John J Moore SJ – A pioneering and inspirational botanist and environmentalist

An Appreciation

The mortal remains of John J Moore were laid to rest after Requiem Mass in Kasisi, Kenya, on September 24th.

His truly extraordinary life began in Kilmovee, Co Mayo, on April 22nd, 1927, as the eldest of four children born to Marion (née McGrath) and Charles Moore. John was schooled locally and later, after the family moved to Dublin, he attended Belvedere College. In 1945, after secondary school, he entered the Jesuit novitiate, at that time in Emo, Co Laois.

His Jesuit training took him to Germany, and there he acquired a knowledge and love of the German language that stood him in good stead in his subsequent scientific career.

Botanical research carried out while still in Jesuit training resulted in being offered a lectureship in botany in UCD, which he assumed in 1960 after ordination to the priesthood. In UCD, he quickly made his name as an inspiring lecturer and committed environmentalist. Later on, he contributed courses to agricultural science students and engineers in UCD, and thus helped push environmental issues to the forefront at a time when this was not yet fashionable.

He was a leading researcher in his chosen field, the study of plant communities and especially the bogs of Ireland. He and David Bellamy, the English botanist and bog expert, were firm friends and held each other in the highest regard. His specialist field was phytosociology, namely how plants interact with each other and their environment. He regularly participated in international meetings in Germany organised by his botanist friend, Prof Reinhold Tüxen.

He was among the first to see the advantages of numerical methods in studying vegetation and especially the value of computers for handling large datasets. He mastered the Fortran programming language and wrote programs that were widely used in both Irish universities and government agencies. He was awarded a DSc degree by the National University of Ireland and was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy. In 1982 he was awarded the Europa-Preis für Landespflege. The accompanying citation emphasised his pioneering research on phytosociology and his major contribution to peatland conservation in Ireland. He donated the prize money to that cause.

He was appointed professor of botany in UCD in 1973 and continued in this demanding position until 1983 when he embarked on yet another career that took him to Africa. In 1981, while still at UCD, he undertook the role of external examiner in biology at the University of Zambia (UNZA). This part-time position lit a spark and led to him formally requesting his Jesuit superiors to work full-time in Lusaka. Permission was granted but with the proviso that he continue to work in third-level education and so he was appointed professor of biology at UNZA, a position he held for six years.

At the end of this and now in his mid-sixties, he volunteered to work in the major seminary in Zomba, Malawi. Here, over a 12-year period, he contributed to the training of future priests and indeed bishops of Malawi. After that, he volunteered to help with training young Jesuits at Arrupe College, Harare, Zimbabwe. When Arrupe heard of the new appointee, the initial response was along the lines of “We are not a geriatric institution”! The Jesuit superiors, however, insisted that John was the right man, even if he was 76!

Arrupe soon discovered that their newest staff member had expertise in areas as diverse as the Gospels, Old Testament prophets and the philosophy of science, and, furthermore, was a dab-hand at sorting out problems in the recently set-up computer network.

At 82, he returned to Zambia where he was assigned to the Jesuit novitiate, Xavier House. There, he continued to contribute in various ways, including giving introductory courses on the New Testament.

These courses provided him with the new challenge of interpreting old and familiar texts in a manner that made them relevant to the modern world.

There can be no doubt but that his busy life spent in study and reflection and, latterly, the example of his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis, and their shared concern for people and the environment, stood him in good stead right to the end.

His was a long and fruitful life devoted, above all else, to the service of others.