What de Buitlear saw

MANY naturalists who have subsequently become career botanists, zoologists, entomologists and/or wildlife filmmakers can trace…

MANY naturalists who have subsequently become career botanists, zoologists, entomologists and/or wildlife filmmakers can trace their interest back to childhood and the parent or relative or teacher who initially inspired them. Independent film maker Eamon de Buitlear's story is slightly different. Neither of my parents were particularly interested in wildlife. Though my mother always got me the wildlife books I asked for. It was growing up on the river that did it for me," he says. De Buitlear remembers his first pet, a sickly fledging he found. There is no happy ever after story. "It died that night."

By the age of 10 he was in charge of two budgies. "They got away. I took them out for a walk by the river, but they didn't come back when I whistled. To this day I have that image in my mind, of a small boy - me - bereft over the loss of my budgies, walking along the river bank with a tin of seed." Replacement budgies arrived. They were not taken for walks. Later, he had a pet jackdaw given to sitting on the handle bars of his bike.

De Buitlear is a careful, deliberate, determined man who radiates a calm concern undercut by a restlessness which is sufficiently contained to appear as unobtrusive energy. At 67, he has no intentions of retiring. Entirely self taught, he edits film in a small shed at his home, in which the emphasis is on efficiency rather than high tech. "Janey Mack" features in his conversation, and he is far more tenaciously opinionated than one might initially suspect. Very precise, he is as ordered and meticulous, in his preparation of his material as he is tireless, imaginative and resourceful in his pursuit of it. If the weather in Mayo is poor, rather than waste a day's shooting he sets off and films on the Liffey. Eamon de Buitlear appears contented but is not complacent.

Nor is he like to experience that state. When he was nine, his mother asked him what he would like to do when he grew up. His answer even then was typical of him, a mixture of romance and practicality. "I wanted to know how you could own the zoo." As a schoolboy he bred and sold guinea pigs to the zoo for pocket money. One thing he was always sure of: I wanted to be outdoors, I wanted a job which would keep me outside.

Wildlife and the study of natural history have been, enjoying an increasingly wider audience in Ireland during the past 20 years. But it was not always so. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and indeed for much of the early decades of the present one, natural history was largely considered a favoured pursuit of the Protestant upper and middle classes. Philip Corbet for instance, one of the legendary "New Naturalists", coauthored Dragonflies (1951) while still a Cambridge undergraduate. The nature table was a feature of Protestant schools. For Catholics, wildlife was represented by livestock and working animals.

Studying natural history as a hobby rather than in a professional capacity was seen as indicative of a privileged life and to many Catholics was an extension of the hunting, fishing and shooting world of the Protestant. All this has changed; the connotations of class and privilege have been replaced by the enthusiasm generated by the success of outstanding wildlife programmes. Pioneered by naturalists such as David Attenborough, they have helped to familiarise us with the local pond and hedgerow as well as the Serengeti.

De Buitlear, born in 1930, is one of seven children who grew up in an Irish speaking household presided over by the late Colonel Eamon de Buitlear and his wife. "I was born in Dublin but my father was in command of Renmore barracks in Co Galway at the time, so I was brought over there." The family settled in the Dargle Valley, outside Bray, Co Wicklow when de Buitlear was two and a half.

Life on the Dargle - which he has always considered Ireland's most underestimated river - was idyllic, particularly so because of the existence of the weir which was later destroyed by a storm in the late 1960s. "My father was often away, so my mother was really running the show. She was very shrewd and knew that four boys would make quite a mess of the house, so she encouraged us to play outside on the river. It wasn't difficult. We loved it.

Colonel de Buitlear, aide de camp to President Douglas Hyde, was a gifted linguist and spoke fluent Irish, French and German. Hyde was a coarse fisherman. But my father didn't want to fish pike, he was more interested in the art of dry fly fishing. So he wanted to become a fly fisherman, my father was always a perfectionist. He went into Hells [a famous Dublin fishing tackle shop, now gone] and came back with a number of good rods on appro."

The memory of it amuses de Buitlear, who says his fascination with fish soon overtook his interest in fishing. When he speaks of the mayfly it is more in terms of its beauty than its effectiveness as bait. "But I remember my father teaching me to fish. I was about five. I caught a sea trout. It must have been about a pound weight. I was so frightened I ran off along the river bank, with the fish following me - I'd been so scared I'd forgotten to drop the rod."

His father does not emerge as a natural angler, his mother, an extremely practical woman, did however catch a fish in a towel as it leapt from the weir. De Buitlear refers to the late Ned Maguire, whom he met as a boy "I must have known him for more than 50 years" - as the personification of a great fisherman.

At Blackrock College, he was good at Irish and English - "I had no English when I went to school" - and although looking more like a scrum half, he played hooker on the senior cup team reserves.

When he left school he began working at Garnett & Keegans of Parliament Street another of Dublin's legendary fishing tackle shops. The shop was then managed by J. R. Harris, author of The Fly Fisher's Entomology. The art of making flies was carried out on the premises by 10 full time fly tyers; one woman could tie 12 dozen in a day. Garnett & Keegans ads well as Helys, where he later worked - my last pensionable job" - were both more than tackle suppliers. According to de Buitlear they both provided support systems for anglers during the off seasons. "The men would come knowing they could find like minded people to chat with."

Working in Helys introduced de Buitlear to Sean O Riada, who would become a mentor, though O Riada was hardly a committed sportsman. A more regular customer was Fachtna O hAnrahain, former controller of programmes in Raidio Eireann and at that time head of music. Aware of de Buitlear's interest in traditional music, he invited him to present a series of programmes based on old 78 traditional recordings. "I think I only had about two 78s at that time."

Never one to be defeated by a shortage of funds, he built up the required collection of records. Ridiri na Cheoil became a reality, and later part of the history of RTE's music archive. From there he moved on to Ireland's first musical cartoon for children which started Luidin Mac Lu. It all served as a prologue of sorts for his career with O Riada. About the same time, the early 1960s, he was also beginning to do what he refers to as "brief spots on wildlife themes".

EVEN should you not be quite sure of the directions, it is not difficult finding Eamon de Buitlear's home. A peacock sustaining full display near an entrance dominated by views of a woodland garden, offers a likely clue.

Despite the rain, the arrogant peacock continues his courtship ritual while the drab peahen stalks about, irritated by weather, her partner's preening vanity or perhaps the predictability of the mating performance. The 19th century, lodge style house appears to sit in a hollow and is currently surrounded by bluebells. Lailli de Buitlear, a mother of five and a Connemara woman, is a serious gardener who has created a woodland effect, planting a colourful array of flowers throughout the lawns, trees, bushes and stepped levels.

Closer to the house she has worked extensively with containers and pots which look dramatic while also supplying the materials for her floral arrangements. Mean while, the sun has returned. The peacock acts as if the garden is his personal kingdom. With his magnificent plumage, which almost compensates for the shrillness of his cry, he looks like a monarch. In the intervals between displays, he flies to the kitchen roof and allows his tail feathers to, hang down. The drips fall from the drying feathers. Sammy, the golden retriever, observes the peacock's antics with a benevolence bordering on pity.

All forms of plant life thrive inside the de Buitlear home - as rigorous and as well tended as their outdoor counterparts. Photographs and drawings of birds and wildlife share the wall space with the paintings of Charles Lamb (1893-1964), Lailli's father. A handsome, octavo edition of Audubon's masterwork, The Birds Of America is on a coffee table. It is a recent arrival. Elsewhere the books are as expected classic reference texts as well as R. L. Praeger, Frank Mitchell, David Attenborough, Tim Robinson. Art and archaeology also feature, as does The Field Day Anthology Of Irish Writing.

He goes off to fetch one of his most precious books, Lydekker's The Dee, Of All Lands (1898). De Buitlear's book, Ireland's Wild Countryside (1995), a variation of the Praeger and Mitchell classics, examines the land thematically; river and wetland, bog and fen, woodland and scrub, grassland and rock, mountain and moor.

The presence of the current issue of BBC Wildlife introduces the subject of the red squirrel. Under threat throughout Britain due to the more dominant American grey squirrel, de Buitlear says the red variety enjoys a far happier situation here. Co Fermanagh has a particularly healthy red squirrel population.

On the floor under a window, five or six ostrich eggs are arranged nestlike in a large basket. The house is full of fascinating objects; antique costume dolls reside side by side with plaster and stone models of birds.

Having just completed a film about otters due to be screened next winter, de Buitlear speaks about the grace of the animal in the water compared with its relative clumsiness on land. "They're very playful, watching a family great survivors who live on the edge." Two other films are also at the editing stage, one on salmon and the other centring on Dublin Bay which features the roseate tern, the rarest of the five tern species breeding in Ireland. The colony at Rockabill off the Dublin coast is the largest in Europe.

The house which the de Buitlears moved into eight years ago has an air of comfort and learning; the learning horn of curiosity, not academic ambition. "I like the atmosphere of this house," says de, Buitlear. He and his wife converse mainly in Irish. Suburban life, however, is creeping ever nearer. A dead badger lies on the motorway verge. The chief threat to de Buitlear's haven is the sound of traffic.

In partnership with the Dutch wildlife artist Gerrit Van Gelderen, a master of the live drawing technique, de Buitlear worked on the pioneering series Amuigh Faoin Speir. It was broadcast bilingually. Money was limited, virtually all of the early programmes were shot entirely in studio and de Buitlear recalls the day they needed a swan: "Gerrit went out and borrowed one from the Liffey." They worked together for about 10 years. Since those early days, de Buitlear has made many films and has often worked with the BBC Natural History unit.

His interest in wildlife has always been matched by his love of music. De Buitlear played button accordion with O Riada's revolutionary Ceoltoiri Chualainn which he cofounded in 1961. After it broke up, he cofounded Ceoltoiri Laig, he, an with John Kelly. Central to de Buitlear's music career was his friendship with O Riada. De Buitlear shares, the view that he was the outstanding artistic figure in the Ireland of the 1960s and refers to O Riada's inspired fusing of the native and the international, as well as his revision of the concept of group playing.

"Don't forget, before O Riada, the uillean pipes just were not heard. He was so terribly exciting: full of ideas, humour and originality. He always had something new to give us."

O Riada died in 1971, yet de Buitlear still speaks of him with a regard approaching awe. He was wonderful company, very unusual. Yes, he was the single most important musical influence on me." O Riada was interested in wildlife although his knowledge of it remained limited. "He loved images of red deer crashing through undergrowth, it was more the romance of it I suppose.

He remembers asking him if they could expect the mass popularity the Beatles were then enjoying. "He said `no, not at all, just a steady dedicated following'. Other groups, he said, would grow out of what we were doing." O Riada, says de Buitlear, looked on O'Carolan's music "as if it were the music of the nobility". He was also responsible for the resurrection of O'Carolan's music. "When we were working in the music for an Abbey production of one of Bryan MacMahon's plays, [The Song Of The Anvil retitled, The Golden Folk] I remember MacMahon saying: `O'Carolan's soul was wandering aimlessly around Ireland's countryside for centuries until it took up its abode in Sean O Riada's soul.' It's a good quote, isn't it?"

De Buitlear believes there is an urgent needs for various interests - agriculture, forestry and fisheries - to work far more closely together. "We also need a proper national plan in relation to land use and water use." According to de Buitlear, Coillte, the national forestry board, appears to be entirely driven by profit and should pay more attention to the choice of tree species and ground preparation. "It should in fact," he says, "review its entire approach to forestry in Ireland".

Also in need of revision, says de Buitlear, is the 1976 Wildlife Act. "It has been far too complicated from the very beginning. Legislation in general does not deal with wildlife but rather human conduct." As for interpretative centres in general, he is wary about the choice. "I have no objection if they are cited in the correct location. So I think that the Minister is making a dreadful mistake in the Burren by applying for planning permission for a smaller building, after the initial plan had been rejected."

As a senator appointed to the House in 1987, along with playwright Brian Friel and archaeologist George Eogan by the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, de Buitlear attacked the reintroduction of otter hunting, while supporting the Blasket Island Bill. He spoke mainly in relation to conservation.

Did he like being in the Seanad? "It was exciting, and at the time, you think you can make a noise and get things done. But like so many things, you never really seem to be able to do as much as you'd hoped."

Although he has campaigned on many issues and has a particular interest in restoration ecology, he does not appear to like being described as a campaigner.

"I don't really like that word `environmentalist', but I am concerned about this failure to realise what we are not valuing. We aren't realising what we stand to lose - in terms of language, music, culture the countryside - we really should keep a clean countryside. All of this, our language, our culture, countryside - it's all intertwined. It's us, it's what we are. If we don't look after it, who will?"