Christopher Moriarty obituary: Biologist with a rare ability to see nature in a human context

Moriarty was an eel expert and a prolific author on all aspects of Ireland’s natural world

Born March 14th, 1936

Died 13th January, 2024

Christopher Moriarty dedicated his distinguished career as a biologist to developing innovative strategies to expand the Irish eel fisheries industry, on which he was a scientific adviser to governments for 40 years.

Although he was eventually frustrated in that ambition by political and social factors beyond his control, he will always be remembered as a prolific author of popular books and articles on many aspects of nature in Ireland, when such books were few and far between.

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Moriarty had the rare binocular vision to see nature in a human context, and humans in a natural context, so that his best books flow seamlessly from vivid observations of wild species and landscapes to appreciation of the cultures that we have created over millenniums, especially architecture. He spoke to this newspaper in 2019 about his last book, The River Liffey: History and Heritage. This is a magisterial but delightfully readable celebration of Anna Livia from source to sea. Standing on Dublin’s South Wall, he turned full circle, his tall angular body embracing all the diverse landscapes in view.

“Look,” he said, “out there towards the sea and the mountain horizons, everything is ancient, calm, natural ... and back up the river, everything is industrial, it’s all human busyness.” He paused. “You know,” he said simply, “I love it all.”

His love of nature was born from parents who encouraged his passion for the outdoors in the still partly rural Rathfarnham where he grew up. And he had several early and skilled teachers and mentors (including Bryan Boydell and JP Brunkner). His organisational and communication skills were evident even as a student, when he expanded the natural history society membership of St Columba’s College to 40 members.

With a zoology degree from Trinity College Dublin, he joined the civil service in 1959, and rapidly became the national expert on eels.

The minister responsible for fisheries, Erskine Childers, wanted to grow the eel industry in the State to rival the very successful operations pioneered at Lough Neagh.

Moriarty proposed a number of technical and biological innovations that had been successful elsewhere. Despite his best efforts, management plans never matched his energy and initiative. Meanwhile, eel stocks here declined sharply from the 1980s, and EU conservation regulations to restore populations effectively (and controversially) abolished the industry in the Republic in this century.

Nevertheless, he remained the go-to expert on eels at home and, increasingly, abroad, regularly publishing highly regarded scientific papers. Russell Poole of the Marine Institute sums up his international status: “He was hugely influential in the European Inland Fisheries and Aquaculture Advisory Commission of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. He was the commission’s national correspondent for 40 years and chaired the Working Group on Eels for about 10 years.”

He was also one of the first Agency for Personal Services Overseas (APSO) volunteers, taking two years’ leave to help set up a successful course in fisheries management for the Ibadan University of Nigeria in the mid-1970s, bringing his wife, Sue Goldie, and their two young sons with him. Despite this highly active professional life, he somehow found time for voluntary commitments and to publish a wide range of popular articles and books. He was a very active member of the Society of Friends, whose gentle, undogmatic and generous ethos appealed to his warm and social personality.

He was a key figure in the Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club, of which he was president in the 1970s. His colleague Peter Wyse-Jackson links his work with this influential club to his growing output of nature literature, from an Irish bird guide to a natural history of Ireland (now collectors’ items) to On Dublin’s Doorstep: Exploring the Province of Leinster (2003), a collection of his eponymous columns in The Irish Times, and a very popular book on the Dodder: “His broad knowledge of natural history helped him to build awareness and concern for nature in its place, which encouraged many to get out and explore,” says Wyse-Jackson.

Another veteran of this field club, Declan Doogue, says: “Chris wore his scholarship lightly, bringing his vast professional skills, historical perspectives, clarity and natural graciousness to launch and support a generation of enthusiastic younger naturalists emerging from the 1960s.” Following the death of Sue in 2012, and with his sons living abroad, he became part of long-time friend Mary Pyle’s family, spending his last 10 years between her house in Palmerston and his apartment in Woodtown Park.

He left an almost-completed manuscript on the human and natural history of Woodtown Park, once the property of Eoin MacNeill, which his family hopes will be finished and published posthumously.

He is survived by his partner, Mary Pyle; sons, Patrick and Ruairi; sister Marion, and his grandchildren, Oisín, Saoirse, Axel and Olivia