I’VE always had a fascination with prehistoric life. The very idea that the world was once stocked with strange creatures, vastly different from the ones we see today, has captivated me since I first read about dinosaurs as a boy.
I spent my childhood looking for the clues they left behind, excavating every garden I could in my hunt for fossils. I left plenty of holes behind, but sadly had no fossils to show for my efforts.
Other fossil hunters, though, have had far more luck than I over the centuries. We use these clues to build up a picture of life in Ireland as it was in ages past.
We travel on a safari through time and place — from the floor of the primordial sea half a billion years ago right up to the streets of our modern cities.
Along the way, we’ll see how life on our island has changed, and even contemplate what the future might hold in store.
From landmark fossil trackways to teeth teased from limestone, some amazing fossil evidence has been unearthed in Ireland over the years — and is still being found today.
Over the eons, the land that would become Ireland played host to armoured dinosaurs, mighty mammoths and giant deer. Our oceans, meanwhile, were once stalked by shelled monstrosities the size of a man, and terrifying marine lizards that tracked their prey with forked tongues through the water.
With advances in dating techniques and an ever-growing knowledge of the world as it once was, we can glean more from these discoveries than ever before.
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 up a record of Ireland as it once was, and of the weird and fascinating creatures that once lived here.
The present has never been a better time to delve into the past.
No county has contributed more to our understanding of life in Ice Age Ireland than Cork.
Its southerly location helped the county remain largely ice free, even at the height of the Ice Age, providing a refuge for a wonderful menagerie of beasts.
Here, 35,000 years ago, prehistoric giants rubbed shoulders with animals that would look more at home on the African savannah or Arctic tundra of today.
The treasure trove of bones that have emerged from Castlepook Cave helps us paint a picture of an ecosystem lost to time, where the grasslands were grazed by woolly mammoths and giant deer.
In Life In Ireland, we explore the natural history of these two titans of the Ice Age — how they lived, fought, bred and ultimately met their doom. They shared this habitat with the reindeer we’re still familiar with today. These herbivores provided food for clans of spotted hyenas, which we probably have to thank for the build up of bones in the cave.
Even a site like Castlepook, well known to science for over a century, can still turn up surprises. Just this year, scientists revealed that one of the reindeer bones unearthed in the cave — dated at 33,000 years old — had cut marks on it left by the stone tools of human hunters.
This amazing discovery pushed back the date for human arrival in Ireland by more than 20,000 years.
Of course, the saga of life in Ireland did not end with the Ice Age. In our forests, farms, bogs and even city streets, wildlife is all around us today. For thousands of years now, life in Ireland has been dominated by one species: modern humans.
Since first arriving here during the Ice Age, we have gone on to shape the landscape and wildlife of Ireland like no creature before us.
As well as our deep past, Life In Ireland also explores the time since the coming of man — and the immense impact this has had upon our natural world, as the fauna and flora of 21st century Ireland started to take shape.
The time since the arrival of man makes up one of the shortest chapters in this story. And yet, for us, it is probably the most compelling. It encompasses Ireland’s natural history as we can still see, hear and smell it today.
It is a period when human history and natural history collide. And while there’s not much we can do to resurrect ecosystems that have been gone for millions of years, the wild Ireland that has coexisted with man since the last Ice Age is still here — if in a degraded state — and can still be saved if we choose to save it.
With man’s mastery of nature, a redoubled resolve to preserve it has grown.
I wrote Life In Ireland not just to summarise the sins of our forebears against Irish wildlife, but also to commend the stellar conservation efforts being made to preserve nature on our changing island.
Life In Ireland: A Short History Of A Long Time, by Conor W. O’Brien, is published by Merrion Press. Available now