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Falkiner and the Origins of the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland

The Library is delighted to announce the second post in our UCD Student Blog Series. Amy Mitchell reports on the fascinating document she found while working on the collections.

This year the Library collaborated with students on the MA Archives and Records Management providing them with access to archival collections. The students worked on four collections: Charles Vallancey Papers (A050), Falkiner C. Litton Papers (A051), Ouzel Galley Collection (A052) and Charles Haliday Papers (A053). The students wrote blog posts about the fascinating material they came across and this blog was written by Amy Mitchell.

‘Notes on the Origin and Early History of the Royal Zoological Society’ (RIA A051/3/3) is a seventeen-page typescript record documenting Caesar Litton Falkiner’s (1863-1908) research and findings about the early years of the Society.

This document was created in result of Falkiner conducting alternative research. Whilst Falkiner undertook an antiquarian investigation into the Phoenix Park, he was led to question how the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland (RZSI) found its home there. His aim was to find evidence that the RZSI was founded in 1830, as stated in their 1900 annual report. Apart from this date being affixed to the building near the zoological garden entrance, no evidence seemed to exist to verify this claim. Falkiner conducted research on the early years of the society to establish the zoological gardens claim and this research forms the basis of this record.

Fig. 1 – Caesar Litton Falkiner (1863-1908). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Fig. 2 – Archway into Dublin Zoo. Image courtesy of William Murphy.

Not only does ‘Notes on the Origin and Early History of the Royal Zoological Society’ provide historical information about the early years of the RZSI and its first live and exotic inhabitants, but it also gives insight into recordkeeping practices in the early 19th century and provides context about how Falkiner carried out his investigative research.

Recordkeeping in the 19th century

Today, we know that the successful operation of organisations is dependent on the ability to create, keep and manage records and other kinds of information effectively. Academics argue that if recordkeeping systems are not robust its exposure to risk would be greatly enhanced.1 Falkiner’s notes clearly illustrate the failed recordkeeping practices of an Irish society in the 19th century.

In his research, Falkiner aimed to identify the reasons around the lack of recordkeeping during the Society’s early years and was thus provided access to the Society’s archives which were under the possession of the Honorary Secretary of the Society. During his visit to the archive, Falkiner found that the original records of the RZSI were extremely limited. The minutes of Council during the Society’s early years were confided to the custody of the officers, but these records were not transmitted with any regularity from one Honorary Secretary to another. In addition, published reports from 1833 onwards were not officially filed and there was no chronological reference to the Society’s official publications from this period. Any trace of a record’s existence was lost due to the lack of recordkeeping practice.

Fig. 3 – Daniel John Cunningham (1850-1909).Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Fig. 4 & 5 – The first and second page of Falkiner’s report (RIA A051/3/3 pp.1-2).

In his own words, Falkiner expressed that “the value of the old reports has become apparent only when they have ceased to be procurable”. At the time of Falkiner’s research, he believed that the failed recordkeeping practices by members of the RZSI led to a lack of foundation documents surviving. The most shocking revelation from Falkiner’s notes revealed that the survival of old reports relied on secretaries picking them out of old member’s waste baskets! Falkiner called this deplorable, but his investigation ultimately led to these lost records being handed into the custody of Dr Daniel John Cunningham (1850-1909), anatomist and Honorary Secretary of the RZSI.

Falkiner and the archives

Falkiner’s notes on the early years of the RZSI also provided a glimpse into the research practices of scholars at the turn of the 20th century. Falkiner attempted to find copies of lost reports by accessing the Haliday Pamphlet Collection at the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) Library and the Irish pamphlets collection at the National Library of Ireland. This reveals that primary research undertaken in archives have not altered in the past 120 years with these collections remaining available for users today.

Fig. 6 RIA Library reading room. Fig. 7 – Researchers in the National Library of Ireland. Image courtesy of National Library of Ireland.

Falkiner noted that there were still many gaps in these collections and even if all reports were obtainable, it threw little light on how the society was founded. There are clear gaps in the documentation available, an issue that persists today. This is a realistic observation and supports the view that records are often more valuable in providing context of the record’s creation rather than the content it contains. A record cannot always tell the full story. Falkiner concluded his research by noting that he could only use the collections available to him and it is on this basis, that his report was presented to the Council.

The Royal Zoological Society of Ireland

This record would be of great interest to anybody seeking historical knowledge about the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland, or as it is known today, the Zoological Society of Ireland (ZSI), who operate Dublin Zoo. Without Falkiner’s determination to investigate the Society’s early years, these lost reports may have never been retrieved from old Society members.

Falkiner’s findings are remarkable and provide an abundance of knowledge about the early years of the RZSI. The first report of the society in 1832 revealed the sources of the society’s collection were provided by King William IV, the London Zoological Society (ZSL), and from friends and members of the Royal Dublin Society (RDS). The report listed the zoological garden’s live and exotic inhabitants which included reptiles, birds, mammals, aquatic animals, and crustaceans.

Fig. 8 & 9 – A listing of the live and exotic collections in the zoological gardens at the time of Falkiner’s report.
(RIA A051/3/3 pp.8-9).

Falkiner’s findings also highlighted the extent of the ground occupied by the zoological gardens in 1832, noting that the ground was insufficient to provide necessary paddocks for larger animals. The report further discussed recommendations for acquiring more natural water sources and described plans for erecting buildings. A report dated the following year ending in May 1833 contained evidence of progress made, such as the construction of an ostrich and emu house.

Fig. 10
– Gatehouse of the Zoological Gardens, Phoenix Park. Image courtesy of Dublin Zoo.
Fig. 11 – Visitors at the camel house, late 1800s. Image courtesy of Dublin Zoo.
Fig. 12 – Roberts House was built in 1902 to house the Gardens lions. Image courtesy of Dublin Zoo.

A later report, dated 1838, noted that an attempt to move the zoological collection to the grounds of Monkstown Castle was made, but this transfer of location was not entertained. The results of Falkiner’s research will be of interest to anybody interested in studying the RZSI or the modern development of Phoenix Park.

This record represents only a small portion of what the RIA Library’s ‘Letters and Papers of C. Litton Falkiner’ collection can offer to researchers. Falkiner became a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1896, providing him with the opportunity to further pursue his study of Irish history and literature. Falkiner’s research is extensive, and this collection comprises of his research notes and related correspondence. Topics of interest range widely from 17th century poets to Anglo-Irish politics to the modernisation of Dublin’s street names. The extent of his research and meticulous note taking can be seen in this collection and proves that we should continue to remember Falkiner as one of the most brilliant Irish historians of his time.


  • “Archives of the Zoological Society of Ireland” Irish Archives Resource, Last modified 2023.
  • Brown, Caroline. Archives and Recordkeeping: Theory into Practice, edited by Brown, Caroline. London: Facet Publishing, 2014.
  • “Dublin Zoo a Summary History” Dublin Zoo, Last modified 2023.
  • ‘Letters and Papers of C. Litton Falkiner’ RIA MS AO51. The Royal Irish Academy Library, Dublin, Ireland.
  • ‘Our History” National Library of Ireland, Last modified 2023.
  • 1 Brown, Caroline. Archives and Recordkeeping: Theory into Practice, edited by Brown, Caroline. London: Facet Publishing, 2014. 4.