Today the most visible and indeed picturesque section of the Barrington collection lines the walls on the first floor of the Natural History Museum in Dublin. It sits demurely, modestly, not vying for attention, just behind the African buffalo, Peruvian sloth, a modest, almost calming backdrop to all the bears and lions. In their neat simple white cases, with its beautiful, soft blue background, they form a contrast to these much larger, more exciting and exotic beasts, in their huge cabinets of rich, warm browns, of mahogany and oak.
This is by far the most important collection of its type in the country, it includes nearly every bird species known in Ireland. As you can see in pictures below, it contains land birds, lake and river birds and those of the sea. It was all donated to the museum by bequest of RM Barrington.
Note the found location of this little chap. Then read on. Theres “a bit” of a story here.
You can tell at a glance this was a man deeply interested, if indeed, not obsessed by birds and no doubt highly knowledgeable on his topic. But what may not be immediately apparent is the pioneering nature of his work, and the great project he is still remembered for by the science community today. Barrington vastly expanded the frontiers of knowledge in his chosen field. The main evidence of his genius is not even on show or at least on open display. Nonetheless, its story and his story are instructive. For this was a magnificent obsession.
Every day, every month and every year, millions of sea birds, in hundreds of different species, flap and fly, wheel, sail and soar around the coasts, beaches, cliffs and offshore islands of Ireland. Petrels and Shearwaters, Cormorants, Guillemots, Puffins, Herring gull, Terns, Albatross and Artic Skuas and the huge Great Black Backed Gull, and many, many dozens more.
Most are year-round residents. Just a few are here part of the year, and a smaller amount again are just passing through, as part of long migrations. In many resident seabird species, Gannets say, or some types of gulls, the numbers are vast. Many of the locations too, are rugged and inaccessible.
However, up until around the year 1897, partially as a result of that inaccessibility, this whole, vast movement of life, with its exact cast of characters, its complex, intersecting patterns, were essentially matters of ignorance. True, most if not all species had been named. But nobody knew their real numbers, nor the amount of breeding colonies, nor migration patterns for the migrants, nor every species and subspecies present or so on.
After 1897, all that had changed. From this date, the birdlife of coastal Ireland, in places remote and still in some senses quite a an underdeveloped country, nevertheless became possibly the best, most scrupulously researched, the best analyzed and documented data of its type anywhere in the world.
And the man responsible, more or less singlehandedly for this turnaround was our Richard Manliffe Barrington (1849-1915).
By profession he was a gentleman farmer and a land/estate valuer, hailing from near Bray, in County Wicklow.
After attending Trinity College, where he gained his MA, he started his career, mostly unpaid, in his real passion, as he surveyed the fauna of lakes all around Ireland, then that of several islands, including Tory Island and the Blaskets (off Co. Donegal and Co. Kerry respectively).
In 1896 he was one of the leaders of an expedition, under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy, to another, far more remote island, Rockall. This barren place stands in the ferocious North Atlantic, far from the Northwest coast of Ireland, about half way to Iceland in fact. Another leader on the Rockall expedition incidentally, was the naturalist and historian Robert Lloyd Praeger, (author of that well-loved tome, The Way that I Went)
It must have been these island visits- and perhaps what he saw there- that gave Barrington the inspiration for what became his greatest contribution to Irish and international science. Many of the remotest tips of these islands, and some of the more remote islands themselves, possessed only one sole inhabitant. That man, as you may have already guessed, was the lighthouse keeper.
a reasonably remote lighthouse, especially in fierce weather, this one “maidens” is off the NW coast, photo courtesy Danny Kayaker.
The famous, or infamous Fastnet, off West Cork, scene of a notorious sailing disaster, during the famous race to which it lends its name. Prevviously home of one of Barringtons “collectors”. This brilliant photo courtesy of Peter Goulding, author of Pete’s Irish Lighthouse blog. (a great blog, well worth a visit)
Barrington by now leaned that a great many seabirds were killed as they encountered the sweep of those huge lights beaming out to sea. The birds were often blinded by, and smashed into, the towers or the glass itself. This small, daily carnage, Barrington reasoned, would give him the vital data and specimens of all seabirds of Ireland- on and off the coasts- a breath of data and samples near impossible to obtain any other way. The actual numbers dying are of course a microscopic proportion of the bird populations, but more than enough to give a sample. And if you look below, you’ll see that the distribution of light stations could almost been designed by a naturalist!
Today of course, somewhat sadly, most of the lighthouse and lightships are automated. Back then however nearly all were manned. So Barrington got to work. First he devised his methodology. Then he wrote to the keeper of every lighthouse and lightship in Ireland. In response, almost to a man- and to their ever-lasting credit- they readily agreed to help with his endeavor. He next sent them instructions on how to package specimens and samples, and how to record their notes. For samples, for most of the more common seabirds, a wing and a claw would suffice. If the lighthouse (or lightship) man could not identify the species, then the entire bird would be preserved until it could be collected. (Not always an easy task)
Now think of such a lighthouse man, in a tower or in some granite cabin at the base of that tower. Stuck alone, for months perhaps, on some impossible rock in the North Atlantic…
It is 1895 or 1898, or some year in between. The Dreyfuss Affair is sweeping and convulsing France, the English are fighting the Ashanti in Ghana. In distant Moscow, Alexandra III, emperor, Tsar of all the Russians, is succeeded by son Nicolas II. But our lighthouse man on his island knows or cares little of all this. His day’s work is done. He has had his supper too, bully beef or ham out of a tin, fresh fish perhaps, if he has been more enterprising and more fortunate. He sits at a battered old wooden table, in the light of a flickering gas lamp, with his ruddy, weather beaten face. He wears a filthy Aran Sweater, covered in engine oil, tea spills and flakes of loose tobacco. It is dark outside. The ocean wind howls , the rain smashes into the thick glass of the small window. But he barely notices these things anymore, this is his life, indeed it is the life he has chosen. Instead he takes a puff on his pipe, then sets it aside to prize open one of the special, larger envelope he has been sent, by this exotic sounding, erudite man, in far-off Dublin.
He’s already written up his notes as requested, on the simple, well-designed forms. He has separated the large, grey, black and white wing from the dead aviator, which lies on the stone floor nearby. He idly wonders what the huge gull would be like to eat, then dismisses the idea from his mind. Instead, he turns up the gaslight, so he can carefully, almost lovingly, ease the huge wing into the envelope. He closes it with equal care, then puts it on the side board. There it sits, with another 16 similar envelopes of different sizes. Some are regular-sized, others are huge, over a meter across. They are all waiting for collection on the next relief boat, which should come in just a week now, God willing, weather permitting.
This – more or less- is how Barrington’s great life’s work was realized. Of course the collection of the samples- the recording of sightings and the other light keeper notes – were just the beginning. It was Barrington himself who had to measure, count, assess and analyze this vast mountain of information. Can you imagine the initial silence, then the flood of observations and records began to roll in, all the specimens and samples? In their hundreds; then their thousands; then in their tens of thousands. In a Victorian study in Dublin, oak shelves lined with books and a tall clock clicking sedately, he prizes open each envelope, just as carefully as it had been done weeks earlier, on another world. Each is eagerly received, to be studied, collated, analyzed
wonder if ever, even once, he balked a little, or asked himself had he bitten more than he could chew? Probably not.
As data grows, conclusions are drawn, then maps are drawn, then more maps, variations and new subspecies noted, even named for the first time, breeding, nesting and migration patterns are established.
Part of the collection still stands behind the elephant and giraffe, the entire, intact specimens you see in the pictures above. But this is just a tiny fraction of the collection as a whole. The vast bulk is partial samples, of wings and claws. These are out of sight, neatly stashed in hundreds of cabinets: mostly unseen, largely even unknown of. All those thousands upon thousands of wings and legs and claws, so diligently collected, so long ago, by all the lighthouse men.
And that my friends, is how and why we know so much today, about the seabirds of Ireland.