To view some of the rare books and art held by the library, followed by a visit to the herbarium.

A surprising number of enthusiastic members turned up for this most unusual outing, especially given the day and time (a Thursday at 2pm ). We were met in front of the library by Alex Caccamo, librarian, who told us that the library was in existence since 1779, although the present building was only completed in 1997. She also drew our attention to an installation entitled Emerging Plants created by the sculptor Roisin de Buitleir, which dominates the entrance to the library. We were then conducted upstairs to the library itself, passing through aisles of book shelves on every conceivable botanical topic. Alex had selected three books from the library’s extensive rare books collection for us to view and some dozen paintings from the art collection. The collection consists of 3,000 paintings (2000 alone by Lydia Shackleton). The three books selected are among the rarest in the collection.

The first book was Herbarum Vivae Eicones (Living Pictures of Herbs), which was created by Otto Brunfels in 1532. The plants depicted in the book are from woodcuts by Hans Weiditz and were done from life rather than copied from previous works. Brunfels was a Carthusian monk who later converted to Lutheranism. Many of the plants he describes are native German ones, not mentioned by Dioscorides. The text is in Latin. 

The second book was Flora Graeca by John Sibthorp, who, in 1786, with Ferdinand Bauer, artist, went on a field trip to Greece . The book was only produced between 1820-1846, 25 ten-volume sets. While Sibthorpe, who died in 1796, provided the money and the idea for the book, it is the drawings and paintings by Bauer that distinguish it. Unfortunately Sibthorp did not acknowledge Bauer’s genius, referring to him disparagingly as ‘my painter.’ The text is in Latin. The book was bequeathed to the library by William Gumbleton.

The third book was Antoine Claude Thory’s Les Roses, with paintings by Pierre Redoute, which are remarkable in their precision and colouring. As well as being a book of great artistic merit, both the text and plates are of great scientific interest even today. The book is in three volumes, with the text in French, and was donated to the library by William Gumbleton. Owing to the antiquity of the books only a small number of pages of each were opened.  

We next viewed a representative work of the following artists, Alex giving us a brief outline of their lives and works.

George Victor Du Noyer (1817-1869). Du Noyer was of Huguenot descent and was an artist, geologist and antiquarian. His favourite medium was through water-colour, painting plants, animals, landscapes and buildings. He painted many apple trees, often depicting apples as viewed from below.

Anne Ball (1808-1872). Born in Cork Ball was a botanist, algologist and botanical illustrator. On her death the National Botanic Gardens acquired her drawings of seaweeds and fungi.

Lydia Shackleton (1828-1914). Born in Co Kildare Shackleton was of Quaker descent. She became the first resident artist at Glasnevin and had a particular interest in painting orchids. She usually painted on coloured paper using white to highlight botanical details. Her gouache and water-colours are vibrant.

Alice Jacob (1862-1921). In 1908 Jacob succeeded Lydia Shackleton as botanical illustrator at Glasnevin, painting over a hundred orchids from 1908-1919. She signed and annotated her work in Celtic script and marked on the reverse of each painting how much she was paid for it. A prudent lady.  

Charlotte Wheeler Cuffe (1867-1967) Born in England and after marrying an Irishman she and her husband moved to Burma where they lived for 24 years. With a strong interest in plants and art she began painting local plants in their natural habitat (noting always where she found them). She especially liked painting orchids. She sent many specimen plants to Kew Gardens and designed the Burmese Botanical Gardens.

Wendy Walsh was born in England in 1915 but has lived in Ireland for most of her life. She illustrated An Irish Floriligium and won many international awards. She taught Susan Sex among others. She is a supreme water colourist of Irish wild flowers and wild life.

Before finishing her lively and informative talk Alex showed us where the DNFC collection was housed within the library. We were then directed to the herbarium where we were met by Colin Kelleher.

Colin first showed us the fire proof storage compactors where the herbarium specimens are kept. They are divided into two sections, world specimens and Irish specimens. A number of specimens were exhibited for us. The specimens are subdivided into vascular plants, algae, fungi and lichen.

The herbarium is home to the Augustine Henry collection of plant specimens. Henry devised a system of tree identification based on leaves and twigs even in the absence of flower and fruit. He helped set up a National Forestry Service in Ireland .

It also houses the Robert Brown (of Brownian motion fame) specimen collection. It dates from 1804. Brown travelled on an expedition to Australia (that incidentaly included Ferdinand Bauer whose Flora Graeca we saw in the library) and in his study of proteacea recognised the phenomena of continental drift.

The herbarium’s main role, Alex explained, is in the classification (role of taxonomist), identification and recording of plant specimens. Descriptions of new plants are submitted in English with Latin binomials applied at a later stage. While three exhibits were of the same plant Alex advised that it is important that specimens are recorded over time. The three specimens dated from 1928, 1969 and 2000. By examining the number of stomata on the leaves it was possible to make observations with regard to the changes in the level of carbon in the atmosphere.

The herbarium also provides a service to vets (identification of possible causes of death by poisonous plants), custom officers and gardai (mushroom and seed imports), and to the general public. However, external funding is provided only for research.

We were shown Praeger’s collection of seed specimens together with a copy of his On The Buoyancy of the Seeds of some Britannic Plants. A number of Coco-de-Mers (from the Seychelles ) were displayed together with other seeds capsules that had been found on Irish shores.

In the DNA laboratory Alan explained how Polymerase Chain Reaction is used to amplify a piece of DNA across several orders of magnitude. He also explained how the extraction of DNA from a piece of tissue is now quite simple, the process even being taught in secondary schools.

It was a very informative and enjoyable afternoon and Pat Lenihan, on behalf of DNFC, thanked Alex and Colin for their time and the enthusiasm with which they shared their knowledge which us.
Tom Miniter






Photographs P Lenihan. © National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin.

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