Early Christian monks kept a keen eye on Ireland's flora and fauna, and biological sciences here have been evolving ever since. The earliest description of Ireland's natural history was written by a monk, Augustin, in AD 655: De Mirabilibus Sacrae Scripturae. And the 8th-century Book of Kells has an illustration of a black rat, the first reference to a rat in Ireland.

Augustin lists the Irish mammals, alongside accounts of Biblical events, and concludes that Ireland was once joined to Europe by a land bridge. (See the Flora & Fauna feature)

After the monks, came the invaders and planters. In 1188 Norman chronicler, Giraldus Cambrensis, wrote an account based on his travels round Ireland. He noted the presence of the capercaillie and crane, which later became extinct here, and the absence of hedgehogs, frogs and pike, which were introduced later.

The first modern scientific account, and the first in English, was by Dutch physician Gerard Boate. Published in 1652 and aimed at adventurers and settlers, it covers landscape, natural history, resources, climate and industry. Early scientists associated with Trinity College Dublin, notably William Molyneux, also studied and surveyed the Irish flora and fauna.

By the 18th century, the science of biology was emerging, encouraged in Ireland by the Royal Dublin Society (founded 1731), and the Royal Irish Academy (1785). The RDS established the botanic gardens, a natural history museum and veterinary college, and the RIA encouraged marine research voyages.

The 19th century was the great era of the amateur naturalist. Gentlemen and gentlewomen travelled the country in search of rare, interesting and unusual species, and field clubs were begun, notably the Dublin and Belfast naturalist field clubs which are still active. Many Irish amateur naturalists were women, who were still denied access to the universities and many professions.

Professional naturalists remained rare. Trinity College Dublin employed a botanist to run its plant collection, but botany was still part of medicine then. Mostly, naturalists in Ireland were of independent means or had another profession. Renowned plant collector, Augustine Henry, for instance, began work as a medical doctor and was appointed professor of forestry at the Royal College of Science, only in 1913.

Not until the 20th century do we see the modern scientific disciplines of botany, zoology, microbiology and later physiology, biochemistry and genetics. Many were inspired to study biology after world War II by a book, What is Life?, based on lectures given in Dublin in 1943 by Nobel physicist Erwin Schrodinger.

Interest grew with the discovery of DNA's double helix in 1953, and the later 20th century belonged to biology. Recent discoveries include the existence of cold water corals in deep waters off the Irish coast.

The subject was introduced to Irish secondary schools in the 1960s, and figured prominently in the curricula of the Institutes of Technology established in the 1970s.

Biology is now the largest and most popular science subject at Irish schools and universities, encompassing marine and environmental sciences, biotechnology and even bio-engineering. Biotechnology is now also a key part of Ireland's pharmaceutical industry.

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