Dr. Mary Gillham: Ireland, Donkeys and DNA


One of the pleasures of biographical research is finding personal insights. This has proven to be elusive in the case of freshwater ecologist Dr. Kathleen Carpenter who left a trail of scientific studies in the early half of the last century but few accounts exist of what she was like as a person. However one of my work colleagues has shared with me his admiration for his inspirational teacher Dr. Mary Gillham, a more recent Welsh based ecologist. Her papers, photographs and diaries are currently being curated as part of a special project – A Dedicated Naturalist: The Dr. Mary Gillham Archive Project.

Mary Gillham visited many of the classic natural history sites in Ireland between 1963 and 1988 – The Burren, Connemara, Killarney and several offshore islands, including Inishboffin, Achill Island and Cape Clear.  I could not resist asking if I could see some of the material from these trips with her extramural students from Cardiff University.  I did not expect to find an abundance of donkeys! The slides from almost every trip to Ireland include donkeys and her island guide book describes her enjoyment of these surprise encounters. This blog reunited her descriptions of these encounters with photographs she took at the time.

DonkeyOnGrassCape Clear: “We also met an aged donkey who spent most of his time between feeds “stretched” on the ground – he too, past serving his master. All the animals encountered were very forthcoming, evidently regarding humans as friends. Or did they know that the likes of us, furnished with binoculars, were unlikely to put them to work.”

DonkeyManCreelsThe Aran Islands: “Donkeys ranged freely over rocks, dunes and beaches, serving their master well as mounts or when their paired wicker panniers were laden with seaweed, potatoes or rye. Some hauled small jaunting carts with stores from the pierhead at Killeany.”

Kerry: “Returning to our farmhouse accommodation near Killorglin the lane was blocked at one point by a dappled, long-eared donkey, ruminating at right angles to the bordering stone hedges. We drew to a DonkeyCarhalt and he turned to us with a self-satisfied smile, knowing he had the upper hand.It took quite a while for Mairead to push him out of the way, one end at a time, after which he trust his head through the driver’s window to seek a reward for being so accommodating. There is something endearing and stubbornly Irish about Irish donkeys, even when they filch the apple from the hand before the first bite has been taken.”

Recent DNA studies have revealed the far away origin of the donkey and the length of the relationship with people. Their ancestors were first recruited and tamed by people in the deserts of North Africa more than 5000 years ago. Ancient trade routes and civilisations were supported by these faithful animals.

Donkeys have come a long way but their joint journey with the people of Ireland is set to continue.

With my sincere thanks to Annie Irving (@sconzani) and Al Reeves for their assistance with the production of this blog.  You can follow follow progress with The Mary Gillham Archive Project on Twitter and Facebook.   



2 thoughts on “Dr. Mary Gillham: Ireland, Donkeys and DNA

  1. Pingback: ‘Dedicated Naturalist’: Mary and the donkeys | earthstar

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