by Liam Heneghan
If I asked you to choose from among the several notable Irish William Kings who might possibly serve as first formulator of a hypothesis on the development of bog vegetation you might choose wrongly. The three candidates: William King soldier and politician, William King, geologist and natural scientist, and William King, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin and Lord Justice…. I will give you a moment to reflect on your choices. Tick-tock.
William King, the soldier recorded nothing on bog matters. William King, geologist and naturalist, certainly had the credentials to make sage comment on the bogs and loughs of Ireland. This Mr King held the first chair of geology in Queens College, Galway (now University College Galway) and was later a professor of natural history, geology, and mineralogy. He established a place for geology in teaching across the curriculum in the arts, agriculture and the engineering faculty – an interdisciplinary teacher by any measure. He also lent his modest heft to Darwin, though apparently approving of a modified version of Darwin's thesis. An interesting and scholarly productive fellow; not uncontroversial either, having had to vacate his position at the Hancock Museum, in Newcastle. It appears that in addition to his curatorial duties, he was also a bustling private dealer in geological and biological specimens. The governing committee of the Hancock felt that this was inconsistent with his duties as a curator, and King resigned. As a 19th Century naturalist and geologist, who took a keen interest in matters beyond the confines of his own discipline, and had written on the geomorphology of the famed karsts-formation of the Burren, Co Clare, it would not have been surprising had he penned a note on the origins of a variety of topographic features, especially those whose origins were not clearly understood. Alas he is not our King for this William King (1809–1886) came two centuries too late to be a pioneer in the matter of bog speculation.
No, the William King that we are most concerned with was Church of Ireland Archbishop from 1703 till 1729. King was born 1650 in Antrim in Northern Ireland and studied at Trinity College Dublin getting his BA in 1671 and MA in 1673. At TCD he converted to Anglicanism and was ordained as a deacon in 1673 and priest in 1674. In 1679 he was appointed chancellor (and later Dean) of St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin, and rector of St Werburgh's Church, both iconic Dublin institutions. Like our previously discussed King, this King was also querulous, though on a grander political scale. During the Jacobite period from 1688 to 1691, King, then the senior Church of Ireland cleric in Ireland, declared his support for William of Orange. On suspicion of collusion he was jailed in Dublin Castle in July 1689 and incarcerated once again in 1690 as William’s forces marched towards Dublin. He was released shortly after the battle of the Boyne. The next year he was appointed Bishop of Derry. In 1703 he became Archbishop of Dublin.
King seems an unlikely figure to have written on origin of bogs. A more likely sounding volume of his on the origin of evil (De origine mali 1702) was widely read, however. It drew criticism from none other than mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Nevertheless, in 1685 the Chancellor of St Patrick’s Cathedral presented Of the bogs and loughs of Ireland to the Dublin Society (aka Dublin Philosophical Society, later Royal Dublin Society). Let us listen in to what he reported.
King’s concern in this little paper was how to make bogs useful; for this task he thought it of use to know their origins. On the geographical distribution of bogs he remarked that every “barbarous ill-inhabited country has them.” He somewhat ungenerously remarked that “the true cause of them is want of industry; at least industry may remove, much more prevent them.” To illustrate, King then made a reference to a tract of land in Connacht that at the time of the Battle of Kinsale (1601) was plowed land and by the time that King wrote was bog, an eventuality that stemmed, he argued, “from lack of industry.” It is no wonder, he exclaimed, in a country “famous for laziness, as in Ireland” there should be innumerable bogs. He continues, setting disparagement aside, that:
“Ireland abounds with springs [and..] these springs are generally dry, or near dry, in the Summertime and the Grass, and weeds grow thing about the places where they burst out. In the winter they swell and run and soften, and loosen the Earth about them; now that [sward]…that consists of the roots of grasses, being lifted up and made fuzzy by the water in the winter, (as I have at the head of some springs seen it lift up a foot or two,) is dried in the spring: and doth not fall together, but wither in a tuft, and new grass springs through it; which the next winter is again lift up, and so the spring is more and stopped and the sward (?) grows thicker and thicker till at first it makes that which we call a quaking bog.”
In quaking bog, where there is still a lot of water beneath the sward, King proposed that “vegetables becomes more putrid” along with the mud and slime grows in the turf bog. The origin of bogs close to the source of springs is consistent with the observations that in Ireland bogs are often found on mountains where springs abound. King then turns to the role of moss in turf bogs, moss being, apparently, more troublesome in Ireland than anywhere else. This moss, he complained, was present in such quantities and is so tough that turf-spades were hindered by it. He was tempted to believe (“from some observations”) that the seed of bog moss, when it falls on dry and parched land, begets heath vegetation (a drier moor-like vegetation). Thus he hypothesized about the role of bogland in regional vegetation dynamics.
King also recorded the observation, consistent with the proposed genesis of bogs, that the center of the bog tended to be higher than the surrounding land and that moreover bogs are highest in the center where the “chief springs that cause them” is found. Bogs therefore “dilate themselves by degrees, as one would blow a bladder”. He admitted that bogs may be formed in other manners (in land that has not, he sniffed, been well tended).
After this Mr King, naturalist and bog scientist, leaves off and we hear from Mr King wearing his administrative hat. One might pause here for just a moment to imagine our gouty Chancellor stooped ruminatively over the bog, or marching over unstable ground “that would rise before and behind, and sink where I stood to a considerable depth”.
So what is to be done? It would be good for Ireland, he said, that “the bogs were sunk in the Sea”. They hinder traffic, they are a great destruction to cattle, and they are a “shelter and refuge to Torys, and Thieves who can hardly live without them.” Oh, and yes they also stink and corrupt water. They repelled the English. A few positives are conceded: turf makes a “tolerable sweet fire”; bogs “preserves things strangely”, corpses, butter, and trees (which trees are “supposed by the vulgar to have lain there since the Flood”).
If King can be considered an almost accidental pioneer of ecological dynamics, he was certain no incipient conservation biologist. Since sinking bogs in the sea was not a feasible option he proposed an Act of Parliament to drain them. Here we must part with Mr King. He goes on to tackle the problem of Loughs and Turloughs (seasonal lakes), again with helpful suggestions about how to rid the land of them.
William King died 8 May 1729 aged 79, of complications associated with the gout he suffered from since his 20s. Although his writing on historical and philosophical matters were regarded as significant, his bog paper drew little attention until it was read by American vegetation scientists in early years of the 20th C. Henry Cowles, whose work on the Indiana Dunes proved to be crucial for a contemporary account of vegetation dynamics wrote approvingly in 1911: “The earliest account which I have discovered that clearly deals with vegetative dynamics is in a short paper in the Philosophical transactions in 1685, in which William King gives a good account of the origin of bog vegetation from floating mats; many times since, this has been reported as an original discovery.” Frederic Clements, in his pivotal 1916 monograph entitled Plant Succession cites King’s paper as the earliest written investigation of succession, and quotes his proposed mechanism of the origin and development of bogs at length.
William King’s grave, an unmarked one, is in St Mary's churchyard, Donnybrook, Dublin; I passed it at least once a week, often on my way into Dublin city center, for a decade last century without ever noticing. Consistent with the Archbishop’s vision most of the bogs of Ireland were drained; though there is an active conservation movement committed to preserving representative samples of this globally rare habitat.
David A. T. Harper, ‘King, William (1809–1886)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
King, William (1685) Of the Bogs, and Loughs of Ireland by Mr. William King, Fellow of the Dublin Society, as It was Presented to That Society Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), Volume 15, pp. 948-960
Henry C. Cowles (1911) The Causes of Vegetative Cycles Source: Botanical Gazette, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Mar., 1911), pp. 161-183.
Clements, F. E. 1916. Plant succession: an analysis of the development of vegetation. Carnegie Institution of Washington.