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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C
File photo of a penguin in Antarctica

Once upon a time, Ireland was full of penguins - here's how they disappeared

No, not the chocolate bars – real penguins. Author Rob Maguire explains.

ONCE UPON A time, Ireland was full of penguins.

By penguins, I don’t mean the frankly disappointing chocolate bars found in many a 90’s lunchbox; and by once upon a time I mean relatively recently. The great auk, the magnificent penguin-like bird from whose scientific term (pinguinus impennis) the penguin itself gets its name, only departed from our shores in 1834.

Which means that, should it have taken his fancy, Daniel O’Connell could have had a penguin in his lunchbox (horrific as that may be).

For quite some time, the great auk was one of the most common birds of the North Atlantic. They numbered in their millions, and were, like penguins, flightless and adorable. Unfortunately for the great auk, they had several other distinctive features that proved inconvenient. Their feathers were incredibly warm and soft, their bodies rich in oil, and their frames bestowed with plenty of meat. You can see where this is going.

Natural hunters


With their keen razor-like beaks, auks were natural hunters. In the water they had agility and cunning in spades, and all the elegance of a born predator. On land, however, they were clumsy and fumbling, like someone walking around with their hands in their pockets and their shoelaces tied together.

Had it have been fish that picked a fight with the great auk, maybe things would have turned out differently. Sadly for this staple of Irish coastal life, its problem was people.

“But auks are plentiful!” a bullish 18th Century sailor might have exclaimed had someone travelled back in time and asked him to stop. Indeed, they had been, for as long as anyone could remember – going as far back as to appear on cave paintings found across Northern Europe.

However, auk populations had begun to noticeably dwindle, and in an early example of environmentally conscious law-making, Great Britain banned the killing of great auks in 1794. While this sounded like a fantastic idea and was no doubt very well-intentioned, the birds had now become collector’s items. What’s worse: the bizarre Victorian fad of ‘egg-collecting’ was about to hit its stride with a maniacal fervour. The great auks didn’t stand a chance.

Perhaps on some level the auks themselves had already seen the writing on the wall, because by this point they had mostly retreated to small rocky islands, uninhabited by humans. Not getting the hint, humans followed them; and gradually over the next half century, the remaining population was picked off. Before humans ever really realised that there was a risk of losing the great bird for good, it was already too late.

The last great auk captured in Britain was in 1840, near Stac an Armin in Scotland. The bird was kept in captivity for three days before a storm hit: a storm for which the bird was blamed, and then executed as a witch.

The last Irish auk

The last great auks seen in the world were a pair – great auks mated for life – on Eldey Island, off the coast of Iceland. Sailors attempting to steal the couple’s egg strangled the birds with their bare hands. The egg was smashed in the struggle.

The last great auk in Ireland was found off Brownstown Head in Waterford in 1834. Now it lives behind a pane of glass in the Zoology Museum at Trinity College – safely protected from the humans on the other side who look in and think “It really does look quite like a penguin”.

Humans haven’t been quite as mean to penguins as our ancestors were to the great auk, but perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned behind this pane of glass all the same.

Otherwise, this troubled old bird in Dublin 2 could soon be joined by the corncrake – an endearingly awful singer whose call sounds like a fax-machine trying to pass as a bullfrog, and whose already miniscule population in Ireland has fallen by almost 40% in the last four years.

If not the corncrake, maybe the natterjack toad – one of a mere three species of amphibians native to Ireland, who has lost a devastating amount of its natural habitat over the last century.

Or the wild Atlantic salmon, an animal so crucial to our national identity, whose breeding population has declined a massive 60% over just a handful of decades.

Or the European eel – down to a disastrous 7% of what its population was in the 80s.

A massive one third of bee species found in Ireland are on the brink of extinction – maybe we can fit them all into the glass case?

We’d better leave room for the curlew. And the red squirrel. And the pine marten. And the twite. And the thrift clearwing. And the grey partridge. And the freshwater pearl mussel. And the white skate.

And the… well… you get the point.

Rob Maguire is the author of Dr Hibernica Finch’s Compelling Compendium of Irish Animals, illustrated by Aga Grandowicz. It’s nominated in the Best Irish Published Book of the Year category (sponsored by of the An Post Irish Book Awards. The awards take place on Tuesday 27 November. There’s still time to vote for your favourite books this year - visit the website to find out more.

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