An observer of the natural world

 

Robert Lloyd Praeger - The Life of a Naturalist by Sean Lysaght Four Courts Press 204pp, £25

Last year saw the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Robert Lloyd Praeger's classic autobiographical naturalist travelogue, The Way that I Went. An engineer by training, Praeger was by inclination a lover of botany; it was nature which most excited his scientific curiosity and his imagination. In ways his career marks a beginning of the study of Irish natural history - it was Praeger who led the way for others, including the remarkable Frank Mitchell. Yet Praeger was also a man of his class and his time. The Dissenter tradition to which he belonged on his mother's side had long considered an understanding of antiquities and natural history as a necessity, not an indulgence.

In recent years Irish natural history studies underwent what seemed an exciting revival, which was in fact more a belated acknowledgment of an enduring and important 19th-century pursuit. While scientific methodology has developed, there are those who have preserved its more literary aspects, shaping a distinct literature in the process. Sean Lysaght's poised, academic account of Praeger's life and career, complete with fine photographs, is the first full-length study of a man who was utterly original and yet surprisingly uneccentric, and whose contribution to Irish natural history, most of which was based on research carried out in his spare time, was immense. Born in 1865, a couple of months after W.B. Yeats, Praeger, in common with the poet, and despite his long life, was to remain a product of the Victorian world. He personified the naturalist. His energy was central to his personality and his career and often lured him into potentially dangerous adventures.

Compared with most biographies, this one is somewhat remote, in tone at least. There are few anecdotes: Praeger was a private, naturally gruff man, whose gruffness increased with deafness. He wrote few letters, and his writings, even at their most autobiographical, are concerned chiefly with his work. Lysaght makes no claims to be addressing the personal, describing his book as an "intellectual biography of the career". If this sounds pretentious, the book is not; it is a valuable, highly disciplined and meticulously footnoted account of Praeger's work, intended as a contribution to Irish cultural studies.

Robert Lloyd "Robin" Prae ger's early life was comfortable; he was the second son of six children born to Willem and Maria Praeger. His father was Dutch and had come to Belfast about 1860 to work for a linen manufacturing company. His mother, Maria Patterson, was the daughter of a Belfast business family with contacts in the linen trade. The young Praeger did well in a family in which education and culture were not only respected but enjoyed. Lysaght maintains that the boy's "formal education seems to have had less of a bearing on his later accomplishments than the encouragement and example he received from his relatives on his mother's side and the exploration of the district around Holywood which he undertook with his brothers". In later years Praeger was to recall of his childhood that "we were great explorers in those earliest days, my brothers and I".

As a student at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Prae ger would discover, as Lysaght reports, that "Natural history and the earth sciences did not have a high profile on the curriculum, being mainly represented in the geography textbooks of Thomas McKenny Hughes". Various summer holidays spent exploring the fabulous Antrim coast, followed by a visit to Cumbria at the age of fourteen, made him a naturalist. Soon after enrolling at Queen's University in 1883 to study arts and engineering, Praeger joined the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club. He was to remain an active member until 1893, when he moved to Dublin. In 1887, then a recently qualified engineer, Praeger was involved in the construction of the Victoria Dock. The work involved excavations which excited Praeger as they "furnished the most complete sections of the local estuarine clay series . . ." In his first paper on these findings, Lysaght records, Praeger listed 186 species and varieties of molluscs, foraminifera and other remains in the clays, and provided detailed drawings of the clay, sand and peat deposits. Within two years, he had produced a further list of 291 marine shells. Having applied unsuccessfully for the post of Zoological Assistant at the National Botanical Gardens. Praeger the reluctant engineer secured a position in 1893 at the National Library, the year after being admitted as a member of the Royal Irish Academy. He would remain there for thirty years, during which time he completed his first major work, Irish Topographical Botany (1901), and also worked on the Clare Island Survey.

Far from being a disadvantage, Lysaght's neutral prose proves highly effective in telling Praeger's story, for his work was his life. There seem to have been few personal traumas along the way. Lysaght barely mentions Praeger's wife Hedwig, and their Rathgar garden of some 2,000 plant species. It would have been interesting to have had something more about his sister, the artist and children's writer, Sophia Rosamond.

Lysaght correctly acknowledges the Clare Island Survey as the "culmination of the amateur movement in field studies" and as "a masterpiece, not of professional science but of amateur natural history". In addition to his botanical activities, Praeger was interested in archaeology, and later was a founder of An Taisce. In the company of R.A.S. MacAlister he investigated the Stone Age passage graves at Carrowkeel in Co Sligo. On retiring from the National Library in 1923, he continued travelling and exploring. The Way that I Went, based on a journey reconstructed from a lifetime's travels, enjoyed a huge success. After his wife died in 1952, he left Dublin and returned to the North, where he died in 1953, aged 87.