C’mon. Hop on into the Beastmobile. Have you been to the loo? Have you charged your phone ok? I’ve got snacks, we can have lunch in this utterly gorgeous wee pub I know. Right then, off we go. I’m taking you over to my side of the pond, my heartland. West coast Ireland – Mayo, Clare, wherever we fancy. Breathe that air – have you ever felt anything as clean? You’re at the last outpost of Europe. The grey swell of the Atlantic there would lead you to Nova Scotia, or, less likely, Tír na nÓg, the land of eternal youth and beauty beyond the Ninth Wave, if you want to roll with the old myths and legends.
This coastline is mythical in its own savage beauty, with sunken beaches, dunes rising from sea mist, amethyst lodes embedded in stern grey crags, and sweeping rich green turf, studded with obstinate white sheep. The sheer cliff faces suddenly give way to turquoise lagoons, sheltered silver beaches and seas replete with dolphins. If you were a very wealthy and not very nice person, it would be a place you’d see massive chances for commercial exploitation in, because who wouldn’t want to be here? You can stand on the jagged rocky beaches, arms spread wide, and let the wind and tide tell you about the depths of the ocean out there, and the whirling jet stream coming up from the panhandle of Florida.
Away out in the wild wild west, where the Mesolithic was always the best 😉 A little further north, this, on Achill Island.
If you want to understand the concept of liminality, this is the place to do it, preferably with a rich smoky whiskey beside an open turf fire, in one of the myriad splendid roadside pubs across the region. This was the last stop of the Mesolithic voyagers over 10kya. Done roaming. The same for the Neolithic explosion of some 6000 years ago. They stood on these beaches too, scanning for good places to settle, to fish and hunt.
However, this landscape was once dense, thick sheets of ice.
But we aren’t fully sure….
That’s kind of the start of this story, which will involve a very, very eensy tiny wee Twilight Beast, the landscape it needs to exist, what horrors that landscape attracted because of its beauty, and how something so terribly small turned out to be, in fact, very powerful. Maybe in that respect, it’s a story for our times, one we all need at the moment.
Ireland after the Ice
We will never know what was here before the ice sheets marched inexorably across Ireland around 32,000 years ago (32kya). That landscape of forests and rivers was lost, as the relentless glaciers advanced, covering even the mountain peaks, well, apart from the McGillicuddy Reeks in Kerry. However, underwater moraines off the westward Atlantic shelf break, as well as other features in the Irish Sea basin, and the southerly Celtic Sea off Cork, all indicate an island in the grip of an almost eternal winter, white and frozen, by 23kya. By 20kya the ice had retreated to roughly what is now the modern shoreline of Ireland, followed by a series of advances and retreats, until a general retreat and thaw around 15kya as a standard for the whole island.
The landscape left after the glaciers had melted and retreated was boggy, misty, still cold, and filled with lakes where the ice had gouged out hollows, now filling with melted waters, a newly emerged world holding its breath, waiting for life to return. Which of course it did. It’s just how the issue is!
The return of vegetation is understandable – seeds arrived, windblown, or washed up by the seas and newly running rivers; birds arrived too, spreading life in the form of birdsong, seeds and poop through the silent mists. Somewhere in the middle of all this re-greening, mammals arrived, although not as many as Britain has. Also, little tiny crawling, hopping and slithering things like insects, frogs and slugs… oh, and snails, made their way somehow to Ireland.
The post-glacial re (?)/colonisation of Ireland is riddled with contradictions as to how critters came here. We’ve been left with three possible answers, although all are slightly fraught with problems. Either some critters, especially amphibians and invertebrates, managed somehow to survive the ice, which in turn leads to the question of refugia on Icy Ireland, or else there was a land-bridge between Britain and Ireland, which in turn connected to Europe via the Doggerland land mass. However, there’s a problem with the good old land-bridge theory. The latest evidence suggests that Ireland likely did not have a land-bridge with Britain or Scotland, or if it did, it was of a brief duration, resembling more of a causeway, due to rapidly rising sea levels. So, it’s very difficult to pin down exactly what species can be called ‘indigenous’ to Ireland, and how you choose to define that. All we can say is that something allowed the wild creatures to arrive onto this island after the ice, whether they walked, crawled, hopped, splashed, scampered or slithered of their own accord, or if they were brought by humans.
The commencing dates of the Mesolithic in Ireland are still pretty much up for grabs. We always though the Mesolithic here started with Mount Sandel on the Lower Bann near Coleraine, some 10,000-ish years ago, and likewise with Hermitage, in Co Limerick on the west coast, where the earliest polished axe head in Europe was found in a rare Mesolithic grave, dating between 7530-7320 BC (I know you want to see it so there is a photo of it!). However, the ‘Bear from Clare’ story has suggested there’s an even earlier phase, which may yet have to be classified as a late Irish Palaeolithic period. Whoever these people were, they had journeyed across seas to Ireland, bringing fragments of their old lives with them in the form of tools, stories, seeds and creatures. We are lucky that they chose to stick around. Their middens remain, at places like Rockmarshall in Louth, testament to the arrival of the first hunter-gatherers after the ice.
From the ubiquitous http://www.irisharchaeology.ie, an image of the Hermitage Mesolithic stone axe head, found in a cremation context: http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/03/a-mesolithic-cemetery-irelands-oldest-burials/
Snails and trails
It’s into this uncertainty we introduce our Twilight Beast: Vertigo angustior. Better known (by malacologists if no-one else) as the Narrow-Mouthed Whorl Snail. The tiny bane of anti-environmentalists in White Houses (ahem, you know who I mean) and Preventer of Walls. V. angustior is a very small land snail, even by snail standards. It has a golden honey-coloured shell height of around 1.8 mm, and a width of under 1mm. It’s an endangered species in Ireland and Britain, just as it is across Europe, and has mostly clung to the western coastline, with some in County Clare, and a scattering close to the Giants Causeway, between Counties Derry and North Antrim. Because it arrived in Ireland long ago, when niche species had a better chance of surviving (until the next climate change phase anyway), it has fallen foul in our modern, polluted world because of its need for a ‘goldilocks’ environment.
When I say tiny, I mean… teensy tiny! Thank you to malacologist and all round good bloke Dr Matt Law ( Twitter @m_law) for this photo!
Technically, the little relict critter can live in dune grassland, fen, marsh, salt marsh or flood plain. However, the micro‐habitat within which it is restricted means that the exact perfect conditions are exceedingly rare. The largest areas of occupancy in Ireland are in damp sand dune systems in the west of Ireland, perhaps because there’s a better chance that the desolate and wild, and relatively untouched landscape still maintains a permanently moist litter with humid conditions, incorporating the shade of moderately tall herbaceous or grassy vegetation. Just like the Mesolithic then….
How did it manage to get here, at the junction of the Holocene and Pleistocene? It is perhaps worth noting that the famous Mesolithic site of Ferriters Cove, County Cork, is some 100km southwards from the V. angustior habitation site of Doughmore Bay, in County Clare, which we are going to discuss shortly. Ferriters Cove site produced late Mesolithic dates for cattle bones – the earliest in Ireland or Britain. There’s a current theory that haunches and sides of beef were brought in, like some sort of Mesolithic Iceland or Tesco delivery system by sea, rather than ‘on the hoof’. Regardless of whether the cows were alive or dead, the presence of the bones indicate importation and trade with other places, in this case most likely the Iberian Peninsula or France. There have long been noted similarities between Iberia and the alleged refugia peaks of south western Ireland; some frog species share ancestral haplogroups with Iberian frogs, and the peregrinations of Cepaea nemoralis from Mesolithic Iberia to Ireland has been blamed on deliberate import for a tasty dish of escargot at an ancient al fresco beach party. Poor litte V. angustior really wouldn’t be a good choice for dinner as it doesn’t have much pickings in its shell! So it may be the tiny little land snail was a hitch hiker on other goods being shipped in by the intrepid sea travellers.
This past month has been an exciting time for Northern Ireland as an even rarer relative of the little snail, Vertigo moulinsiana, has only recently been found in the east coast region of Lecale, on the Ards Peninsula, the first time it’s ever been found in Ireland, and this story is basically unfolding as I write. It’s really not known how the slithery little pals even got there, and if they have actually been there all along. To our defence, 2mm is really rather small, and can be overlooked rather easily, when dazzled especially by the plethora of natural and archaeological features of Lecale.
We’re gonna build a wall…
It’s a small miracle, therefore, that V. angustior has survived at all, and in one of its refugia on the west coast of Ireland, it was touch and go for a while. Doonbeg beach, and nearby Doughmore Bay is in County Clare and a habitat for the wee snail. It is an incredible landscape of submerged dunes and golden beaches. Sadly, in 2014, this beauty attracted the covetous eyes of unscrupulous big business.
When a substantial part of sea front land was bought by Trump’s real estate interests for conversion to a golf resort, the general feeling was one of horror. While some people with lesser concerns for environmentalism thought it may stimulate employment in the area, most of the younger residents, from middle age to millennial, felt that the destruction of the dune system was a step further than what they wanted. Especially when it became clear that the plan was to build a very large wall, running about 3.5 km, to cut the beach off from the sea itself. Now, environmental walls are not a good idea, and belong firmly in the realms of very strange people who deny climate change, so the screaming for a Doonbeg Wall was pretty par for the course, considering who wanted it. It was particularly strange, as the reason for it was supposed to be to prevent the golf course from being hit by coastal erosion due to – climate change, something Trump has repeatedly stated is a ‘hoax’, which he certainly doesn’t believe in. Unless, presumably, you want to create a golf course which continues to lose money at a fairly energetic rate.
If anyone knows anyone from Mayo or Clare, it’s really best not to lock horns with them. They are like their landscape, resilient and enduring. While Trump is well known for his aggression and antagonism to residents near his Scottish golf-courses, in this case, he had met his match, as he locked not horns with a long term Clare resident, but whorls. The tiny snail, as a protected species, would have become further endangered with the destruction of its micro-habitat. The sand dune system which it lives in is protected by the European Union, just like V. angustior. So, Trump has had little choice but to submit alternative plans for his golf course at Doonbeg, negating the original planned wall and replacing it with piling and rock armour in two shorter stretches, and moving some of the holes of the course further inland. It is still not ideal, and even the revised plans are currently being contested by An Taisce (the equivalent of the National Trust for Ireland), Friends of the Earth, numerous environmental organisations and more concerned residents of the area. This is due to go to court sometime at the end of 2018. The vast majority of environmentally aware people would be most relieved that Doonbeg would remain a sanctuary for a little snail, taxa whose habitational needs tell us a great deal of what the environment was like after the ice melted.
Perhaps, it’s a moral story of our time, for us to take some heart from, that something so small, and theoretically insignificant as a land snail only 2mm tall, could slow down the anti-science brigade, just by being itself – a tiny, ancient thing made of pearly honey-coloured shell, itself most likely a little Mesolithic immigrant creature who hitched a ride on something which was much more desirable as a trade object. The Mesolithic, of course, knew no borders. The ice was gone and there was a world to explore with your boat, and a frisky wind to blow you to green shores and rivers leaping with silver trout. Who knows what little hitch hiker creatures tagged along, wrapped in leaves and grasses from faraway places? Like V. angustior, we all start someplace else, until we find the place we call home, based on our own needs and terms, where the only walls ( or shells!) are the ones we call home.
Written by Rena Maguire (@JustRena)
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