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Robert Lloyd Praeger: the Life of a Naturalist
Sean Lysaght



Books Ireland (Summer 1999)
‘Robert Lloyd Praeger has long been deserving of more recognition. In his work as a naturalist over many decades he made an immense contribution towards understanding the natural landscape in Ireland. This book is excellent on Praeger's lifetime work, not just as a naturalist, but other fields, too, like archaeology. He was incredibly thorough; his Dutch father and his Northern upbringing were perfect preparation for his work. The detailed descriptions of his work as a naturalist have lots of scientific material but are as compelling as his many expeditions, not only in Ireland, but to places as far distant as Rockall. The book has lots of fascinating detail on this side of his work, including such masterpieces as the first Clare Island survey in Co Mayo, 1911-15. The book is good too on Praeger's published works, including the most famous one, The Way That I Went, published in 1937. This book has detailed listings of all his published papers, magazine articles and books, as well as extensive notes, bibliography and index. The photographic section is exemplary.
    He was appointed to the National Library in Dublin in 1893 and worked there until her took early retirement in 1923, under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which allowed people in the old civil service in the South to leave early. Thereafter, he was able to devote more time to another great interest, the Royal Irish Academy. While the book is thorough on his contribution to the Academy, his work at the National Library is scarcely commented upon.
    In his later life, Praeger did an incredible amount of travelling, all over Europe. Many of these journeys, around seventy years ago, were done by plane, most amazing for its time. He even went on detailed expeditions through the Balkans and the brief descriptions of his travels there are very enlightening, especially when one compares the region then to its present situation. The journeys of Praeger could make another book in its right.
    Seán Lysaght's book is also sound on the house which Praeger had for many years at Zion Road in Rathgar in Dublin. The garden there had something like two thousand plant species. In 1920, he moved from there to a flat in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin. One very strange omission in the book is any great detail of his wife, Hedwig, whom he married in 1902. She pops up in the text, but we don't know who she was or anything about her own background. She must have been as professionally qualified as Praeger himself, since she was so much an equal partner on his many European expeditions. He referred to her as "my dear companion in many wanderings", and it is a serious editorial omission that she has been virtually airbrushed out of the book. Hedwig died in 1952 and Praeger himself died the following year, 1953.
    After her death he went down to live in Craigavad, Co Down, with his sister, Sophia Rosamond, a sculptor and poet, whom we learn nothing of from the book. Robert Lloyd Praeger and his wife are buried in Dean's Grange cemetery, Dublin. He contributed so much to our understanding of Ireland. He had his favourite places, naturally, like Roundstone in Connemara (before it got overrun with the Dublin 4 holiday set) and the Nephin Mountains in Co Mayo. Perhaps his favourite place was the Antrim Coast Road. He was very far-seeing, too, condemning in no uncertain terms, in the late nineteen thirties, how Howth faced ruin from the possibility of future development. The last major undertaking, at the very end of his life, came in 1948, when he became the founding president of An Taisce. In this worthy mission, he was joined by other such luminaries as Seán MacBride and Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh.’
    Brought up in Belfast very much in the Protestant tradition, Praeger stated unequivocally that the "Six Counties is a mutilated area", with partition a festering sore in Ireland's present economy. He wished that St Patrick had done with politicians in Ireland what he had done with the snakes - there's real vision!
    The book has lots of fascinating glimpses into many topics, such as the late nineteenth-century fanaticism in Belfast for clubs and societies that promoted knowledge. Neither did he lack that all-important attribute, a sense of humour. He remarked on the many miserable lodgings he had endured around the country, before the wire mattress swept the Irish hotel world. There's unintentional humour, too, in the way in which Máire Mhac an tSaoi, on behalf of the then Department of External Affairs, visited the then very elderly Praeger to impress on him the need to write politically correct texts for a Mercier Press book on the Irish Landscape, part of a series that involved the Department. Any mention of the 'British Isles' or 'Londonderry' was absolutely verboten.
    It's a riveting book about an extraordinary person, a pillar of understanding in twentieth-century Ireland. The book may have its omissions, but it leaves one with a wish for more detail, on aspects like Hedwig, their travels around Europe in what seem now to be the halcyon days of the nineteen twenties and thirties, and his years on the staff of the National Library.
    In many ways, it's a very thorough book, but it does open up all kinds of further vistas' Hugh Oram, Books Ireland (Summer 1999).
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