A Brief History of Lusitano Flora in Ireland

Lusitania sounds great for a pantomime kingdom. It was, more tragically, an ocean liner torpedoed off Cork in 1915. As an ancient Roman province on the Iberian Peninsula, it also served as a loose term of origin for a significant portion of Ireland’s fauna. more colorful.

“Lusitano” plants, animals and insects have Irish locations, notably in County Kerry, but have mostly ignored any foothold in Britain and have their nearest native homes in Spain and elsewhere on the peninsula Iberian. “A book could be filled with a discussion of the many problems [they have] high,” naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger wrote in the 1930s.

Speculating how and when they arrived, and from where, has engaged Irish zoologists, naturalists and botanists for over 150 years. Today’s research, often aided by advances in DNA, has defined many plausible pathways of human introduction, from badgers for fur and meat to the tasty banded snails of the Pyrenees.

The final theory concerns the magnificent strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, and involves the possible drinking habits of Spanish Bronze Age copper miners.

For all its exotic flowers and scarlet fruit, the strawberry tree has been considered a native plant, largely because archaeological and pollen studies have shown its presence in south-west Ireland 4,000 years ago. . But research by NUI Galway’s Micheline Sheehy Skeffington and plant ecologist Nick Scott followed a recent genetic study that suggested a direct introduction from northern Spain.

Arbutus pollen

Intensive research into its past and present Irish distribution has focused on its abundance on the shores of Lough Leane, the largest of Killarney’s three lakes. Arbutus pollen from a bog core was found to be the oldest here, possibly up to 4,000 years old. This has now been supported by the discovery of charcoal from the tree “associated with mining on Ross Island, Lough Leane, dating to around 4,200 years ago”.

Archaeologists have shown that copper mining began on this rocky island around 2,400 BC. AD to the Chalcolithic Age, before the Bronze Age. It was the earliest known copper mining in northwestern Europe and was perhaps part of a cultural movement along its Atlantic fringe, an increasingly important center of historical research.

The nearest copper mining was in northern Spain, but why would migrant miners arriving at Lough Leane bring strawberry tree fruit with them? It was not, say the new researchers, burning the tree to make charcoal. “It could have been brought as a food source, or even because the tree or fruit was important to their culture and/or mining tradition,” their article on British and Irish botany notes.

“Perhaps significantly,” they continue, “A. unedo naturally produces alcohol in ripe berries, even on the tree, and is commonly used in Mediterranean countries as a source of alcohol. Today it is distilled for brandy, but the initial process is very simple and could have been practiced by early communities; the ripe berries, picked directly from the tree, are placed in a pot with a little water, crushed and left for several months. . . ”

The historical links to alcohol engrossed Dr. Sheehy Skeffington in his previous research on Lusitanian plants from Ireland.

The Lily of Kerry, Simethis mattiazzii, with exquisite white flowers, is native to southwestern France and northern and western Spain. Its “disjointed” Irish settlements are on neighboring peninsulas on the far south-west coasts of Kerry and Cork.

Again, he was widely believed to be indigenous, a historical survivor in an Ice Age refuge. But detailed maps of its Irish populations were lacking until a study in 2009. Most groups of lilies were found on the south coast of County Kerry around Derrynane Bay and on nearby Abbey Island and many in separate populations beside the sea.

‘Lusitanian Heathers’

In an article for British and Irish Botany, Sheehy Skeffington notes the “inconspicuous coastal coves with landing beaches, hidden from view from the sea by small islands”. Along the coast at Castlecove and Glanlough similar narrow inlets gave quick access to a minor road inland.

As in his studies of the origin of Ireland’s ‘Lusitanian’ heathers, the plant ecologist links lilies to the activities of smugglers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the seeds caught in soft packaging around barrels of liquor and spilled on shallow surfaces. ground on the ridges above the beach.

The genetic homogeneity of plants from different coves suggests that the seeds arrived in “a single shipment, possibly from southwestern France or northern Spain, and unloaded to a number of hidden locations around of Kenmare Bay”.

It even offers a brain, implicated by other researchers. “The O’Connell family of Derrynane was notorious for their bootlegging business,” she wrote. “There are records of tea and brandy being sent to Derrynane from Nantes and sometimes from Bordeaux, as well as the odd barrel of wine for personal consumption. The O’Connells were also known to import contraband goods from Spain .

Yes, those same O’Connells at Derrynane House. Sláinte Daniel!

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