Clare Island revisited

The Clare Island Survey of 1909-11 was the first biological survey of a specific area in the world

The Clare Island Survey of 1909-11 was the first biological survey of a specific area in the world. Now the researchers are returning there, reports Eileen Battersby

Years ahead of its time and the outcome of scholarly passion and curiosity, the Clare Island Survey remains the most ambitious natural history project embarked on in Ireland. It was also the first major biological survey of a specific area undertaken anywhere in the world. Yet it all began with commendably selfless Edwardian understatement. Its presiding genius, Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865-1953), an engineer by training and botanist by desire, led a remarkable team of scientists, gifted amateur naturalists and professional researchers between the years 1909 and 1911 on what was to become a unique multidisciplinary study.

Its findings, published by the Royal Irish Academy at a cost of £1,000 in April 1915, almost exactly one year to the day before the Easter Rising, was not only a tribute to Praeger's vision and organisational skills, it was the culmination of what was the golden age of Irish natural history studies.

Since then, it has inspired subsequent generations of Irish scholars in a variety of disciplines from geology, to archaeology, botany, social history and the study of place names.

Now, almost a century later, the specialists of today, including archaeologists, art historians and wall-painting conservators, have returned to the study of Clare Island, again under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy, and this time with the benefits of modern technology. To date, some 26 individual studies on a range of subjects have been completed. The intention is not so much to challenge the existing scholarship as to monitor a century of environmental and cultural change as well as make new discoveries.

Next Saturday, Volume 2 of the New Survey of Clare Island: Geology, published by the RIA, will be launched by Mary Robinson in Westport, Co Mayo. The opening volume, History and Cultural Landscape, including period photographs, many dating from the time of the first survey, is already available. Included in it is the background to the survey, an examination of island folk life, an essay on the impact from 1895 of the Congested Districts Board and a brilliant analysis of place names. The new survey series will continue with further instalments on archaeology, botany and zoology.

Today, many visitors travel to the west Mayo island by one or other of the two rival ferries. On the quayside, dogs wander about. On summer days, swimmers dive from the pier, while tourists take photographs, residents discuss a football match. It is still possible to get some sense of daily life as lived by the community on the island. Well before Praeger's time, a hotel had been established. Clare Island is developing but is not overly commercialised.

Overlooking the harbour, stands a three-storey castle with side passages on the third floor. Believed by many to have been built by the notorious pirate queen, Grace O'Malley, the castle was altered during the 19th century but is now derelict, although the ruins seem secure enough to withstand any gale.

Covering an area of 1,600 hectares (a little more than six square miles), the almost entirely cliff-bordered island lies some three miles from the mainland, across the entrance of Clew Bay. Most of the cultivated land is found towards its eastern end. The western side of the island is bare, subject to high winds and dominated by the high ridge of Croaghmore Mountain. The scenery is spectacular and the history dense. Most interestingly of all, the island's fascinating geological history has, in the course of 500 million years, helped to create a diverse topography. The island displays five major rock groupings and numerous minor intrusions. Clare Island also bears the marks of thousands of years of human occupation. For Praeger, editing the 67 reports would occupy six years of his spare time. The three volumes are both his achievement and his legacy.

During three years of active fieldwork-based research he would make many trips, often in poor conditions. In The Way That I Went (1937), his unique personal travelogue of a lifetime's odyssey around Ireland, Praeger recalled how he became acquainted with the island:

"My first experience of it began weirdly. Noting that its botany was curiously unknown, my wife and I crossed over from Roonah Quay in the post-boat on an evening in July, 1903. It was dead calm, with an oily roll coming in from the west. All the hills around were smothered in a white mist, which over the island formed an enormous arch, solid enough seemingly to walk on, and descending to sea-level . . . Late in the day the rain ceased, and a strange red glow, coming from the north-west, spread through the thinning fog. We hurried out to the north point of the island, and there, just sinking into the ocean, was a blood-red sun, lighting up dense inky clouds which brooded low over the black jagged teeth of Achill Head, rising from a black sea tinged with crimson. It was a scene fitted for Dante's Inferno, and if a flight of demons or of angels had passed across in that strange atmosphere it would have seemed quite appropriate, and no cause for wonder."

Praeger, born in the same year as Yeats, was a practical, energetic man who would remain true, throughout his long life, to a Victorian ethic of exploration. The survey developed out of an earlier project, a study of Lambay Island in Co Dublin. Having purchased the island in 1906, Cecil Baring (later the third Baron Ravenstock) arrived at the National Library, as Praeger recalled, "seeking information concerning his new possession". Sir Edward Lutyens supervised the remodelling of the existing 15th-century castle. Baring was keen to learn about the antiquities and, particularly, the native flora and fauna of the island as his own natural history experiments, largely based upon introducing new species, had failed because the newcomers did not survive. This made him more interested in the existing native stock.

Praeger thought a detailed survey of Lambay would yield valuable scientific information. His vision had been shaped early in life by the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club outings he had begun attending while still a boy. When he moved to Dublin from Belfast in 1893 to take up the post of assistant librarian at the National Library, he joined the Dublin Naturalists' Field Club. That same year he was active in a Royal Irish Academy committee reporting on the flora and fauna of Ireland.

Looking at his life, it becomes easier to understand how Praeger invariably took charge. For him, Lambay presented a treasure trove. A small team of 20 specialists undertook a series of solo and group field trips between 1905 and 1906. The findings, published in two parts in the Irish Naturalist, were exciting, adding some 90 additional species to Irish flora and fauna. The success of this Natural History of Lambay, County Dublin showed the value of such intensive investigation. A meeting of Irish naturalists, convened by Praeger, was held at the National Museum on April 13th, 1908.

It was quickly agreed that a similar survey on a larger scale would be carried out on one of the islands off the west coast. Despite strong support for the Blaskets following an earlier marine survey of Valencia, Clare Island was the choice. Several factors influenced the decision, including accessibility, size, geographical position, diverse topography and the hotel.

FROM the outset, Praeger's inherent practicality underpinned the project. Finding himself in the role of committee secretary it was he who organised the various expeditions. "For three consecutive years" he records in The Way That I Went, "six or eight parties went out in spring or summer or autumn, and indeed there was no month of the 12 in which one of our collectors might not have been found investigating seaweeds or earth-worms or mosses." His pleasure in the survey,expressed so many years ago, still adds to the excitement ofreading such findings as that of the 3,219 plants collected, 585 were new to Ireland, 55 new to "the British Isles" and 11 new to science. A rich biodiversity emerged, although disappointingly no Darwinian species variation was detected.

As Praeger and others would readily endorse, the flora and fauna is a huge part of the story. But as those early naturalists and the late Frank Mitchell were aware, geology provides a defining narrative. The New Survey devotes a complete volume to it. Arranged in seven chapters, it is a well-illustrated specialist text that is also accessible.

John Graham draws the reader in immediately with his opening statement that "Clare Island and Clew Bay form a critical link between European and North American geology", adding that prior to the Mesozoic and Tertiary opening of the Atlantic, this area would have lain adjacent to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland as part of the major linear Appalachian/Caledonian Fold Belt extending from northern Norway and Greenland through to the south-eastern US.

The 18th-century traveller, the Rev Richard Pococke, once mused of this bank that "it is supposed that it is part of that bank that extends to Newfoundland". The essays offer a chronological reading of the movement of faultlines running through the island. It is a handsome volume culminating in a cohesive article on the island's quaternary history.

Other scholars have also been busy. In 1990 an intense conservation programme was begun to preserve as well as examine the dazzling series of medieval wall paintings in the island's small abbey. Cistercians from Knockmoy, Co Galway are believed to have established a cell on the island in about 1220. The existing nave and chancel church divided by an arch appears to date from 1500. Its modest exterior does not hint at the rather complicated interior with its fine barrel vault and a staircase leading to the domestic room above.

Even more unexpected are the glorious wall paintings or frescoes, some of which antiquarian Thomas Westropp had uncovered during the original Clare Island survey work. Almost a century after him, the conservators have found many more beneath layers of plaster. Some are only outlines. But the range of style and symbol, far more secular than religious, is astonishing. Wolves attack stags, there are harp and lyre players, wrestlers and cattle raiders, griffins, dragons and hares. Most spectacular of all is a medieval knight in chain mail, spear aloft, on horseback.

Beneath the splendours of the paintings is a canopy tomb believed to be the burial place of Grace O'Malley. Also remaining is a stone wall plaque of the O'Malley coat of arms, proclaiming 'Terra Marique Potens' ('powerful by land and sea'). Archaeological evidence supported by the discovery of a Megalithic tomb suggests a Neolithic farming community may have lived on the island by the middle of the third millennium BC. The most numerous prehistoric monuments are the fulachta fiadh, or horseshoe-shaped mounds of burnt stone. By 1994, archaeologist Paul Gosling confirmed the existence of 49 such monuments with another probable four mounds. However, his colleague Christiaan Corlett, in Antiquities of West Mayo (Wordwell, 2001) puts the number far higher, at 150. The archaeological volume of the New Survey may offer further discoveries. Either way, beneath the bog covering the slopes of Knockmore at the edge of cliffs on the island lie ancient, long-collapsed stone field walls built thousands of years ago by farmers who once lived here. Science and scholarship have found many answers yet can still only guess at the ghosts inhabiting Clare Island.

New Survey of Clare Island, Volume 2: Geology is published by the Royal Irish Academy, priced €30