Outdoor Discoveries

What originally was a news section for the rest of the website soon became a place for me to write about human-powered wanderings in the countryside. Photography inspires me to get out there, mostly on foot these days, though cycling got me started. Musings on the wider context of outdoor activity complete the picture, so I hope that there is something of interest in all that you find here. Thank you for coming!

Secrets of the Irish Landscape

15th October 2013

During May of this year, the Republic of Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ ran a three part documentary series called Secrets of the Irish Landscape. The documentary series tells the story of the Irish landscape and is built around the work of Robert Lloyd Praeger that started a hundred years ago. His 1937 book, The Way That I Went,  contributed to the inspiration for the series. With all of the references to this book, I am left wondering why a re-issue wasn’t planned, especially since the last re-print was done by Collins Press around 15 years ago. The only way to acquire a copy now is to go out on the second hand market and I have seen prices reaching hundreds of pounds. Those may be for original editions but even a second hand paperback edition from Collins Press seems to attract prices of £20-30. At least, that’s what my own copy cost me and it’s in decent condition too, albeit with yellowed pages and bent corner to a few of them that I largely have straightened. What struck me though was the size of the book since he didn’t write a slim tome while he was at the task. What really helps though is that it remains well readable from what I have read of it so far and spans a remarkable time in Ireland’s history.

Praeger had much experience in writing since he co-edited the Irish Naturalist (when this ceased to exist in 1924, it was succeeded by the Irish Naturalist’s Journal in 1925) and contributed also to the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. One of those was published in 1901, Irish Topographical Botany: This was a weighty contribution with the descriptive treated almost as a preface with pages numbered using Roman numerals and what otherwise could be seen as an appendix gaining the Arabic ones to which we all are accustomed. Though largely a work of scientific reporting, mentions of fondness regarding the Irish outdoors were snook onto page lxxxix. Here is a first quote where a brief interlude of reminiscence was allowed:

The long summer days spent in the Limestone Plain,
where the gentle undulations of the ground
only occasionally hid the distant rim of brown and blue hills;
the marshy meadows, heavy with the scent of flowers;
the great brown bogs, where the curlews alone relieved the loneliness;
the bare limestone pavements and gaunt grey hills of Clare and Galway;
the savage cliffs of the Mayo coast;
the flower-filled sand-dunes which fringe the Irish Sea;
the fertile undulations of southern Ulster;
the swift brown current of the Barrow;
the fretted limestone shores of the great western lakes;
the towering cones of the Galtees:
all have left memories that can never be effaced.

That expression of affection was followed by another on the same page that suggests an innocence lost when it comes to access to the Irish countryside on foot. It sounds utopian to my ears now but it does seem that walking around Ireland in the late nineteenth century was more carefree than is the case today:

Ireland is a delightful country for the pursuit of work in the field.
Enclosed or preserved ground is but seldom met with,
and the country is free and open.
Few rivers but can be, forded;
few marshes or bogs but can be crossed;
few precipices but yield their treasures to the mountaineer;
few spots are so remote but they may be visited
in a good day’s walking from the nearest stopping-place.

Praeger’s scientific endeavours had him criss-crossing the Irish countryside on foot during weekend excursions and the Office of Public Works still has something on the web that offers a flavour of his itineraries. He depended on the rail network for these and never took to the car, perhaps seen as a newfangled development in his lifetime. His research was both done for the love of it and to sate a certain curiosity. It was the sort of enterprise that Brian Cox was describing in his documentary series Science Britannica on BBC television.

Just like its aforementioned BBC counterpart, the RTÉ series was a three part affair and these seem to be becoming a regular occurrence even on British television. Secrets of the Irish Landscape was a major effort for a national broadcaster whose finances have not been so healthy since the economic downturn of 2008 and its first episode was no shabby affair at all. But for what was going on in my life at the time, I might have caught up with all three programmes though only the first would have been seen in Ireland itself. RTÉ has a far more liberal approach to folk on the British side of the Irish Sea viewing or listening to its broadcasting over the web, more so than the BBC when it comes to seeing their output in Éire. The whole series could have been seen and there was a season of programmes under the Ireland Goes Wild banner to go along with Secrets of the Irish Landscape too.

Just as there has been no reissuing of Preager’s The Way That I WentSecrets of the Irish Landscape has not come out on DVD either; there is a teaser trailer still is to be found on YouTube where you can see how it took my fancy. What we have in its stead is  a glossy coffee table format book featuring subjects covered in the series. It is a collection of scientific essays with accompanying photos from different experts with the whole being edited by Matthew Jebb of the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin and Colm Crowley of RTÉ. Given what’s on offer, I am left wondering if a more portable format might have been a better choice; then, it not only would come on a journey with you or even live more easily on a nearby bookshelf to be picked up for a short perusal during a quiet few minutes. My own copy came from the Limerick city centre branch of Eason’s  a few months after the series had been on the Irish airwaves and has been perused in fits and starts since its organisation suits that more random approach. This also is something that can be done more easily with a book printed on paper than a digital equivalent.

There is one final thought that comes to mind when I think of what Praeger did. His explorations of Ireland remind me of my own outings though there remain great differences. The use of public transport over a hundred years ago and the long walks could be part of many an outdoors enthusiast’s weekend away and they remind me of my own escapades. In place of seeking of peace and quiet for the soothing of the human spirit, Praeger had loftier ambitions and much more substantive achievements. In contrast to the seeking of an unperturbed ambience and fleeting light that brightened a pleasing vista for a photo that has motivated me, he wanted to know what plants were in Ireland and from where they had come after the last Ice Age. He sought knowledge and left a legacy while I have acquired memories that help to balm life’s wounds. The comparison makes me wonder if something more would be in order but, for now, that’s something for contemplation rather than rash action.

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