Wildlife in Ireland through the ages

The island of Ireland has been in the making for a billion years. From Irish Book Award nominee Conor W. O’Brien comes Life in Ireland – A Short History of a Long Time, an extremely accessible and illustrated guide to the evolution of natural life in Ireland

I have always had a fascination with prehistoric life. The very idea that the world was once populated by strange creatures, very different from what we see today, has captivated me ever since I first read about dinosaurs as a child. I spent a childhood looking for the clues they left behind, digging through every possible garden in my fossil hunt. I left a lot of holes behind, but unfortunately I had no fossils to show for my efforts.

Other fossil hunters, however, have been much luckier than me over the centuries. And in Life in Ireland, we use these clues to construct a picture of life in Ireland as it was in the past. We travel on a safari through time and space – from the bottom of the primordial sea half a billion years ago to the streets of our modern cities. Along the way, we’ll see how life on our island has changed and even what the future holds.

My first book, Ireland Through Birds, was a tribute to the creatures we have with us now. It took me around this island in search of twelve elusive bird species. I learned so much about Ireland in the process. But with Life in Ireland, I wanted to go even further – to travel thousands if not millions of years in time, to meet the incredible creatures that have made their home in Ireland through the ages. Researching and writing this was another journey of discovery, but of a different kind – and I wasn’t disappointed with what I found.


From iconic fossil tracks to teeth mined from limestone, amazing fossil evidence has been unearthed in Ireland over the years – and is still present today. Over the eons, the land that would become Ireland was home to armored dinosaurs, mighty mammoths and giant deer. Our oceans, meanwhile, were once stalked by human-sized shell monstrosities and sea lizards that stalked their prey with forked tongues in the water. And although you can find pieces of it in museums in Dublin and Belfast, very few books have been written for the general public that explore Ireland’s prehistoric past. In Life in Ireland, I hope to correct this.

With advancements in dating techniques and an ever-increasing knowledge of the world as it once was, we can learn more than ever from these discoveries. Even where the fossil record in Ireland is patchy, we can augment it with the growing mountain of evidence unearthed around the world to help fill in the gaps and build a record of Ireland as it once was, and of the creatures strange and fascinating that once lived here. The present has never been a better time to delve into the past.

County Antrim has delivered some of Ireland’s most spectacular fossil finds. It produced the oldest woolly mammoth remains found anywhere on the island, as well as the only muskox fossils in Ireland, evidence that this hardy beast lived here during the Ice Age. But by far Antrim’s greatest contribution to our understanding of prehistoric Ireland is its Mesozoic fossils. The Mesozoic is better known as the Age of the Dinosaurs, and County Antrim produced Ireland’s only dinosaur bones: two small pieces, one belonging to an armored herbivore, the other to a two-legged hunter. These are among the most western dinosaur remains known in Europe, and originate from an early Jurassic era from which few dinosaur fossils have been found, so they are very important to science. Although discovered in the 1980s, these bones were only fully described for the first time last year. They give us invaluable insight into what Ireland was like 200 million years ago.

HAND IN HAND: The fox has learned to coexist with humans

HAND IN HAND: The fox has learned to coexist with humans

Dinosaurs weren’t the only prehistoric reptiles to emerge from the rocks of Antrim. While they prevailed on earth, an arguably even more remarkable reptilian revolution was underway in the Mesozoic oceans. The Mesozoic deposits of Antrim bear witness to this, burying the bones of strange “sea dragons”: dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, long-necked plesiosaurs and fierce mosasaurs. They’ve shared the seas of Antrim with a menagerie of other strange creatures, from shelled ammonites hanging in the current to terrifying sharks lurking in an ambush.

Of course, the saga of life in Ireland didn’t end with dinosaurs or even the Ice Age. In our forests, farms, bogs and even on the city streets, wildlife is everywhere around us today. For thousands of years, life in Ireland has been dominated by one species: modern humans. We have shaped Ireland’s landscape and wildlife like no other creature before us. In addition to our deep past, Life in Ireland also explores the time that has passed since the arrival of humans – and the immense impact this has had on our natural world, as the flora and fauna of Ireland from 21st century have started to take shape.

One of the shortest chapters in the history of life in Ireland is the time elapsed since man’s arrival. And yet, for us, this is probably the most convincing. It encompasses the natural history of Ireland as we can still see it, hear it and feel it today. It is a period when human history and natural history collide. And while there isn’t much we can do to resuscitate ecosystems that have been lost for millions of years, the wild Ireland that has coexisted with humans since the last Ice Age is still here – even though it is in a degraded state – and can still be saved if we choose to save it.

With the mastery of nature by man, a redoubled desire to preserve it has developed. Life in Ireland is not simply a collection of the sins of our ancestors against Irish wildlife. He will also salute the stellar conservation efforts being made to preserve nature on our changing island. Life In Ireland – A Short History of a Long Time is published by Merrion Press / £ 14.99.

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Colin L. Johnson