Polymath with a vision

 

In addition to a magnificent and inspirational legacy as teacher and field natural scientist, Frank Mitchell was a gifted, original writer who brought imagination, logic, lucidity and great humour to his work. Drawing on a formidable array of geological, geographical, botanical, archaeological, meteorological and socio-historical erudition, his genius lay in a Braudelian overview sustained by his relentless curiosity.

Mitchell's Shell Guide To Read- ing The Irish Landscape which was published in 1986 - itself based on an earlier book, The Irish Land- scape - was completely revised and extended by more than 150 pages. The new edition of Reading The Irish Landscape, written by Mitchell in collaboration with archaeologist Michael Ryan during a three-year period, was published by Town House last March and has already sold more than 5,000 copies.

As a testament to Mitchell's scholarship and vision, Reading the Irish Landscape will endure, while on a more routine level, it is an extraordinary achievement in that it this essentially, geologically-based text offers a multi-faceted and complete view of Ireland. It is a feat no other single narrative has matched. Of the many qualities which make Mitchell unique is the fact that his writing career effectively began after his retirement from Trinity College where he had held several positions, culminating in the chair of Quarternary Studies which had been created for him.

Retirement from academic life facilitated an impressive body of work. In 1990, he published The Way That I Followed, the title echoing Praeger's The Way that I Went. Yet while the concept is similar, the approach differs. Praeger zigzagged his way through Ireland, Mitchell is more methodical and his winding route deliberately highlights the scientific advances made since Praeger's time. He also balances science with an awareness of natural beauty in a narrative which is a subtle celebration of Ireland's natural beauty as well as an astute examination of the complex physical diversity existing in what is a very small country.

After 10 years of intense field work, "walking its hillsides and bogs", he wrote Man And Environ- ment in Valencia Island (Royal Irish Academy, 1989). Explaining the way in which the island's climate favoured the formation of peat, which in turn dictated Valencia's history, his narrative is a vivid portrait of a small society as it evolved over 6,000 years, beginning with the arrival of the Stone Age people. Mitchell's Valencia study also illustrates the way in which he reads landscapes of varying scales as well as his ability to balance his scientific meticulousness with his imagination, as he did through various writings on the Great Bog of Ardee in Co Louth.

Daring, imagination and an awesome range of scholarship shaped his exciting pamphlet, Where Has Ireland Come From? (Country House, 1995) in which he and a group of fellow naturalists defy time to embark on an imaginary tour through 1,700 million years of geological history complete with Coleridge. Based on a 13-part lecture series, it is exciting, compelling, witty and brilliantly argued. Above all, only Frank Mitchell, that most practical of imaginative, polymath visionaries could have attempted it. And achieved it - as throughout his life's work - with flair and humanity.