The life of Madam Dragonfly

Cynthia Longfield, a member of a Cork Anglo-Irish family, found rare insects - and romance - on a daring expedition to the South…

Cynthia Longfield, a member of a Cork Anglo-Irish family, found rare insects - and romance - on a daring expedition to the South Pacific, writes Claire O'Connell

You are off on a cruise around South Pacific islands. What do you pack in your suitcase - blank diaries, notes on local wildlife, a bottle for catching creepy-crawlies? Well yes, if it's 1924 and you are intrepid naturalist Cynthia Longfield, about to set off to gather exotic species in the tropics. The adventure would see her earn her stripes as a serious scientist and lead her to the true love of her life.

Longfield, who was born in London in 1896 into an Anglo-Irish heritage, had started to learn about wildlife by nature-watching in the countryside of east Cork, where she spent much of her childhood at the family's estate in Cloyne. Her mother indulged young Cynthia's interest in science, as only the privileged class could afford, by providing her with books and organising overseas trips to observe wildlife abroad.

So when Longfield became bored of the social scene in London in the 1920s and the frantic competition to marry the few young men who had survived the first World War, she jumped at the prospect of adventure aboard the St George research vessel, which was heading out on an expedition to research South Pacific wildlife.

Here was a chance to escape the stiflingly dull drawing-room set and instead follow in the footsteps of her hero, Charles Darwin, whose theories about evolution had fascinated her since childhood. It was the perfect opportunity both to add to Darwin's work and to develop her own passion for entomology, the study of insects.

Longfield's diaries and photo albums from the St George trip are currently on display in a small but richly endowed exhibition at the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) in Dublin. Her meticulously kept records of sailing, island excursions, and social events reflect Longfield's powers of organisation, says Siobhán Fitzpatrick, librarian at the RIA. "That was part of the discipline of being involved in studying insects, but she carried that through in the way she organised her papers and photographs," she says.

In wonderfully neat script, Longfield describes how the St George and the 57 people on board received a rousing send-off as the steam yacht eased out from Dartmouth, splendidly decked out and buoyed up by high spirits.

The sailing soon became less plain in the Bay of Biscay, where storms tested even the most sea-hardy. But the pitches and rolls failed to put a dent in Longfield's enthusiasm. Even her handwriting remained determinedly steady.

Three weeks later the St George landed in Trinidad and then crossed Panama on course for several South Pacific islands, including the Galapagos Islands, Easter Island and Tahiti, in search of exotic and new wildlife species.

A newspaper clipping from the time reported another, more swashbuckling mission. A century earlier, mutineers aboard a different ship, the Mary Read, were said to have pirated treasure worth £7million and buried it on the Cocos Islands. The St George expedition was to follow a new lead on its whereabouts.

They didn't find the buried fortune, but their tour of exotic and sometimes little-known islands did throw up a rich bounty of insects and other wildlife. The goal was to collect and catalogue specimens, so the young Longfield and her mentor, entomologist Cyril Collenette, together hacked vigorously with machetes through jungle undergrowth to track down and capture beetles, butterflies and moths for the natural history museum in London.

It was a physically demanding and sometimes treacherous task that put them in the path of dangerous beasts. Of their hunting on the small island of Gorgona off the Colombian coast, Longfield wrote that Collenette, going first, had spotted a boa constrictor through the undergrowth. "'Where, where?' cried I, peering over his shoulder, and there, two yards away, curled up in the grass, was a 9ft snake, as big and round as a man's leg, three times coiled," she wrote, going on to describe his vividly coloured markings.

"Leaving him undisturbed, we continued on our way, much thrilled with our experiences." Longfield was from a hardy generation, says her grand-niece Jane Hayter-Hames, who wrote Longfield's biography, Madam Dragonfly. "Her medicine chest contained quinine in case she got malaria and Epsom salts to act as a purge in case she got a digestive infection, and that was it," she says.

So when a hornet stung Longfield there was nothing for it but to wait stoically for the pain to subside.

There was a more social side to the expedition too, and Longfield's photo albums record events such as dancing and hunting for sawfish with local peoples. But the serious business was collecting, which Longfield and Collenette did with gusto, exploring the shore and sorting their collection together when back on the boat.

Still, they didn't just have their eyes on the creepy crawlies. The mentor and student grew close on the journey, and they were photographed sitting high up in the ship's riggings, laughing and clearly happy together. "Their relationship blossomed on the St George trip," says Hayter-Hames. "Imagine all those nights on a sailing yacht or being on islands late at night waiting to catch your moths. They grew very fond of each other."

Even though they were in love and continued to spend time with each other after the St George days, Longfield scuppered any notions Collenette had of marrying her. On the face of it she refused because Collenette had already fathered a child with a woman in Malaysia, but it was probably also because they were from different backgrounds. Nevertheless, they remained firm and lifelong friends.

Meanwhile, Longfield returned to London in 1925 and set about sorting the St George specimens at the museum, where she was based for the rest of her working life. "The trip was a terrific success as far as her career was concerned," says Hayter-Hames. "She went out as a keen amateur and by the time she came back she considered herself a fully trained entomologist." After the St George, Longfield continued to head off on expeditions around the world, including venturing alone through remote Africa for six months in search of insects.

This was a woman who meant business, and her personal blend of curiosity, charm and unwavering authority won her passage to normally inhospitable terrains.

The self-taught biologist, who never had a formal university education, went on to become a world authority on dragonflies of Europe and Africa, and in 1937 published The Dragonflies of the British Isles, which became the main reference text in the field. When she retired in 1957 she returned to Cloyne, which she considered home, and was based there until she died in 1991.

"She was very charming and she loved parties, she would be the last person to leave," recalls Hayer-Hames. "She would have a crowd around her and she would tell them stories about when she was in Africa. There would be young men there listening with their mouths open."

In 1979 Longfield donated her written records as well as the Longfield-Roberts collection of more than 500 natural history books and offprints to the Royal Irish Academy. These include rare texts on insects illustrated with line drawings in startlingly vivid hues.

She also gave three cabinets' worth of her own dragonfly and damselfly specimens to Dublin's Natural History Museum for use in research. In addition to captures from her adventures, the valuable collection of insects also contains dragonflies from Ireland, including a species that Longfield herself discovered, says Dr Jim O'Connor, entomologist with the Natural History Museum. He corresponded with her about the collection.

"She came across as a most charming and wonderful person, and her books encouraged people to become interested in the area," he says. "She was extraordinarily brave to go off collecting insects by herself."

The Longfield exhibition runs until mid-September from 10am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, Dawson Street, Dublin. See