Book Review: ‘The Natural History of Ireland’, edited and translated by Denis O’Sullivan

The Natural History of Ireland by Philip O’Sullivan Beare.

O’Sullivan D (2009) The Natural History of Ireland by Philip O’Sullivan Beare. Cork University Press.
Display of this cover comprises fair-use under the 1988 Licenses, Designs and Patents Act.

Species mentioned: ALL OF THEM, except silly invertebrates.

Source: The ‘Natural History of Ireland’ by Philip O’Sullivan, a man who really hated Gerald of Wales too much.

Date of Source: 1626 A.D. (post medieval)

Highlights: This is a review of the modern edition and translation by Denis O’Sullivan. Ultimately the book is a truly amazing one for historians and ecologists but may not be a reliable guide to Ireland’s contemporary fauna. The translation needs to be used with caution.


‘The Natural History of Ireland’ is the first book of the ‘Zoilomastrix’, a text written by Philip O’Sullivan [of] Beare (1590-1636) and finished in 1626. It is represented in only one manuscript: Uppsala H.248. O’Sullivan [of] Beare (or Don Philip as the edition calls him) was exiled from Ireland as a child together with the rest of his family. His text was intended to be the authoritative answer to Gerald of Wales’ demeaning ‘Topography of Ireland’, but it quickly became much more than that.

In order to show the extent to which Gerald of Wales underestimated Ireland’s environment, Denis O’Sullivan goes through lists of mammals, birds, fish, plants and trees which make up Ireland’s geography, as well as precious stones, miraculous places and metals which can be obtained there. He names these in Latin, and often Greek, Irish and Spanish as well. This should allow us to easily identify the species intended although in practice there is still some uncertainty as we shall see.

The text is edited and translated by Denis O’Sullivan, a monk with the same surname. Since there can be little common ground between the O’Sullivan’s of 1610 and those of 2010 this is not a particular strength and leads to confusion when talking about the text. In this review O’Sullivan and O’Sullivan [of] Beare refer to the seventeenth century original author, and Denis O’Sullivan refers to the twenty-first century editor and translator.



Despite this early confusion the translation is a very welcome addition to the arsenal of historians and historical ecologists. The facing translation is easy to read and not stilted by over-adherence to the Latin. O’Sullivan Beare is one of the very earliest naturalists, but already his description of the environment is fantastic. Readers should expect the bias towards more charismatic species. Invertebrates are hardly mentioned and larger species are given much more attention than smaller ones. However the book is unique in presenting medieval myths together with modern scientific ideas. On the one hand O’ Sullivan Beare has a whole section on ‘Wonderful Places’ (e.g. there are two islands in a lake in Munster with no female animals and where nobody can ever die’). But on the other his very few people today can confidentially distinguish like he does between house sparrows (P. domesticus), hedge sparrows (P. modularis) and song thrushes (T. philomelos) or swallows (H. rustica) and swifts (A. apus).

One of the great strengths of the book is the way most of the subjects examined in Latin are glossed, most frequently in Greek, Irish, Spanish or Hebrew. This offers a fantastic resource for translators confronted by natural terminology in other texts from around the same time period.

For historians there is matter for consideration too. O’Sullivan [of] Beare is not afraid to express his opinion about animals and some of these opinions are surprising. Some ‘harmful creatures’ like wild cats, wolves and foxes are condemned but others are not; O’Sullivan argues strongly against the idea that weasels are vermin. He points out they serve humans very well by eliminating harmful granivores. Like many medieval authors he advocates the use of cats to further control pests and dogs to guard against larger predators.

But the real significance of O’Sullivan’s book can be seen when we look at how close his writing was to the earliest scientific naturalists:

Naturalist Nationality Known for Date published
William Turner English Avium Praecipuarum (birds and plants) 1544
Pierre Belon French Histoire de la nature (aquatic species and birds) 1551-5
Conrad Gesner Swiss Historiae Animalium (all species known) 1551-8
John Kay English De Rariorum Animalium (rare animals esp. dogs) 1570
Thomas Muffet English Insectorum (insects) 1593
Aldrovandus Italian Historia Naturalim (general) 1599
Denis O’Sullivan Irish (lived in Spain) Zoilomastrix (Irish flora and fauna) 1626


O’Sullivan was writing only a century after Conrad Gesner, widely regarded as the earliest general naturalist, and the most influential. He wrote a century before Linnaeus, who invented the scientific classification of animals we use today. He wrote so early on that he was able to see several species which became extinct before later naturalists wrote (wolves, wild boar).



Unfortunately O’Sullivan’s book is not an authoritative guide to the historical Irish fauna. There are two probable reasons for this. O’Sullivan left Ireland as a child, and is reliant on hearsay from his father’s generation. He also overuses the account of Pliny for guidance which means his floral and faunal record is not entirely Irish. O’Sullivan records somewhere between 5 and 8 eagles inhabiting Ireland (not including hawks, buzzards (B. buteo), kestrels (F. tinnunculus) but perhaps including other birds of prey). He records the carrion crow (C. corone, not native to Ireland) but completely misses the hooded crow (C. cornix). He records the turtle dove (S. turtur), the great spotted woodpecker (D. major), the white stork (C. ciconia) and the golden oriole (O. oriolus) all of which (again) are not found in Ireland.

This is disappointing because O’Sullivan does make some observations which would be tremendously significant if they were reliable. He explains that cranes (G. grus) are common and commonly tamed. He describes wolves (C. lupus), wild boar (S. scrofa), stoats (M. ermina – Irish stoats are M. nivalis), and ospreys (P. haliaetus).

A second barrier to use is in the modern editor’s translation. Denis O’Sullivan is clearly a scholar of Latin rather than Natural History. This is a problem because several of his passages whilst technically correct are obviously faulty. The most glaring error is in his translation of the term corvus. This is most commonly translated from Latin as ‘crow’, which is how out translator takes it.

However in the manuscript, this term is handily glossed as ‘fiaech duibh’ (modern Irish: ‘fiach dubh’ = the raven, C. corax). The hooded crow, (also wrongly identified) is described further down and called ‘cornix’. The raven translation is supported by the ecological description of the bird living in high trees and cliffs, driving young from the nest early and living in small communities. The corvus is also described as larger than the rook (C. frugilegus) which is in turn larger than the hooded crow. The cormorant (P. carbo) is also described as being the same size whereas the gull (L. larus?) is described as smaller. All of these size descriptions would be incorrect for the carrion crow (C. corone) but correct for the raven. The carrion crow is not even found very frequently in Ireland. This is one of the most frequently mentioned pieces of bird nomenclature and its mistranslation does not inspire faith in the book as a whole.


seagulls and crow

Photograph taken by Alex O’Neal and licensed under CC-BY-SA. Note the comparative size of the carrion crow and ?herring? gulls.



(This part also posted on to facilitate indexing)

‘The Natural History of Ireland’ is a useful text for historians and ecologists of the country. Considering it was first written in the seventeenth century, an impressive variety of birds, mammals, fish, trees and plants are described. An easy-to-read modern translation is presented alongside the original text in Latin. Readers will find that O’Sullivan [of] Beare’s views to be a strange mixture of scientific and gullible.

For those interested in natural history, this provides a tentative key to which species were present and which were absent in the early historic period, before the damage caused by gamekeepers and early scientists. Unfortunately the text is not authoritative in this respect, and it describes many species which were definitely not found in Ireland.

For those involved in translating rare and ambiguous pieces of environmental nomenclature, the many glosses of the ‘Natural History’ compare the forms in Latin, Hebrew, Irish and Spanish. The presentation of these glosses alongside descriptions of their subjects should allow translation with a high degree of confidence. Translators do need to be cautious with O’Sullivan’s translation into modern English however. Some of the interpretations given are clearly wrong (e.g. ‘corvus’ here /= ‘crow’). In all cases the description of the species given should be compared with those in a reliable zoological handbook.


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