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History of the Irish & British Marine Molluscan Collections


Natural History is one of the four divisions of the National Museum of Ireland (NMI). The origins of the museum lie with the Royal Dublin Society founded in 1731, which opened in 1733 a Museum to house agricultural implements. In 1792, a collection, mainly of minerals, was acquired, but it also included shells and botanical specimens. In 1795, all the collections were arranged and opened to students - thus establishing the Museum. In 1800, this museum was opened to the general public. In 1813, a catalogue of the subjects of natural history in the museum of the Dublin Society (Royal Dublin Society from 1821) was published, which included 5000+ zoological specimens. After a variety of temporary premises, all the collections were moved to Leinster House in 1815. Even then, in 1850, there were complaints about the cramped conditions of the Museum! Dr. Alexander Carte was elected the first full time Curator of the NMI in 1851, later 'Director'. Funds were raised to support the construction of a new building to house the natural history collections in Merrion Street. The building was inaugurated in 1857, and was at that time, linked to Leinster House and the other collections.

In 1865, the government undertook the complete financial support of the Museum of Natural History. Two new assistant naturalists were appointed including A.G. More. The Museum expanded access by the public to 4 days a week in 1867. In 1877, the government finally took over responsibility for the buildings and collections. A.G. More became Curator of Natural History in 1881. A.C. Haddon was appointed as an assistant. R.F. Scharff (1858-1934) became Curator in 1887, with the title changing to Keeper in 1890, remaining in this post for 31 years. Scharff was an original member of the Conchological Society of GB & Ireland, and his specimens are in the NMI collections.

Albert Russell Nichols (1859-1933) came from England to Dublin in 1883 to take his place on the staff as Assistant in the Museum of Science and Art (now the National Museum of Ireland). He had had a brilliant career at Cambridge, where he took his M.A. in mathematics. He was not a naturalist by nature - but, securing his post by competitive examination, he worked diligently at zoology throughout his forty-one years of service, eventually becoming Keeper of the Natural History Division. Nichols took part in the Lord Bandon dredging expedition of 1886 with Haddon, sponsored by the Royal Irish Academy, and in the biological surveys of Lambay, Clare Island and Malahide. He compiled or revised lists of echinoderms, marine Mollusca (the last full checklist for Ireland) and birds of Ireland, issued by the Museum or by the Royal Irish Academy. In the Museum, he did much work in the classifying and arranging of the invertebrates.

In 1922 after the war of independence, the Museum was closed until 1924 when it re-opened, and continues in Merrion Street to this day. The Government moved into Leinster House next door, with the remaining collections moving to a new building in Kildare Street.

The Collections Register

When a donation to the NMI was received or a purchase made of material, an entry was hand-written into a Register (a foolscap book) outlining its details. The first entry for a mollusc in the NMI Register was:

1835 11 February      The upper cover of an oyster     [donor] C.A. Braw [or Brew]

although it is not known if this was Irish or British, as the specimen cannot be traced.

In the eighteenth century, shells were viewed as aesthetic objects, rather than scientific, and fieldwork and collections were based on this premise. During the late 18th and early 19th century, very little detailed work was done on the marine fauna of Ireland. This may explain why there were only a handful of Register entries in the 1830s and 1840s.

The first specimen of marine Mollusca that can be traced in the collections is:

1853 05 September      A few marine shells from Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare      [donor] Miss Janette Locke

The complete collection of about 9000 lots is stored in Dublin and available to researchers by appointment.

Important historical collections

The collections themselves contain type material; species new to Ireland and/or Britain; and a number of rare and interesting species. Some of the type specimens are on public view in the Irish Room (ground floor) of the Natural History Museum.

The collections comprise material from many 19th century and cruises around Ireland, especially from deep water. In the late 1880s, the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) sponsored three cruises off the south-west coast of Ireland with a view to furthering knowledge of the fauna between the coast and the 1000 fathom line. The tug steamer Lord Bandon was chartered with W.S. Green in charge. Rev. William Spotswood Green (1847-1919) was born in Youghal, displaying an interest in matters concerning the sea from an early age. Ordained a priest in 1873, he left the church in 1890 to become Inspector of Fisheries, retiring in 1914. Dredging on the RIA cruise took place in August 1885 from 120 fms to around 1000 fms. A second expedition, using the same vessel, took place in July 1886, with both Nichols and Haddon of the Museum staff participating. The third expedition using Flying Falcon (which was the Lord Bandon renamed!) took place in 1888, with specimens collected from as deep as 1270 fms. The Mollusca were variously reported on by Swanston (1886), Haddon (1886), Haddon & Green (1888) and Chaster (1898). Material from all three cruises is in the NMI collections. In 1889, a fourth scientific cruise led by Green took place off the south-west of Ireland (Cork Harbour to west of Fastnet), on Flying Fox, when depths of 40-1000 fms were trawled.

The most famous Irish naturalist, Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865-1953), also participated in the 1886 RIA expedition. He is not usually regarded as a conchologist, but he produced a number of publications including The marine shells of the north of Ireland (Praeger 1889). Part of his collection of shells (160 species) from the north-east of Ireland is in the NMI. Praeger took an active part in the Field Clubs and in collective field-work from the age of eleven, organizing team fieldwork such as the Lambay (1906-07) (Nichols was a participant) and Clare Island (1909-1911) Surveys. He was the prime mover in the formation of a committee set up to report on the present state of our knowledge of the fauna and flora of Ireland, and as to what is needed to bring this knowledge up to date. This committee subsequently became known as the Flora and Fauna Committee of the Royal Irish Academy. Through this committee, funds were made available for the first Clare Island Survey and other important surveys (e.g. the deep-sea dredging expeditions of the 1880s undertaken by Green & Haddon; inshore fauna of Valencia (Browne); Rockall, Cork & Dungarvan (Nichols); Brehaven, Roundstone & Bundoran (Duerden)) that added to the knowledge of the molluscan fauna of Ireland. Since 1955, this committee has been known as the Praeger Committee, as it is partly funded by a bequest from the Praeger estate. It still continues to encourage and fund Irish field studies, including marine molluscan fieldwork.

Other 19th century cruises included those sponsored by the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) in 1890 and 1891 to survey the fishing grounds of the whole west coast of Ireland using the steam yacht Fingal (1890) and steam fishing vessel Harlequin, also organised by Green. Holt (1892) lists the 242 stations with bycatch including Mollusca. E.W. Holt (1864-1922) was Assistant Naturalist for the RDS, but was only permanently in Ireland when he took charge of the floating marine laboratory (the dismasted brigantine Saturn). This was begun by the RDS in 1898 in Ballynakill Harbour (Co. Galway) and then within Fisheries Branch of the Department of Agriculture & Technical Instruction. It was the first marine laboratory in Ireland. Specimens from this work are in the NMI collections. Later, he was involved with the Fisheries cruises from 1899-1914. Various ships were used including Helga, Monica and Granuaile. These were replaced in 1908 by the Helga II, built by the department, with a laboratory. This was the first custom built Irish marine research ship. In 1920s and 1930s, the ship was renamed Muirchú. Important material from all these cruises is held in the collections of the NMI.

Helga II also participated in the original Clare Island Survey, dredging in surrounding waters to depths up to 90m. Clare Island lies at the entrance to Clew Bay in County Mayo, some 5km from the west coast of the Irish mainland. From 1909 to 1911, the most ambitious natural history project ever undertaken in Ireland, the Clare Island Survey, was carried out through the RIA - the first major biological survey of a specific area carried out in the world. More than 100 scientists from many parts of Europe collected data that represented the most comprehensive inventory of nature in a single geographical location during the early part of this century. More than 8480 animal and plant species were recorded, of which 120 were new to science, and 67 reports published. During 1909 and 1910, this Survey studied the marine molluscan fauna of the south/eastern shores of the Island and part of Clew Bay, and was published by Colgan (1911) and Southern (1915). Voucher and cited material from this Survey, and from the new Clare Island Survey, again organised by the RIA, from 1991-1995 (Myers 2002; Nunn 2002) are held in the NMI collections.

General collections

Much of the material in the NMI collections is from leading local conchologists and marine biologists.

Thomas Warren, a conchologist active in the 1830s and 1840s compiled a manuscript list of his native shell collection with localities in about 1836. This, together with the material itself, was given to the RDS, and then transferred to NMI in 1860. It is in very good condition, but unfortunately most of the locality information has been lost.

Dredgings were carried out about Belfast and Strangford Loughs by the Belfast Dredging Committee (G.C. Hyndman, G. Dickie, E. Waller and J.G. Jeffreys) in 1857-1859, under grants from the British Association. One of the participants Edward Waller (1803-1873), was a barrister from Co. Tipperary, with a summer home in Co. Tyrone. Although he published very little, he left a substantial and unique collection from much of the British Isles in the NMI. Circulus striatus, found by him in Donegal, was new to the British Isles, and this specimen is in the NMI. Another leading conchologist from Northern Ireland, and a President of the Conchological Society, R.J. Welch (1859-1936), a photographer by profession, donated material to the NMI between 1898 and 1917.

The Museum also purchased material from individuals and from dealers. These included:

A.C. Haddon (1855-1940) was Professor of Zoology in the Royal College of Science for Ireland for 20 years, before returning to England and work in anthropology. He reported on the marine fauna of Dublin Bay, as well as carrying out the dredging expeditions for the RIA in 1885 and 1886. A collection of over 130 species of marine invertebrates from Dublin Bay was donated in 1884, and from Irish coasts in 1892 and 1898.

George Philip Farran (1876-1949) was a Dublin man, who worked in the National Museum, and the Fisheries branch of the Government service. He took part in the survey of the fishing grounds of the West Coast ongoing since 1890. He was appointed Assistant Naturalist with the Department of Agriculture & Technical Instruction for Ireland's Fisheries Branch in 1901, becoming inspector in 1909. A collection of fishes and invertebrates (including marine Mollusca) from Ballynakill and Inisbofin was purchased by the Museum in 1900.

Miss Amelia Elizabeth Mary Warren (~1840-1932), the younger sister of the naturalist Robert Warren (no known relation to Thomas Warren), lived in Ballina, Co. Sligo. She studied Mollusca and published several important papers with distributional lists including rarities from 1892-1896, mainly Killala Bay and Bundoran. Her collection was left to a friend who presented it to the NMI, although much information associated with the material has been lost.

Dredgings were carried out by G.W. Chaster, L.E. Adams, J.R. Hardy, R. Standen and R. Welch around Rathlin Island in 1896-1897, and published in the Irish Naturalist (Chaster 1897a, b, c). Although born and living all his life in England, George W. Chaster (1863-1910), in his later years, spent holidays mostly in Ireland, collecting and dredging. Praeger considered that Irish conchology owed much to his work.

Very little is known about Mrs E.M. Tatlow (d. 1944), from whom two large collections of mainly strand collected worn shells were purchased by the Museum in 1897 (Woodstown, Waterford) and 1898 (Achill Island). She also collected material for the Fauna & Flora Committee in 1899 from SW Donegal and Kenmare River (donated 1900).

In 1907 and 1908, the Dublin Bay Dredging Committee donated a collection of marine invertebrates and fishes from Dublin Bay.

Nathaniel Colgan (1851-1919) was born and lived in Dublin, working as a clerk in the Dublin Metropolitan Police Court. Originally a botanist, he later (1905-1914) worked in particular on the marine Mollusca of Dublin (Colgan 1907, 1914, 1930 (posthumous)). He also was responsible for recording the marine Mollusca during the Clare Island Survey. His substantial collections from these two areas and elsewhere were donated to the NMI in 1913, and by his family in 1919 after his death.

R.M. Barrington (1849-1915) held a substantial collection of shells, although his primary interest lay elsewhere. A cabinet and 7 drawers were bequeathed to NMI in 1916 after his death.

Miss Anne Letitia Massy (-1931) worked for 25 years in a 'temporary' post in Irish Fisheries (Dublin). She became a skilled and experienced conchologist, producing a series of valuable monographic papers on the molluscan fauna of the Irish coasts. Her best work includes:

Much of this material is in the NMI, but also in the collections of the Natural History Museum, London. Other donated material included that personally collected from a variety of Irish sites, from 1902 to 1925.

Other donations in the late 19th and early 20th century include many of the best known naturalists of that time. These are listed here together with the date of donation, and, where relevant, an indication of the main area from which the specimens were collected. More details are provided in the Register Catalogue.

W.W. Walpole (1855, 1883); Rev. A.M. Norman (1857, 1874); J.T. Marshall (1890-1900, mainly pyramidellids); Rev. A.H. Delap (1891, 1916); Dr. V. Ball & W.F. de Vismes Kane (1891, Howth); H.K. Jordan (1892); H.C. Hart (1892, 1901, Dublin & Donegal); Rev. W.F. Johnson (1893, Donegal); E.P. Wright (1893); J.E. Duerden (1895, Dublin); H.L. Jameson (1896, 1897, Antrim, Roundstone, Howth); F.W. Gamble (1897, Valentia); J.C. Sumner (1898, nudibranchs mainly from Plymouth); Brockton Tomlin (1898, Guernsey); Sir C.B. Ball (1900, 1904 Donegal & Clare); Miss Maud Delap (1903, 1921, Valentia).

During the middle of the 20th century, very few specimens were donated to the NMI collections.

Nora Fisher McMillan (-2003) published many papers, first as Fisher, then as Fisher-McMillan. In the 1930s, she carried out a survey of Lough Foyle with R. MacDonald (published 1951), supported by a grant received from the Fauna and Flora Committee of the RIA. The position of the large estuary Lough Foyle is close to the important biological boundary of Malin Head. 118 species of mollusc were recorded, of which 75 were living. Voucher material from this survey is in the collections of the NMI.

From 1946 to 1986, biologists led by Prof. J.A. Kitching published a series of papers on the ecology of Lough Hyne. Lough Hyne is a sheltered sea-lough in south-west Cork, currently the only statutory Marine Nature Reserve in the Republic of Ireland. The earliest specimens from Lough Hyne were donated by Mrs Thomas Townsend in 1859 (Pecten maximus). Many of the species found by Kitching (donated 1980 to 1988) are represented in the NMI collections. Kitching's detailed notebooks are also kept at the NMI.

Between 1967-1985, C.E O'Riordan (Keeper of Natural History at NMI, 1970s and 1980s) published a series of papers referring to material currently or recently acquired by the National Museum of Ireland, which included molluscs. Much of this material was donated by Michael Long (d. 1980). Long corresponded with the NMI for 27 years. Most of his mollusc collection from the Dingle Bay area was donated to NMI Museum in 1966, with the other part of collection in Ballyferriter Museum, Dingle Peninsula. Long was the first to record Charonia lampas, Ranella olearium, Lutraria angustior, and the exotic traveller Brachydontes exustus from Ireland. All these specimens are in the NMI collections, together with rare species such as Troschelia berniciensis, Colus jeffreysianus, Liomesus ovum, Trophon muricatus, Chlamys sulcata, and several species of cephalopod.

Since 1969, Dan Minchin has studied the ecology, biogeography and aquaculture of molluscs: in particular Pecten maximus, Lutraria angustior, Limaria hians, Nucella lapillus and aliens such as Crepidula fornicata and Calyptraea chinensis. He has donated many specimens of these and other species to the NMI collections, including Atrina fragilis and Janthina janthina.

There is material from extensive modern surveys such as a full voucher collection from the BioMar survey (from 1993-1996, based at Trinity College Dublin) of the sublittoral (and littoral) in the Republic of Ireland.

Recent donations include material by the authors (since late 1970s), deep water cephalopods by Colm Lordan; material from Galway Bay (1977-1980, 1998) by Dave McGrath; collections of marine invertebrates by Miles Parker from Mulroy Bay and the south & east coasts of Ireland (transferred from Fisheries); rare species donated since 1982 by Declan Quigley and Kevin Flannery including Galeodea rugosa, Glossus humanus, Adipicola simpsoni, Buccinum humphreysianum and various cephalopods.

The Museum continues to welcome any donations of material.

Key references

The references listed below were used in compiling this text, but are not routinely cited. Other references cited in the text are listed on the references page of this web site.

Chesney, H.C.G. 1995 Ireland's pioneering malacologists - from dredging to drummondi. Arch. Nat. Hist. 22: 229-239

Collins, T. 1999 The Clare Island Survey of 1909-1911: participants, papers and progress. In C. Mac Carthaigh & K. Whelan (eds), New Survey of Clare Island. I. History and cultural landscape pp. 1-40. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin

Hutchinson, G.E. 1982 The harp that once... a note on the discovery of stridulation in the corixid water-bugs Irish Naturalists' Journal 20: 457-466

McMillan, N.F. 1970 Some Irish naturalists, mostly conchological J. Conch. 27: 197-203

O'Riordan, C.E. 1983 The Natural History Museum, Dublin. National Museum of Ireland, Dublin

Praeger, R.Ll. 1949 Some Irish naturalists: a biographical notebook. Dundalgan Press, Dundalk

Women in Technology & Science 1997 Stars, Shells and Bluebells: women scientists and pioneers. W.I.T.S., Dublin

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