This year, there are several with Cork connections. Mike Brown, born in Yorkshire, moved to Cork at the age of 13. In Wild Water, Wild Light: Images of the West Cork Coastline, he takes readers on a pictorial camino from the Old Head to Glengarriff. The award-winning photographer’s subjects range from pebbles to panoramic landscapes. A section devoted to wildlife has pictures of whales, seals and birds. Artefacts are included, but people are not. In early-morning and late-evening scenes, cloudscapes merge with the ocean, the cradle of life. A one-line comment appears with each picture. Nor is anything more required; this mystical evocation of the shoreline has a transcendent quality beyond the power of words.
The coast is the theme of another book from Cork – Jim Wilson and Mark Carmody’s Shore-birds of Ireland. Shore-birds is the American term for waders and Jim Wilson is an expert on the black-tailed godwit. This book, however, doesn’t limit its canvass to these, but features every bird species likely to be encountered along our shores. There are sections on habitats, the lives of birds, and human impacts on the coastline. A chapter is devoted to Iceland, where many of our wintering birds breed. Though not a field identification guide, the detailed descriptions of each species, together with Mark Carmody’s marvellous photographs, should enable even an ornithological-challenged reader to recognise most birds. Another virtue of this excellent book is the wealth of information given in the species accounts. Shore-birds of Ireland is an ideal gift for anyone who lives near, or visits, the coast.
In his introduction to An Irishman’s Cuttings: Tales of Irish Gardens and Gardeners, Plants and Plant Hunters, Charles Nelson says that “his selection (of essays) has resulted in a distinctly Corkonian bias.” The pieces appeared originally in The Irish Garden magazine. Chapters are devoted to 18th and 19th century gardens now gone, among them Cork’s Botanic Garden, which was established in 1808 and abandoned in 1828. The earliest known Irish gardening text, The Virtues of Herbs, was written in verse. Dating to the late 14th or early 15th century, it was probably penned by a monk. Clerics, especially Anglican ones, contributed greatly to natural history. Many were also keen gardeners.
The essays on celebrated native plants are among the most interesting in the book. Gardeners of the past were, it seems, just as unscrupulous in their pursuit of rare species as illegal wildlife traders are today, if the fate of the Killarney fern, during the 19th century, is anything to go by. Although it survived, this was Ireland’s most notable victim of the great Victorian fern craze, with botanists and collectors offering money to local ‘peasants’ to obtain specimens. St Dabeoc’s heath is another Irish celebrity, but, according to Nelson, just who the saint was or why his name became associated with this heather, remains a mystery.
The section on plant hunters includes an item on Darwin’s correspondence with Irish botanists. Darwin had a particular interest in insectivorous plants, and boggy Ireland is rich in sundews, some of which Darwin obtained for his experiments. The antics of a bumblebee in a Dungarvan orchid house featured in his work The Various Contrivances by which Orchids, British and Foreign, are Fertilized by Insects.
Quirky digressions, such as that on the bee, help to spice up an otherwise rather learned text. We are told, for example, that the Irish Lebanese Cultural Foundation began planting cedars in Irish towns, one for each of the 47 Irish soldiers killed while serving as peace keepers in the Lebanon. Another digression concerns John Philpot Curran, who was a friend of Thomas Moore, of The Last Rose of Summer, fame. The great barrister, apparently, was prone to bouts of melancholy, during which he would visit his daughter’s grave at night and play the ‘cello.
This work of scholarship, the fruit of a life-time’s horticultural experience, will interest serious gardeners, botanists and social historians.
* Wild water – Wild light: Images of the West Cork coastline, by Mike Brown. Mike Brown Photography. €39.95.
* Shore-birds of Ireland, by Jim Wilson and Mark Carmody. The Collins Press. €19.99.
* An Irishman’s Cutting, Tales of Irish Gardens and Gardeners, Plants and Plant Hunters, by E. Charles Nelson. Collins Press. €29.99.