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IN THE NEWS, April 17, 2010
ROBERT LLOYD PRAEGER, B.E., D.SC.
(25 August 1865 - 5 May 1953)
On Saturday April 17, 2010, an Taisce organised a short meeting at Praeger’s graveside to celebrate the renovation of the headstone and planting of the grave. Matthew Jebb described some of Praeger’s achievements, his love for Ireland and the significance of the founding of an Taisce. This was followed by a walk led by Ray Bateson visiting the graves of many of the notables buried in Dean’s Grange.
Find Praeger's Grave on Google maps
Praeger was described by Professor David Webb of Trinity College as a giant who bestrode Irish Botany. He was a librarian by profession (1893 - 1923), an engineer by training and a naturalist – biological, geological, archaeological and historical – by nature. And in his long and full life he did a great deal more besides, as is reflected in a shortened but no less extraordinary list of his achievements and honours: Co-founder and editor of the Irish Naturalist (1892); President of Belfast and Dublin Naturalists’ Field Clubs; President, Royal Irish Academy (1931); Founding President, Geographical Society of Ireland (1934); first secretary and President of the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland (1943); first President of An Taisce (1948); President of the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland (1949).
Praeger spent the years from 1895 to 1900 walking the length and breadth of Ireland. The spring and summer weekends were spent surveying Ireland’s wildflowers in preparation for an encyclopaedic work published in 1901, Irish Topographic Botany. To Praeger an average day’s field work was twelve hours spent covering 20-25 miles. When describing the land he knew so well in his seminal book The Way that I Went published in 1937, his love for an achingly beautiful world is evident:
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. … Ireland is a delightful country for the pursuit of work in the field.
Never an overtly religious man, Praeger gives voice to a profound respect for the beauty of the natural world in his description of the Nephinbeg ranges of Co Mayo. These still rank as Ireland’s largest wilderness area in which one can truly get lost:
Go up to the hills, as sages and saints have done since the beginning of the world, and you will need to be a very wordly worldling if you fail to catch some inarticulate vision of the strange equation in which you stand on the one side and the universe on the other.
Praeger always abhorred the motorcar, which he realised brought a divide between people and the natural world that meant nature became remote to people’s lives. Today the influence of television, mobile phones and ipods mean that we and even our children no longer see or hear the world around them. Fewer and fewer people now take pleasure in the distant rim of brown and blue hills, hear the call of the curlew or smell the heavy scent of flowers. This means we no longer respect that beauty and in consequence have little interest in protecting that which we do not know. As a nation we have alas become very wordly wordlings.
Let Ireland Flourish
In fear of this, Praeger was a moving force in the founding of an Taisce, and in an address broadcast on Radio Eireann on 10th October, 1948 he said the following:
I am afraid we are a rather undisciplined people here, and things happen in connection with attempts to beautify our towns and country side which might well discourage the pioneer in this field of philanthropy. Conspicuous among these in our city of Dublin is the destruction of trees planted on our roads and streets for the enjoyment of the people. … what a blot on the fair name of our city to see beautiful flowering cherries frequently and ruthlessly smashed to pieces. What the mentality is of the persons who do this kind of thing, it is difficult to imagine; but while such affronts to decency and commonsense continue in our midst, we have small claim complacently to rank ourselves as a civilized community. ... An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland, is founded entirely for the benefit of the people: our hope is that the people will in turn do their part. I take it that we are at the beginning of a long and also delicate piece of work, calling for patience, tact, judgment and industry, as well as enthusiasm; but our goal is a noble one, and once it is fully appreciated there is little reason that anyone’s hand should be turned against us. Of necessity we begin in a very modest way, but by degrees the movement will gain adherence and influence and become an important factor in our national life. Our motto will be Floreat Hibernia.
I would like to end by quoting the final words from The Way that I Went:
“To the patriot, the loveliest country is – or should be – that in which he was born, and in which he has lived, for it has given him the very foundation of his being. I have wandered about Europe from Lapland to the Aegean Sea: but have always returned with fresh appreciation of my own land. I think that is as it should be”
The plants on Praeger's Grave:
A sedge, Carex buxbaumii, lines the edge. This plant was discovered on the shores of Lough Neagh by David Moore in 1836. David Moore later became Superintendent of the National Botanic Gardens. By 1893, Praeger had just taken up the job of librarian in the National Library and had moved to Dublin. It was on a visit to the National Botanic Gardens that he espied the plant in a bed, and took some home to his garden in Ranelagh. In due course the plant was passed on to Arthur Stelfox, then Donal Synnott, who in 1970 returned the plant to Glasnevin, from where it had been lost. Praeger can therefore be credited with saving this plant from extinction in Ireland - no more fitting a plant for his grave.
Along the centre of the grave are planted 4 heathers:
At the foot of the grave is Erica erigena - Irish heather. This plant is a cutting from plants growing on Clare Island, where Praeger discovered the species in 1909. Named after John Scottus (formerly he graced the £5 note) who adopted the surname Erigeuna, meaning ‘Irish Born’.
Next is Erica ciliaris - like E. erigena this is another Lusitanian species
(it grows in the Iberian peninsula and on the west coast of Ireland). Shortly after its
discovery, as a single plant in the centre of Roundstone Bog, in 1830, the location was lost.
It was not rediscovered until after Praeger's death - It is therefore the one Irish species
that he would never have seen, and it therefore
seemed appropriate to bring the plant to him.
Next are a pair of Erica mackyana plants. These exhibit beautifully fresh-green shoots each year. This species covers only a few square kilometers of Roundstone bog and a scattering of other sites in Ireland. Praeger spent some time studying this species, as like the foregoing, they represented an enigma in Irish biogeography which remains unanswered even today. These particular plants are a selection with pale pink flowers named 'Maura' after Maura Scannell, a botanist who like Praeger has donated a lifetime to the study of Ireland's plants.
Lastly nearest the headstone is a plant of Erica x praegeri a natural hybrid that occurs between E.mackyana and our more widespread E.tetralix. Unfortunately the correct name for this hybrid is now E. x stuartii, but this should not detract from the thoroughness of Praeger's investigation in first spotting the hybrid in Ireland