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Collage composed of a golden eagle feather with a handwritten label attached and an addressed lavender-coloured envelope.
A golden eagle feather and note addressed to Richard John Ussher from Patrick Doherty (Ussher Bird Notes Collection, RIA: Box 1, Envelope 3)

The Birds of Ireland

For this instalment of the Library blog, we are introducing the Ussher Bird Notes Collection and are sharing some very exciting news with our readers during National Biodiversity Week. In what follows, we explain the scope and importance of this collection and our plans for the next twelve months.

Rebecca Cairns and Barbara McCormack

Introduction to Richard John Ussher and the Bird Notes Collection

Writing on the natural history collections at the Royal Irish Academy Library, James P. O’Connor, MRIA described the field naturalist, archaeologist and ornithologist Richard John Ussher, MRIA (1841-1913) as follows:

Richard Ussher was a quiet, courteous and rather shy man. This demeanour, however, hid the determination, fearlessness and contempt for discomfort which he displayed in his explorations both ornithological and paleontological.

Born at Cappagh House, Cappagh, Co. Waterford in April 1841, Ussher showed a keen interest in natural history from a young age and was an avid egg-collector, a hobby he would eventually relinquish, spending his later years working with the Irish Society for the Protection of Birds. His formal education was hindered by periods of ill-health which meant he was unable to obtain his degree from Trinity College Dublin but, as R. M. Barrington has noted, Ussher spent many winters in warmer climates like Spain, Italy, and Corfu where he likely indulged his interest in natural history. He became a Justice of the Peace for Co. Waterford in the 1860s and married Elizabeth Finlay soon after, building a new house at Cappagh in the 1870s.

Beige envelope postmarked and addressed to Ussher at his Cappagh home.
A letter addressed to R. J. Ussher (Ussher Bird Notes Collection Box 3, Envelope 30)

About the collection

Once described as ‘facile princeps’ or the ‘Recording Angel’ for his fastidious approach to recording Irish avifauna, Ussher was one of Ireland’s greatest naturalists. His Birds of Ireland, written with Robert Warren and published in 1900, was concerned with telling the story of birds on the island of Ireland and was, as described in the preface ‘compiled by Irishmen to supply that information about the Birds of their country which has been long and increasingly demanded’.  
Ussher became a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1905 and in 1911 gave the sum of £300 as the nucleus of a fund for promoting the study of the vertebrate zoology of Ireland, past and present. He later bequeathed his manuscripts, notes and papers which came to the Academy after his death in 1913 following a short illness. The collection contains approximately 9,000 items including correspondence, cards, papers, galley proofs, notes, jotters, notebooks, photographs, leaflets, postcards, journals, newspaper cuttings, and specimens like eggs and feathers.

Bundle of letters tied together with cotton tape.
A bundle of letters from the Ussher Bird Notes Collection. (Ussher Bird Notes Collection, RIA Library)
Box containing two smaller boxes and sparrow egg speciments.
A small box containing two sets of sparrow eggs (Ussher Bird Notes Collection, RIA: Box 10)

News from the Library

Earlier this year, the RIA Library successfully applied for financial support from the Heritage Council as part of the Heritage Stewardship Fund, which supports staff in local authorities, state agencies and educational institutions with responsibility for heritage programmes. This funding will enable the phased cataloguing and digitisation of material from the Ussher Bird Notes Collection for ingest to the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI). This is an exciting opportunity, and we look forward to seeing this incredibly valuable collection be made accessible to researchers and the public. The dedication of Ussher and his collaborators culminated in a very important historical record, which allows us to trace and compare the habits, characteristics, migration and breeding patterns of Irish avifauna.  

Pencil sketch of a male Blackcap with notes beneath.
R. J. Ussher’s sketch of a male Blackcap (Ussher Bird Notes Collection, RIA Box 6, Envelope 1)

The importance of the collection in relation to Ireland’s biodiversity

In the face of growing concerns over catastrophic climate change, we have witnessed the depletion of native and non-native bird populations on both a national and international scale. Species such as the corncrake—which used to be regularly observed across Ireland during the summer—have sadly been added to Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. Fortunately, in recent years there has been an increase in conservation initiatives and rewilding projects to help restore the numbers of endangered or at-risk species of avifauna. Conservation initiatives directed towards the protection of corncrakes, for example, include the Corncrake/Traonach LIFE project, and other initiatives undertaken by BirdWatch Ireland, who work closely with farmers and landowners, and are involved in habitat management on Tory Island and on their Termoncarragh Reserve in Co Mayo. 

Handwritten table of dates on a sheets of notepaper.
A table tracking the dates that the sight or sound of a corncrake was observed by one of Ussher’s collaborators. (Ussher Bird Notes Collection Box 3, Envelope 30)

The Ussher Bird Notes Collection contains important historical data concerning the migration patterns and behaviours of both native and non-native species of birds, serving as a historical snapshot of Ireland’s avifauna, and providing researchers with insight into how Ireland’s landscape has changed in the face of growing urbanisation, pollution, deforestation, and other factors fuelling climate change and biodiversity loss. 

We hope that by making this collection more accessible, researchers will be encouraged to use and analyse the data compiled by Ussher and his colleagues to contribute to growing discourses around conservation and biodiversity efforts in Ireland.

Concluding remarks

We would like to extend our sincere thanks to the Heritage Council for their support in funding this project. Please check our website and/or follow us on social media for regular project updates.

Heritage Council logo


Bird Watch Ireland, “Positive news for Ireland’s Corncrake population but numbers remain critically low,” 18 August 2023,

Bird Watch Ireland, “Red and Amber Lists of Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland (BoCCI4) 2020-2026,

Corncrake LIFE.

James P. O’Connor, ‘Some natural history collections at the Academy Library’ in B. Cunningham and Siobhán Fitzpatrick (eds), Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library (Dublin, 2009), 104-17.

Patricia M. Byrne, ‘Richard John Ussher’, Dictionary of Irish Biography, DOI: 

R.M. Barrington, ‘Richard John Ussher’, Irish Naturalist 22 (1913), 221-7.