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Secrets of the Irish Landscape

In this major new three part series, airing as part of the RTÉ Goes Wild season, Derek Mooney will follow in the footsteps of one of Ireland's greatest unsung scientists Robert Lloyd Praeger.

Standing by a small pool near Roundstone bog in the west of Ireland, any first-time European botanist would be both confused and startled by the mixture of plant types. The pools from which grow American Pipewort and Water Lobelia, are fringed by Spanish heathers, while the rocky knolls over which Siberian Juniper straggles are also abode to two Pyrenean plants; St. Dabeoc's heath and St Patrick's-cabbage. In the limestone wilderness of the Burren of northern County Clare, the Dense-flowered Orchid, far from its Mediterranean home, sends up its flowerspikes through carpets of the Arctic alpine Mountain Avens. Ever since this seemingly flora of contradictions was revealed, botanists have argued as to how it came about, and only now do we have the tools that allow us to begin to unravel that history..

In 1895 Robert Lloyd Praeger began a pilgrimage across Ireland that was to take up every weekend of the spring and summer months of his life for the next five years. On Friday evenings he made his way from his place of work, the National Library, to Heuston Station (then Kingsbridge) to board the Great Southern and Western Railway or Midland Great Western Railway services, which then connected to nearly 500 rural railway stations across the country. Saturday and Sunday were spent botanising with a purpose - his aim was to chart the distribution of all plants across the country - nothing less than a one-man census of the entire Irish flora. By Sunday evening he had walked across country, or conducted a 40 mile circuit that brought him to a railway station and a return train to Dublin for work on Monday morning.

Praeger considered a day's field work as "twelve hours spent covering 20-25 miles." In total he spent over 200 days walking in excess of 7,000 kilometres, noting thousands of plant records as he went. He abhorred motorcars. Not only did Praeger more than double our knowledge of the distribution of the Irish flora, he also gained an intimate knowledge of the country, which he recounts in his classic book The Way That I Went published in 1937. It was during these heroic walks across Ireland when Praeger might have pondered where the flora of Ireland had come from and how it had got here.

For this major new three part television series Derek Mooney will follow in the footsteps of one of Ireland's greatest unsung scientists to uncover the true extent of the extraordinary scientific journey started by Praeger. What Praeger began was a process - discovering the true make-up of Ireland's distinct and unique plant life - that is far from over. It is still subject to much scientific endeavour and hot debate today. The story is ongoing and ever changing with new questions being asked and answered all the time.

For this series Derek Mooney, with the help of Praeger's 1937 book The Way That I Went, will go on an epic journey around Ireland and Europe, looking back 20,000 years to unravel the true enigma surrounding Ireland's unique and stunning eco system.

Secrets of the Irish Landscape is part funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and is an RTÉ Cork Production for RTÉ Television.

The series is accompanied by a book, Secrets of the Irish Landscape, edited by Matthew Jebb and Colm Crowley, published in hardback by Atrium, an imprint of Cork University Press, and available from 3rd May.

Secrets of the Irish Landscape
  • RTÉ One, Sunday 5th May, 6.30pm