Ireland’s natural history

June 25, 2008

In recent years scholars have questioned ‘natural histories’ produced under the auspices of the Royal Society, noting their commercial use and bias. Research of this kind has often centred on the Society’s involvement with venturing companies like the East India Company. Yet we mustn’t forget that Ireland was also subjected to this kind of documentation.

In 1652 Samuel Hartlib assisted the publication of a tract written by Gerard Boate, the full title of which was:

Irelands naturall history being a true and ample description of its situation, greatness, shape, and nature, of its hills, woods, heaths, bogs, of its fruitfull parts, and profitable grounds : with the severall ways of manuring and improving the same : with its heads or promontories, harbours, roads, and bays, of its springs, and fountains, brooks, rivers, loghs, of its metalls, mineralls, free-stone, marble, sea-coal, turf, and other things that are taken out of the ground : and lastly of the nature and temperature of its air and season, and what diseases it is free from or subject unto : conducing to the advancement of navigation, husbandry, and other profitable arts and professions / written by Gerald Boate ; and now published by Samuell Hartlib for the common good of Ireland and more especially for the benefit of the adventurers and planters therein.

Boate (de Boote) was the son of Arnold Boate, who had a superior knowledge of the territory and so helped compose this tract (they also used the stories of Irish Protestant refugees living in London). The pair were Dutch physicians, educated at Leiden. They had intended to produce a second part to accompany this first, dealing with flora and fauna. Gerard had actually died by 1652, but Hartlib had obtained the manuscript from Arnold and published it with a dedicatory preface to Cromwell and Fleetwood, who were then commanding Ireland. A full reading of the pamphlet will quickly reveal its political agenda in terms of the aftermath of the 1641 uprising in Ireland and Cromwell’s presence there. For now though I will just offer a short excerpt, entitled ‘Of the property of Lough-Neaugh, of turning Wood into Stone.’ Both the Dublin Philosophical Society and the RS were interested in the petrifying qualities of the lough, and exchanged letters on this topic later in 1684, when William Molyneux questioned whether is was only Holly wood that petrified, and whether the petrifying quality lay in the soil or the water. The attribution of petrifying qualities to the lake helped to mythologise the richness of the Irish landscape. Miraculous medicinal properties were also attributed to it.

Before we make an end of this Chapter, we must say something of the wonderful property which generally is ascribed to Lough-Neaugh, of turning Wood into Stone; whereunto some do adde, to double the wonder, that the Wood is turned not only into Stone, but into Iron; and that a branch or pole being stuck into the ground somewhere by the side, where it is not too deep, after a certain space of time one shall find that peece of the stick which stuck in the ground, turned into Iron, and the middle, as far as it was in the water, into Stone; the upper-end, which remained above the water, keeping its former nature.

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