Another Life: A brief history of Lusitanian flora in Ireland

Michael Viney: ‘The latest theory ... involves possible drinking habits of Spanish Bronze Age copper miners’

Lusitania sounds right for a pantomime kingdom. It was, more tragically, an ocean liner torpedoed off Cork in 1915. As an ancient Roman province in Iberia, however, it has also served as the vague term of origin of a sizeable share of Ireland’s more colourful wildlife.

"Lusitanian" plants, animals and insects have Irish locations, notably in Co Kerry, but have mostly skipped any foothold in Britain and have their nearest native homes in Spain and elsewhere on the Iberian peninsula. "One could fill a book with discussion of the many problems [they have] raised," wrote naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger in the 1930s.

Speculating on how and when they arrived, and from where, has engaged Ireland’s zoologists, naturalists and botanists for more than 150 years. Today’s research, often helped by DNA advances, has spelled out many plausible routes of human introduction, from badgers for fur and meat to tasty, Pyrenean banded snails.

The latest theory is about the beautiful strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, and involves the possible drinking habits of Spanish Bronze Age copper miners.

For all its exotic flowers and scarlet fruits, the strawberry tree has been considered a native plant, largely because archaeological and pollen studies showed its presence in southwest Ireland 4,000 years ago. But research by Micheline Sheehy Skeffington of NUI Galway and plant ecologist Nick Scott has followed up on a recent genetic study that suggested direct introduction from northern Spain.

Strawberry tree pollen

Intensive research into its past and present Irish distribution zeroed in on its abundance on the margins of Lough Leane, the largest of the three lakes of Killarney. It was here that strawberry tree pollen from a core of bog had proved the oldest, perhaps as much as 4,000 years ago. This has now been supported by the discovery of charcoal of the tree “associated with the mining on Ross Island, Lough Leane, dating to circa 4,200 years ago”.

Archaeologists have shown that copper mining began on this rocky island about 2,400 BC in the Chalcolithic age, prior to the Bronze Age. It was the earliest copper mining known in northwest Europe and perhaps part of a cultural movement along its Atlantic fringe, a growing focus of historical research.

The nearest copper mining was in northern Spain, but why would migrant miners arriving at Lough Leane have brought strawberry tree fruit with them? It was not, the new researchers assert, to burn the tree for charcoal. “It could have been brought as a food source, or even because the tree or fruit were important to their mining culture and/or tradition,” notes their paper on British and Irish Botany.

“Perhaps significantly,” they continue, “A. unedo naturally produces alcohol in mature berries, even on the tree, and is commonly used in Mediterranean countries as a source of alcohol. Today it is distilled for brandy, but the initial process is very simple and could have been practiced by early communities; ripe berries, picked directly from the tree, are placed in a pot with a little water, mashed, and left for several months . . . ”

Historic links to alcohol have absorbed Dr Sheehy Skeffington in her previous research into Ireland’s Lusitanian plants.

The Kerry lily, Simethis mattiazzii, with exquisite white flowers, is native to southwest France and north and west Spain. Its “disjunct” Irish colonies are on neighbouring peninsulas on the extreme southwest coasts of Kerry and Cork.

Again, it has been widely seen as native, an historic survivor in some Ice Age refuge. But detailed maps of its Irish populations were lacking until a study in 2009. Most groups of the lily were found on the south coast of Co Kerry around Derrynane Bay and on nearby Abbey Island and many in separate populations next to the sea.

‘Lusitanian heathers’

In a paper for British and Irish Botany, Sheehy Skeffington notes the coastline’s “discrete coves with landing beaches, hidden from offshore view by small islands”. Along the coast at Castlecove and Glanlough, similar narrow coves gave quick access to a small road running inland.

As in her studies of the origin of Ireland’s “Lusitanian” heathers, the plant ecologist links the lilies to the activities of smugglers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the seeds caught up in soft packing around kegs of alcohol and spilled on to shallow soil on ridges above the beach.

The genetic homogeneity of plants from different coves suggests the seeds arrived in “a single cargo, possibly from SW France or N Spain, and off-loaded to a number of hidden locations around Kenmare Bay”.

She even offers a mastermind, implicated by other researchers. “The O’Connell family of Derrynane was renowned for its smuggling activity,” she writes. “There are records of tea and brandy being sent to Derrynane fron Nantes and occasionally from Bordeaux, as well as the odd hogshead of wine for personal consumption. The O’Connells were also known to import smuggled goods from Spain.”

Yes, those same O’Connells at Derrynane House. Sláinte Daniel!

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