DUBLIN BOTANIC AFTERNOON – NATURE AND HISTORY

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 8 mins.)

Garraithe na Lus/ Botanic Gardens is one of the jewels in Dublin, either in the city centre or just beyond, depending on how one calculates it.1 It is free to enter and open all days of the week, though there have been closures and reduced hours during the current Covid19 pandemic. It contains over 5,000 living species and cultivars2 and also accidental fauna, most but not all of which is indigenous and the Tolka, one of the few uncovered rivers of Dublin, flows along its border and through part of it. Walking through the garden is relaxing but one is walking not only through nature but history too.

Text on the official website proclaims truthfully that “the National Botanic Gardens are an oasis of calm and beauty” and goes to state that the whole is “A premier scientific institution … and that “the gardens also contain the National Herbarium and several historic wrought iron glasshouses.” All of the glasshouses are closed currently as an infection protection measure but one that had fallen into disrepair will hopefully be restored to working order and will be available when the rest can be safely reopened.

In defence of its status as a “scientific institution” the website states thatwe do not allow dogs, picnics, bicycles, fishing, ball games, jogging or running, nor the playing of musical instruments or recorded music”, however this prohibition adds considerably to its calmness and the ability for visitors to take in the natural atmosphere, sound, views and smells without being jarred by those other features so common in many public spaces.

The gardens, at 19.5 hectares are not very large and certainly nowhere near the size of those at Kew, London, which are over 132 hectares in size but the smaller acreage of the Dublin site is arguably part of its charm. It is bordered on the west and south by Glasnevin Cemetery (well worth visiting too) and connected by a gate, while the Tolka (an Tulcadh) borders it to the north and cuts off the rose garden, which can be accessed by a short bridge. A road called Glasnevin Hill borders the eastern side of the Gardens and the Tolka runs under a bridge there on its way to the sea.

A bluebell glade (with a white variant) in Dublin’s Botanical Gardens, April 2021 (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Gardens were a project of the Dublin Society (later the Royal Dublin Society), founded in 1731, the Gardens themselves being opened in their current location in 17953 and are now owned and managed by the Office of Public Works, a State body.

WALK LATE APRIL

IRISH YEW AND NORTH AMERICAN SQUIRRELS

At this time of year, some of the trees are in full leaf, some in early stages and some still bare or just in bud. It is a good time to note the shapes of branches, some seemingly fantastic and also the effect of the emerging leaves against them. The clumps of the parasitic mistletoe (Sú darach) can be seen high in the branches of many species in the Gardens and having spread also to some trees in the Cemetery.

Some strange branch shapes seen here surrounded (and contrasted) by early leaf and sky, April 2021 (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Close-up of the contorted shapes, with some of the contrasts lost but more play on shadow. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
The dark clumps are mistletoe, a photo taken in June (2020), when they are less obvious among the leaves of the tree. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

We would not expect the Gardens to be restricted to native species and although there are examples of those present, there are species of plants present from at least six continents, varying from tall trees to low cacti or succulents. But among the native flora there is a surprise for many: the Irish (compact) yew.

Many places in Ireland are named in connection with trees and the yew (Iúir) figures in a number of those, the most prominent perhaps being Iúr Chinn Trá or its more modern name An tIúir (Newry). The heartwood of yew was used to make the English longbow, from which the “cloth yard” (about 37 inches, or 94 cm) arrows played such a decisive role in the defeat of the flower of the French knighthood and cavalry at Agincourt in 1415. Because the yew is slow-growing it was policy in England to plant them in order to ensure a supply and yeomanry were required to practice at weekends. No doubt the English took their toll on the yew in Ireland as they did on other trees such as the oak.

The European Yew typically had a spreading growth but in County Fermanagh in 1767 George Willis, a local farmer, discovered two freak seedling specimens that grew in a tight, compact shape. Of those original two, one is still living4 in the grounds of Florence Court Estate demesne and it estimated that over five million offspring have been propagated from that one tree, typically seen in churchyards, graveyards and parks, not only in Ireland but in many parts of the world.

Four Irish Yew in the Dublin Botanical Gardens early April 2021 (Photo: D.Breatnach)
An Irish Yew specimen at close quarters in Dublin’s Botanic Gardens. Millions of these around the world were propagated from two ‘freak’ types found in Fermanagh, Ireland in 1767. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

From export to the world let’s turn to an import ubiquitous in the Gardens – the grey squirrel (Iora liath). This is an invasive species to Ireland originally from North America and is blamed for helping to greatly reduce our own native species, the red squirrel (Iora rua) which, to my mind, is a much more attractive animal.

Research on Irish wildlife a few years ago showed the red squirrel making a comeback in some areas and that is associated with the slow increase in the presence of the pine marten (I prefer its traditional if inaccurate name “Cat chrainn” to “Marten péine”) which had been recently nearing extinction in Ireland. It is a predator on squirrels but apparently finds the grey species easier to catch since the latter spends longer on the ground.

Strangely, I have not noted grey squirrels in the nearby Griffiths Park so they do not seem to be expanding in that direction – at least, not yet.

Grey Squirrel (Iora Liath) in Dublin’s Botanical Gardens (Photo: D.Breatnach))

HISTORY

BATTLE OF CLONTARF

The Battle of Clontarf, which was fought in this area on 23rd April 1014, was between Brian Boróimhe’s (Boru) forces of mainly Munster and Connacht forces, along with some Viking allies, against the forces of the Viking King of Dublin and the King of Leinster, aided by a substantial force of Viking mercenaries from the Orkneys and Manx. It was of great consequence since the High King of Ireland and many petty kings were killed in it but it also put a definitive stop to any further expansion of Viking power in Ireland (though their Dublin kingdom was tolerated but required to pay tribute).

The available history tells us that Brian’s headquarters camp for the Battle of Clontarf (Cluain Tairbh) was in Glasnevin (Glas Naíonn). Brian’s camp may have been where the Cemetery is now, since the highest point there is higher than the Gardens’, or even a little further north around where St. Mobhi’s Church is today, higher still. Wherever it was is where he was slain too, in a sneak attack by one of the Viking mercenaries from the Isle of Man, according to one of the accounts.

The Battle was certainly not fought at Clontarf but is where one part of it ended, as defeated Viking mercenaries ran for their ships there, many being killed at a bottleneck at a salmon weir (round about where Ballybough is now), only some surviving to reach their longships.

Some boys brave a small weir on the Tolka just east of the Botanical Gardens. There is little sign on this day in late April 2021 of the surging flood of which the river is capable and from which it takes its name. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The name of the river is an old Irish word for “flood” and had there been heavy rains in the Dublin hills, the river level might have been high generally but would certainly be so anyway in the estuary at high tide. Since the record tells us that the battle started at high tide and was still high tide when it finished, it means the battle lasted 12 hours. Twelve hours of fighting in any kind of battle is hard enough but with hand-operated kinetic weapons, along with shields and armour, impossible without taking rest breaks. So the fighting waned at times by agreement or by mutual exhaustion but was engaged again. The actual battle site has never been found5 but was probably fought along the Tolka (Tulcadh) for some of its length.

Unlike battles today, all the commanders of high rank in it on both sides were killed, including Brian (though not in the actual battle) and the King of Leinster, Maél (‘Maol’ in modern Irish) Mórda Mac Murchada, the latter killed along with many of his troops and Dublin Vikings at the other bottle-neck, the only bridge then in existence across an Life (the Liffey), perhaps around Islandbridge (Droichead na hInse). This was probably at the delayed intervention in the battle of the forces of the King of Meath, Maél Sechneill Mac Domnaill (though one of the annals has his actual death at the hands of a relative of Brian’s who himself received mortal wounds from Maél Mórda).

1916 RISING

The cancellation of the Rising by Mac Néill for Easter Sunday (23rd April that year) and its reinstatement by the IRB’s Military Council was resolved by going ahead on Easter Monday (24th April). When news of that reached the area around Maynooth, a group of Irish Volunteers who had gathered the day before but stood down, set off for Dublin along the banks of the Royal Canal, arriving in Dublin city late on Easter Monday. They found two Volunteers guarding the Cross Guns Bridge over the canal and were advised that proceeding into Dublin city centre might not be advisable in that evening.

The men spent the night in Glasnevin cemetery and set off again the following morning, crossing the now unguarded bridge and making their way, hungry and footsore, down to the very centre and the GPO on the Tuesday of Easter Week, where they remained in action until the evacuation of the burning building on the 28th. One of their number, Tom “Boer” O’Byrne, who had served in the Irish Brigade against the English in the Boer War, had his sore feet bathed there by Cumann na mBan Volunteer Lucy Agnes Smyth, whom he escorted with most of the other women Volunteers from the GPO and wounded prisoners to Jervis Street Hospital on Friday 28th and whom he would later marry.

End.

Missel Thrush (Smólach Mór), if I’m not mistaken. This one seemed quite unafraid, going about its hunting a few yards from me. The caterpillar-seeming forms on the ground are catkins from the poplars in Griffiths Park, which follows the Tolka eastward from the Botanical Gardens (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Hooded Crow (Caróg Liath), the Irish (also Scottish, Icelandic) species closely related to the all-black carrion crow, seen here on a field of grass and daisies, late April 2021, Dublin Botanical Gardens. They are wary and difficult to get close-ups of without a tele-lens. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Mostly dandelion (caisearbhán) on a grassy slope above a stretch of the Tolka between Botanical Gardens and Griffiths Park. The dandelion is a plant with a cheery flower which would be highly prized were it not so common (it also has a startling nature which is not discussed here). (Photo: D.Breatnach)

FOOTNOTES

1One of the ways in which people locate Dublin’s city centre is “between the canals”, i.e between the Royal Canal on the south side (of the Liffey) and the Grand Canals on the north side. However, the location of the Botanic Gardens is only a little past the Royal Canal, a matter of five minutes’ walk.

2A cultivar is an artificially developed variety of a plant through selection or the result of cross-breeding (eg the Loganberry or the Nectarine). As to the numbers, Wikipedia claims “approximately 20,000 living plants” for the site while the figure given here is from the Botanical Gardens’ own web page.

3That century was one in which Dublin rose in status as a city of the British Empire and many of its prominent residents took civic pride in the city and strove for improvements in a number of fields for the city and for Ireland in general. The Botanical Gardens were opened three years before the United Irishmen uprising but when the organisation was already in existence and pushing, along with more liberal constitutional elements, for Catholics and Presbyterians to have the vote and to be permitted to stand for election for the Irish Parliament, which was being blocked by the Crown administration and some vested interests. After the Rising, the Irish Parliament was abolished and so began the decline in importance of Dublin from what had been considered the second city of the British Empire.

4The other was recorded as having died in Willis’ garden in 1865, almost a hundred years later.

5I did hear years ago that some artifacts had been found in excavations for the site of the current meteorological station building near Mobhi Road but I have not seen any documentation of that. There was mention in one account of the battle of tired fighters slaking their thirst at a well and the location of that was thought to be in Phibsboro/ Glasnevin, at the junction of the southward part of the one-way system. And a housing development I noted there is called “Danewell”.

SOURCES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Botanic_Gardens_(Ireland)

The Irish Yew: https://futureforests.ie/products/taxus-baccata-fastigiata

Grey & Red Squirrels in Ireland and the Pine Marten: https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2020/0616/1147681-red-squirrels-comback-ireland-pine-martens-grey-squirrels/

Battle of Clontarf: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Battle-of-Clontarf/Showdown-at-Clontarf

The Battle of Clontarf in Irish history and legend


Maynooth Volunteers traveling to Dublin for the Easter Rising http://www.kildare2016.ie/history/maynooth-company-irish-volunteers-and-the-easter-rising/

https://www.irishlifeandlore.com/product/sheila-oleary-b-1921-her-daughters-emer-oleary-and-maeve-oleary-and-her-niece-margaret-sheeran/

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/love-and-war-one-family-s-incredible-connection-to-the-1916-rising-1.2281929

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