Another Life: Glorious new Irish books bring nature home

‘I Was There’, ‘Sea Gastronomy’, ‘Ireland’s Birds: Myth, Legends and Folklore’, ‘Dordán Dúlra’ and ‘This Is the Burren’

Timely: this autumn’s supermoons and all the talk of life on Mars give a topical edge to I Was There’s distillation of evolution. Illustration: Michael Viney

Timely: this autumn’s supermoons and all the talk of life on Mars give a topical edge to I Was There’s distillation of evolution. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

How do you inspire an eight-year-old, say, with young delight in sharing with everything else on Earth, atoms born of the Big Bang, 14 billion years ago? Such astronomical ambition fires the slimmest – also, perhaps, the bravest – of the season’s new books from Irish publishers that relate to the natural world.

I Was There (Danann, €10), a 30-page paperback, frames a daunting scientific story in terms that gallop along. The author is Michael Casey, who watches the stars from Newport, Co Mayo; the illustrator is Olivia Golden, her images glowingly pitched for the rapture of Christmas morning.

The supermoons this autumn and all the talk of life on Mars give a topical edge to this hard-won distillation of cosmic, earthly and human evolution. Casey’s text, engaging both minds and hearts of children, makes an elevating read at any age.

On a different scale, and with its own large ambition, comes Michael O’Meara’s Sea Gastronomy: Fish and Shellfish of the North Atlantic (Artisan House, €30). Beautifully produced and illustrated, at the weight of a decent hake, with 440 pages and 235 recipes, it has the promise of a modern Escoffier of fish cuisine. It is also an excellent plain cook’s guide to how to tackle a whole fish or crab as it comes from the sea rather than anonymous supermarket fillets.

The book doesn’t attempt to match the zoology of Alan Davidson’s classic North Atlantic Seafood, but its photographs of fish as they are landed are novel and impressive, and those of edible seaweeds serve the new taste for experiment.

O’Meara, who is clearly an outstanding chef, shows personal feeling for the sea and conservation of marine life. He urges readers to buy fish from “sustainable” sources and offers recipes for species too often discarded from trawlers, such as greater forkbeard (“a superb fish for the table” otherwise thrown out, apparently, as “Sweaty Betty”) or the deep-water bluemouth, beryx and grenadier.

With its myriad recipes, often fashionably exotic, and colourful platefuls, this seductive book was funded from Government and EU development sources and has persuasive pages on “great recent improvements in the health of many fish stocks” by the energetic Dr Peter Tyndall of Bord Iascaigh Mhara. As a guilty piscivore, perhaps, one day I’ll sample “Cod with udon noodles, sea vegetables, beans and green cardamom-infused blood orange sauce” from Oscar’s Seafood Bistro, O’Meara’s restaurant in Galway city.

Ireland’s Birds: Myths, Legends and Folklore (Collins Press, €25) is the latest in Niall Mac Coitir’s chronicles of the island’s historical relations with wildlife.

Here’s a typical passage: “In Kerry, a traditional belief was that the eagle was a very long-lived bird, with a life span of three crí. A crí was the length of time it took to dig a field, put in potatoes, then put in oats, then let it rest so long that it was not possible to tell that anything had ever been planted there.

“It was also said in Kerry that the eagle’s beak would grow too long for it to eat anything, so that the eagle would have to break its beak against a rock by swooping down on top of it . . .”

With some brightly vigorous watercolours by Gordon D’Arcy, this is a rich and diligent mix of research that goes far beyond the omens of ravens and magpies and may best be absorbed one bird at a time.

The barony of Erris and the estuary of Sruwaddacon, at the northwestern corner of Co Mayo, have received a Shell to Sea notoriety in which concern for landscape and protecting the pristine natural habitat has played a substantial part.

A handsome new book, locally inspired and produced with the help of the Heritage Council, Dordán Dúlra (€25, including postage; duchaochain@eircom.net) puts the natural world of Cill Chomáin safely beyond the battle.

Séamus Ó Mongáin of Teagasc has given long service to the community, its land and wildlife, and with Treasa Ní Ghearraigh he has explored the vivid natural habitats often hidden by the seeming bleakness of blanket bog.

The cliffs of north Mayo are among the most remote of the island, and dramatic photographs balance the other great visual pleasure of the book: the artwork of the landscape and wildlife created by schoolchildren. It was part of an internationally viewed exhibition in 2013 that originally prompted this book (see ecology.com).

Exquisite images are the well-admired forte of the photographer Carsten Krieger. He now lives in Co Clare, so he is on hand for the glorious theatrics of the Burren’s light and seasons. In This Is the Burren (Collins Press, €20) many such magical landscapes are on offer, together with studies of the special plants and wildlife nurtured in their limestone world.

Michael Viney’s Reflections on Another Life, a selection of columns from the past four decades, is available from irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks

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