. It is not viewed primarily as a public good vital to sustaining human and non-human flourishing but as a form of natural capital which can instrumentalised for private profit. When everything from the saving of historic woodlands to the construction of cycle paths has to be argued in terms of the benefits to tourism rather than to communities, it is clear that even the language of ecological recovery finds itself hostage to the “abstract prosperity of mountains and villages and plains”.

The German cultural theorist Günther Anders has argued that the writing of human history has more to with pique than propriety. When humans were dislodged from the centre of the solar system in the sixteenth century, the consequence was not a sense of due species humility but an explosion of hubris in the form of a relentless focus on human affairs in historical enquiry. The heliocentric shift had prompted a profound geocentric crisis of identity. If humans were no longer the centre of the universe then they would be in a historical universe of their own making. The legacy of human exceptionalism which is still all pervasive in the “(human)ities” has led to the making invisible of the billions of animals with whom we share the planet. Juliana Adelman, in an absorbing essay on the environmental history of nineteenth century Dublin, plots out the geography of a “more than human” Dublin. She argues that “the need to share the urban environment with animal bodies (living and dead, for work and food) […]affected Dublin’s social and economic divisions”. Slaughterhouses, piggeries, farriers, livery stables, cattle markets are located on a map of the city which overlies social divisions in the city itself. The more noxious industries involving the slaughter of animals or the treatment of animal by-products (skinning/tanning) were located in poorer neighbourhoods. Stigmatised humans and non-humans lived in close proximity in the city. The streets adjacent to the South Dublin Workhouse, for example, “held some of the highest concentration of noxious animal trades”.

Adelman draws the reader’s attention to the much overlooked east/wide divide in Dublin city, in many ways more revealing than the Ross O’Carroll Kelly spoof sociology of southside/northside. The tendency in a number of cities, like London, has been for the rich to occupy the commanding western heights and for the poor to populate the eastern river banks, in Dublin the opposite was the case:

The western portion of the city is situated on an elevated plain and the prevailing winds carry fresh air from the rural hinterland and pollution out towards the sea. Nonetheless, the western districts remained poor and the wealthy flocked to the eastern portion of the city.

According to Adelman, the concentration of important administrative buildings in the eastern half of the city and more controlled development of housing for an affluent clientele partly explains this orientation but so also do the “numerous small rivers and streams of the western district” which allowed “the development of small industries, many producing bad smells that would have discouraged wealthier citizens from living beside them”. If a line of privilege still tracks the eastern district from Dalkey to Howth and one of the more notorious criminal gangs in the city in the late 1990s was known as the “Westies”, from their base in Blanchardstown, west Dublin, it is only too clear that the socio-economic segregation dating back to the “more than human” nineteenth century divisions of Dublin are still very much with us. Adelman’s deliberate decision to situate her environmental history in a city is a welcome antidote to the notion that the environment is a uniquely rural concern. As the ecological future of the island depends predominantly on choices made by those living in urban spaces, it is particularly important that environmental histories disturb urban fantasies of human all-powerfulness.

The desire to classify humans in terms of their real (geographical) or imagined (psychological) proximity to animals is a hardy annual of cultural exclusion. It is, however, not only humans who live near but those who write on animals who can also experience the condescension of misjudged classification. William Thompson’s four volume Natural History of Ireland (1849-56) is the focus of an outstanding essay by Mary Orr. She concentrates in particular on the fifth and final appendix to the History on the “Fishes of Lough Neagh and Lake Geneva”. Orr’s main preoccupation is with the reception of Irish natural history which became a prisoner of its country of origin. The difficulty was that as part of a larger political entity, Ireland would find its contributions to scientific knowledge deemed to be additive, supplementary, subordinate. At worst, a footnote, at best, part of a much bigger picture:

‘Ireland’ as the smaller adjacent land mass of the British Isles remained at best the lesser detachable knowledge domain, an adjunct or periphery of the greater Great Britain of England, Scotland and Wales. At worst, Ireland was ever the backwater, defying civilizing projects including the scientific. Even when Ireland became an independent nation state and member of the EU almost a century later, there was little concomitant shift in the twentieth-century critical mind regarding its independent, or interdependent, knowledge value.

This was not, of course, how Thompson viewed his work and Orr situates his writings on ichthyology within a European, predominantly French-language framework. The decision to take as point of comparison two lakes, one in Ireland and one in Switzerland, indicates that Thompson was thinking in continental rather than exclusively insular terms. His extensive travels in Europe in 1826 and 1835 were to prove formative in his scientific development. In particular, he developed a form of comparative thinking which transcended the focus on local “curiosities” within the imperial whole. European colleagues such as Achille Valenciennes considered Thompson to be a scholar of international stature rather some commendable exotic from the provinces. In reassessing Thompson’s reputation Orr is keen not to engage in an exercise of irredentist one-upmanship but seeks to abandon the zero-sum game of nationalism for the establishment of wider affinities:

The scientific authority of writer and work is unquestionably ‘Continental’ – international and mainstream – because Thompson’s quietly provocative comparative thrust for ‘Ireland’ in the understanding of its natural history is always as an informatively inter-connective, inter-dependent, anti-nationalist, endeavour.

Crucially, the broader, comparative perspectives are dependent for their range and effectiveness on an island-wide network of local informants, whose contributions to the knowledge of Ireland’s fishes are dutifully catalogued by Thompson. This is a bottom-up rather than top-down scientific cosmopolitanism which attempts to move beyond the endless shadow boxing of empire.

If Thompson’s posthumous reputation is a cautionary tale in the dangers of relying on exclusively English-language sources, the collection itself is surprisingly silent on the subject of language. There is a brief mention in Huston Gilmore’s article of Daniel O’Connell’s enthusiasm for an Irish-language prayer recited by the Reverend Matthew Horgan in Skibbereen in 1843, but otherwise the subject is largely ignored. The omission is all the more surprising in that the nineteenth century will witness the dramatic shift in language competence where substantial sections of the population will no longer have a language to describe the environment they inhabit. The effects of this cultural dislocation are arguably profound in terms of Irish attitudes to the natural world in modern times and this Great Silence, in the words of Seán de Fréine, still haunts our ecological predicament.

Notwithstanding this oversight, the volume bears vivid witness to the importance of the long view and how we are environmentally – in everything from the way we farm to where we live in our cities ‑ children of the nineteenth century.


Michael Cronin is director of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation. His most recent works are Eco-Translation: translation and ecology in the Age of the Anthropocene (2017) and Irish and Ecology/An Ghaeilge agus an Éiceolaíocht (2019). 



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