The natural history of Ireland

Published in Book Reviews, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

The natural history of Ireland
Philip O’Sullivan Beare, translated and edited by Denis C. O’Sullivan
(Cork University Press, Ä39)
ISBN 9781859184394


75_small_1259264370Cork University Press is to be congratulated for publishing this never-before-translated work on the place-names, animals, plants and wonders of Ireland by Philip O’Sullivan Beare, author of the first published narrative history of Ireland. The text had been lost for 300 years before being brought to the attention of Eoin MacNeill by the Curator of Manuscripts at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. It was acquired by J. G. Sparwenfeldt from the Marqués of Astorga in 1690, having been written in Spain some time around 1626. The author was born on Dursey Island, Co. Cork, where his people had been either massacred or expelled by George Carew. Exiled to Spain, O’Sullivan Beare was joined by the remnant of his family and their followers who survived being routed by the English army in their gruelling march from Glengariff to Sligo after the battle of Kinsale. Educated first in Ireland by Donagh Ó Croinín (executed by the English in 1601) and then at Compostela by Patrick Synnott, O’Sullivan Beare became an accomplished Latinist. It is fitting that the translator, Denis O’Sullivan, is also a native of West Cork who descends from the same family. He studied Classics under Keith Sidwell, who is responsible for a whole series of translations from the Hiberno-Latin canon.
In his excellent introduction to this well-annotated bilingual edition, the editor reminds us that O’Sullivan Beare would have learned the Irish names for the birds, fish and flowers from his father, a native Irish-speaker from Glengariff. The text is of interest to Hellenists, neo-Latinists, Renaissance Hispanists and Irish scholars alike because for each entry the author gives the Greek, Latin, Spanish and Irish name. He cites 21 Greek and Latin authors, including Pliny, Aristotle, Ovid and Virgil, to name only those that occur most frequently. To compile all this was no mean feat, and our translator points out that Philip had the help of his father, who lived to be 100. The translator acknowledges the help of Kenneth Nicholls in the chapter on Irish place-names and for the sorting out of obscure references. Also cited in the introduction are Ciarán Ó Scea and Hiram Morgan, whose research in the Spanish archives has thrown up fascinating new information about the life of O’Sullivan Beare.
While primarily a work of natural history, the text is infused with contemporary politics and religion, a common feature of much early modern writing. As Denis O’Sullivan points out, the author sought to refute the calumnies against Ireland perpetrated by such English authors as Spenser, Camden, Davies and Hooker, as well as the Old English Richard Stanihurst, who, though a Dubliner and a Catholic, still repeated the discourse of Irish barbarity initiated in the Topographia by the twelfth-century Giraldus Cambrensis. The first six chapters of the Natural history contain this polemical defence. The final eight chapters tell of the spiritual wonders of Ireland, including its holy wells and St Patrick’s Purgatory, which O’Sullivan also describes in his Compendium of 1621. Even the description of nature is at times infused with family history, as in the page-long account of the O’Sullivan crest that is inserted into the description of the robin, which sits atop the crowned helmet above the escutcheon. One is reminded of the story of his family’s desperate flight from Ireland, which he had likened to the exile of Aeneas and his people from Troy. The calmness (foistineach, which could also be translated ‘patience’) of the robin teaches us to: ‘Manage both kinds of fortune calmly and carefully, whether the enemy presses on or flees vanquished by words. Follow the example of the robin covering the limbs of the fallen. Remember to be kind to conquered enemies’ (p. 139).
Essential reading for early modern historians, the text also offers much to intrigue naturalists. The main part of the work comprises some 55 chapters devoted to Irish place-names, land animals, birds, fish, insects, bees, trees, plants and grasses. Some Irish and Spanish terms have yet to be identified. O’Sullivan Beare calls for criticism in which the reader will ‘find fault with [his] work provided he does not condemn [him] with reproofs but heaps the homeland [patria] with praises, by reviewing its many plants and its many other types of ornament’ (p. 229). Denis O’Sullivan’s deftly handled translation and informative introduction will be of great interest not only to academics but also to the amateur historians, birdwatchers, fishermen and custodians of local seanchas with which Ireland still abounds.  HI

Clare Carroll is Coordinator for Renaissance Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, Director of Irish Studies at Queens College, CUNY, and Professor of Comparative Literature at both.


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