Ussher, Richard John

Richard John Ussher (1841 – 1913)

Ornithologist, avian fossils

Richard Ussher was born at Cappagh House, Cappagh, County Waterford . He lived abroad for many years but around 1866 returned to Ireland and settled at his birthplace. His first great interest in ornithology was the now-taboo activity of egg-collecting. He later joined the Society for the Protection of Birds and became interested in learning the habits and whereabouts of rare species. This led to the study of avian fossils, stimulated by the discovery near his home of an ‘ossiferous cavern’ containing ancient bird remains.

In his book The Way that I Went, one of Ireland ’s most renowned naturalists, Robert Lloyd Praeger, described Richard Ussher thus:

" ... a timid man one would say on meeting him, yet without fear when dangling at the end of a rope on a tall cliff in his earlier egg-hunting days. His extraordinary pertinacity and devotion to scientific research were well displayed in later years, when he spent week after week in cave-digging,    collecting fossil bones all day from wet clay and stalagmite by candle-light, and sleeping in a cramped and leaky hut. I lay out with him the whole of one night in the heather of the Great Saltee, when we tried to time the arrival and departure of the nocturnal Manx Shearwaters, and during the long sleepless hours I learned much of his philosophy of life. He was over seventy then, but thought nothing of a ‘night out’."

For the last twenty years of his life, Richard Ussher spent much of his time excavating sites in counties Cork, Waterford, Clare and Sligo, adding much to our knowledge of extinct fauna. In the Sandhills at Tramore he is believed to have found remains of the Great Auk. He was an acknowledged expert on crossbills.

He published many papers on ornithology and avian fossils, his best-known work being the Birds of Ireland (1906).  A commemorative plaque to Ussher is planned for  the entrance to his family home at Cappagh House.


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