Gendering Natural History: Maude Jane Delap, Valentia Island, Ireland (1866-1953)

by Dr Nessa Cronin (Centre for Irish Studies, NUI Galway)

An Island Home

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Maude and her sisters Mary and Connie at home in Reenellen, Knightstown, Valentia Island, Co. Kerry. (Photograph: Nessa Cronin, courtesy of Valentia Island Heritage Centre, Co. Kerry, Ireland)

Maude Jane Delap (18661953) is primarily remembered today for her contribution to Irish and British natural history through her work elaborating the complex life cycle of the jellyfish. She is also recalled for her contribution together with that of her sister Constance to a maritime survey of Valentia Harbour, County Kerry in 18951896. Her contribution to Valentia’s maritime ecologies is embedded within the complex web of family connections and scholarly conversations of late Victorian Britain and Ireland. An examination of her life and work offers a more nuanced understanding of the international networks of scientific life that operated on Valentia, which would have an impact on the writing of Irish natural history in the period.[i]

The study of Delap and her island home, as one chapter in the history of Irish maritime heritage, demands a careful assessment of the particular intellectual milieu in which Delap worked for most of her adult life. It also requires a consideration of the broader cultural and social worlds of late-Victorian Ireland. A re-thinking of the margins of the margin (an island off the west coast of 19th century Ireland) helps us to explain how an ‘uneducated’ Rector’s daughter on an island off the coast of Kerry became an international expert in maritime ecologies. This expertise culminated in the offer of a professional position in Plymouth, membership of the Linnaean Society, and indeed the highest accolade a natural scientist can attain in having a new species named in honour of her contribution to the natural sciences. In more ways than one, Maude Delap (and her island home) challenges the received narrative of the Victorian scientist by her gender, travel, and value of local place as a scientific space of fieldwork and extensive study. Delap’s life and work therefore offer an alternative view of a world on the Atlantic edge, a marginal world that was also simultaneously at the heart of the imperial sciences of Victorian Britain during this time.

Maude Jane Delap was born in 1866 at Templecrone Rectory, Dungloe, County Donegal, the seventh of ten children born to the Reverend Alexander Delap (1830-1906) and Anna Jane Delap (née Goslett, 1831-1914). In 1874 the family moved from Donegal to Valentia Island, a small island off the Iveragh Peninsula, County Kerry, where her father was appointed rector of Valentia and Caherciveen. Reverend Delap undertook the journey by boat to transport the family furniture, while Mrs Delap and the children travelled down by land. In the rectory at Reenellen, Knightstown, Valentia, Maude would maintain a laboratory in a room that she later called ‘The Department’. From 1895-1896 she was actively involved with the Valentia Harbour Survey, a survey of flora and fauna of Valentia by a team of eight naturalists and scientists, led by Professor Edward T. Browne of University College London. Her contribution along with that of her sister, Constance (better known as Connie, 1868-1935), is noted in the final publication of the survey in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (Vol. 5, 1898-1900).

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Maude Delap Notebooks, n.p, located in Valentia Heritage Centre Archives. (Photograph: Nessa Cronin, courtesy of Valentia Island Heritage Centre, Co. Kerry, Ireland)

It appears that Reverend Delap was locally well known and liked, and in his ‘Memories of a Loving Alien’, Peter Delap records an incident with his grandfather. “There is a sad stereotype of the Church of Ireland clergymen of yesterday as a lackey of the establishment”, he writes. “Not all were so, my cousin Rhoda once asked Grandfather, what are the Catholics and got a sharp reply. Never ask me that child, we are all God’s children”.[ii] The Delap sisters were equally liked and respected with Peter Delap recollecting that, “Wherever we went, she [Maude] was instantly recognized and greeted with delight”. He notes that his grand-aunt Maude “was an old-school Victorian all-round naturalist” and that “we learned so very much from her”.[iii]  In an interview with Joanna Lee, a grand-niece of Maude Delap, Lee recalls that it was noted in the family that, “Mary told you what should be done, Maude got it done, and Connie was the one who comforted you”.[iv] After her father’s death, Maude’s mother and her sisters (also unmarried) led a largely self-sufficient life on the island, by growing fruit and vegetables (including grapes and peaches in their greenhouse) and selling gladioli and lilies for a supplementary income. Prayers were said before breakfast, alcohol was not consumed, and rabbit and fish were often served for dinner. Grand-nieces and nephews remember the sisters as wearing Edwardian-style clothes well into the 20th century (“they dressed fifty years out of date”[v]), which they felt was out of a sense both of social propriety as well as economic necessity. Peter Delap notes that this was not out of “prudishness” but a “compulsion to preserve a low profile” as “ostentation was intolerable in the face of poverty”, which was evident throughout the island at the time.[vi]

Gendering Natural History

As with many self-taught female natural scientists in this period Maude had no formal education and was greatly influenced by her father’s interest in marine biology, zoology and botany. It is not clear from the existing archives what exactly her father’s engagement was with Darwinism, but as Thomas Duddy has noted, “What you get in Ireland in the nineteenth century is a spectrum of responses”.[vii] Reverend Delap, primarily as a man of religion in addition to being an avid amateur naturalist, may well have fallen into a category of natural scientists that could ‘blend’ science and religion by following the precepts of evolution, but explained godly design through the employment of a natural theology which showed that ‘divine unity’ lay beneath the diversity of animal and organic structures. Following her father’s example, Delap sent specimens and samples to the Natural History Museum, London. In 1894 she started a correspondence with Dr Robert Francis Scharff, curator of the Dublin Natural History Museum. Maud sent him regular observations, field-notes, letters, preserved specimens and sketch drawingsa practice that she would retain with the Museum until 1949. In 1906 she was offered a post in the Marine Biological Station at Plymouth, but turned it down. In her great-nephew John Barlee’s account, the reason cited is that her father reputedly stated that “No daughter of mine will leave home, except as a married woman!”.[viii] The reality of leaving Valentia at this stage of her life (as she was approaching 40), in addition to leaving her sisters, may well have been other equally pressing reasons as to why Delap did not take up the position.

During the inter-war years she was the official recorder of whale strandings in south-west Ireland for a study conducted by Dr Francis Charles Fraser of the British Museum. Her scientific work was internationally acknowledged in 1928 when zoologists Oskar Carlgren and T.A. Stephenson named a sea anemone after her, Edwardsia delapiae. In this, Delap is unusual in having a species named after a woman and becomes embedded within a masculine tradition that used naming as a form of recognition of accomplishments. In 1936 her contribution to marine biology was acknowledged when she was made an Associate of the Linnaean Society in London.[ix] There are over 40 references to her contribution to the Valentia Survey, and there are 81 noted entries of donations of specimens to the National Museum of Ireland, Natural History database under the name of ‘Delap’. Between 1901 and 1924 she published over 15 articles in journals and magazines such as the Irish Naturalist, Kerry Archaeological Magazine, and Fisheries Ireland. Throughout her lifetime Maud also contributed notes and information to scholars in the areas of botany, zoology, marine science, folklore and anthropology.[x]

Bridge to the World

In many ways, Delap’s home, Valentia Island is an exception to all the perceived ‘rules’ concerning island life in Ireland at this time. Due to its physical location, as an island off the west Kerry coast (measuring almost seven miles by two miles in size), one could be forgiven for thinking its remote location as holding a distinct disadvantage for the island and its inhabitants. It is, however, precisely the location of the island that led to its prosperity and to its exceptional status in 19th and 20th century Ireland. Valentia may have been physically cut off from the Irish mainland, but it was intellectually, scientifically and economically connected to the rest of the world in many different ways. Such connections to the cultural and scientific worlds of metropolitan Dublin, London and New York can be attributed to the location of a telegraph station, weather station and an observatory on the island in addition to extensive fishing and mining industries established since the early 1800s. Before the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s, Valentia had a population of approximately 3,000 while today just over 660 people claim it as their fulltime residence. In the 19th century it had three major industries: fishing (500,000 mackerel being landed daily in 1912); slate quarrying (opened in Geokaun in 1816 and employing over 500 people at its height); and communications (it was the European terminus for the first Trans-Atlantic cable, with the Telegraph Station opening in 1865).[xi] By the time of the Valentia Survey the island was seen as an open laboratory with science as its bridge to the world. Valentia was indeed then ‘a different Irish island’, and was markedly different to other islands along a western Irish coastline that would become familiar to tourists, artists and scholars. If Yeats could have reasonably said to Synge to go to Aran to express a life that had never found expression (except that it had already found generations of expression in story and in song, albeit in the Irish language), the same could not be said for Valentia in terms of it being an ‘unknown’ entity to an anglophone world.

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Eastern Telegraph Map, showing Valentia as the ‘centre’ of the new telecommunications world in the late nineteenth century, with the Atlantic Cable heralded as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. (Photograph: Nessa Cronin, courtesy of Valentia Island Heritage Centre, Co. Kerry, Ireland)

The flow of visitors (engineers, scientists, marine biologists) to the island over the years for scientific and scholarly research purposes finally culminated in Browne’s decision to locate an extensive marine survey on Valentia in the mid-1890s. This choice was in part informed by the interest in natural science of Reverend Delap (who was already well-known through his previous activities in the Belfast Field Club) and the availability of existing infrastructure. With the arrival of the survey team in 1895, Maude and Constance would become centrally involved with Browne’s study. They would continue to log information and collect specimens for him years after the initial ‘official’ fieldwork had been completed. In Irish, if not in European terms in this period, the only other comparable island to receive such multidisciplinary attention would be Lambay Island, County Dublin with the survey of its flora and fauna in 1905-1906.[xii]

Laboratories of Art and Science

The Valentia Island Visitor Centre opened in 1986 as a volunteer-run heritage centre. It is housed in the former Knightstown National School, which was established in 1861. There are three main display rooms, one of which contains the archive relating to the life and work of Maude Delap. The centre holds materials relating to Delap’s work in particular, and items displayed include her field notebooks, bell jars and the microscope from a room dedicated to Delap’s archive called ‘The Department’. The presence of shell, bone and coral specimens in the Delap Archive illustrates the collecting and preserving practices that she experimented with in addition to demonstrating the range of interests that she had in Valentia’s natural environment. She also encouraged other islanders to collect specimens and wrote to the Dublin Natural History Museum on several occasions that they should pay for such collections when and where possible to encourage further local fieldwork in the region.

Recent work on Delap’s legacy by artist Dorothy Cross and marine biologist brother, Tom Cross, highlights the potential of interdisciplinary work across the realms of arts and sciences through their collaborative work Medusae, produced in 2000-2003. The project was supported by the Sci-Art Fund to pursue investigations focusing on the aesthetic, anthropological and scientific aspects of jellyfish. Medusae is the result of this three-year collaboration which was the basis of a 30 minute film, one of a series of video based works by Dorothy Cross that combines the mythology life story of Irish amateur naturalist Maude Delap, with present day scientific research. The project involved juxtaposing new scientific experiments of Tom Cross’ exploration of the swimming techniques (biomechanics) of a deadly species of jellyfish known as the Box Jellyfish found off Queensland, Australia, with historical experiments of Maude Delap. Notes, drawings and charts from Delap’s research, alongside new material discovered in making Medusae, as well as some of Dorothy Cross’ artwork inspired by Delap, remain on permanent exhibition at the Valentia Heritage Centre. Part of this project was explored on the BBC Radio 4 programme Women’s Hour broadcast on 4 October 2001, with regard to Dorothy’s iteration of her work entitled Come into the Garden Maude.[xiii]

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Film Still, Medusae, Dorothy Cross and Tom Cross. Produced by Fiach Mac Conghail, 2000-2003. Kerlin Gallery, Dublin.[xiv]

The legacy of Delap can be regarded in terms of re-thinking the borders of the study of natural history, in foregrounding the contribution that ‘marginal’ island spaces made to Irish scientific culture. It also opens up questions as to the interconnections between local places that become sites of enquiry and transnational scientific cultures in terms of re-thinking the spaces of science and natural history. This is of particular importance when thinking of the contributions that amateur and professional naturalists and scholars equally made to a nascent sense of an Irish natural history that was visually symbolized by, and housed within, the new Dublin Natural History Museum.

The complex web of connections that linked Valentia to the scientific worlds of Dublin, London and New York, also served an intellectual social network that stretched across Delap’s life and career as an ‘amateur’ natural scientist. While Delap’s maritime work is rooted in the island space of Valentia in this period, it also made a contribution beyond those shores and compels us to re-think the spaces of domestic science and fieldwork cultures in a broader Atlantic context.

Irish bilingual poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s current work also adds to our understanding of how a young girl, on a remote island, becomes enthralled with maritime life and the life of science. In her award-wining poem, ‘Maude Enthralled’, Maude’s knowledge changes as she ‘peers through glass’ she is looking ‘into a deeper dark, telescoped.’ The views afforded through the lenses of scientific instruments enable her to see ‘through waves to a world of hover and float, of swim and flit and gilled throats.’ Ever mindful of the fleeting nature of knowledge and how science can be as much about the laws of accident as the laws of nature, she finally learns ‘the art of clasp and let go’.[xv] Delap’s life and legacy for a new generation of artists in Ireland has a new potent legacy and offers new platforms and new modes of enquiry into the connections between art and science, nature and landscape, people and place. Such interdisciplinary work provokes us to rethink old epistemic boundaries and to explore ideas of a ‘deeper dark’, the boundaries between the known and the unknown, the imagined and the real, and how new knowledges and ways of describing the world can be re-created.

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Maude Delap’s private telescope. (Photograph: Nessa Cronin, courtesy of Valentia Island Heritage Centre, Co. Kerry, Ireland)


[i] For more on this see, Nessa Cronin, ‘Maude Delap’s Domestic Science: Island Spaces and Gendered Fieldwork in Irish Natural History’, in Coastal Works: Cultures of the Atlantic Edge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 161-180.

[ii] Delap, P. (n.d.): Memories of a Loving Alien, p. 3, unpublished memoir. I am grateful to Joanna Lee for this source.

[iii] Ibid, p.1.

[iv] Personal interview with Joanna Lee, Dublin, November 25, 2013.

[v] Personal interview with Joanna Lee, Dublin, November 25, 2013.

[vi] Delap, P., op.cit., p. 2.

[vii] Duddy, T. (2009): ‘The Irish Response to Darwinism’, in Jones, R. and Steer, M. (eds), Darwin, Praeger and the Clare Island Surveys, pp 10-11, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.

[viii] Byrne, A. (1997): ‘Untangling the Medusa’, in Deevey, P. and Mulvihill, M. (eds) Stars, Shells and Bluebells: Women Scientists and Pioneers, p. 104, WITS, Dublin.

[ix] Women had only been admitted as members to the Linnaean Society since 1905.

[x] She was also recorded as being a member of Cumann Béaloideas na hÉireann (The Folklore Association of Ireland) in 1948, as noted in Béaloideas, Iml. 18, Uimh 1/2, 202, (Meitheamh-Nodlaig, 1948).

[xi] In 1922 as many as 242 staff were listed as working at the station, many of them students, with over 50 young women and girls employed as maids in the Knightstown area in the years just after World War I;  O’Cleirigh, N.(1992): Valentia: A Different Irish Island, p. 104, Portobello Press, Dublin.

[xii] Both the Valentia and Lambay surveys in many ways laid the template for the more famous Clare Island Survey (County Mayo), led by Robert Lloyd Praeger and conducted by a team of over 200 experts from the Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Society of London, 1909-1911.

[xiii] See also Dorothy Cross’ latest work on Medusae (based on her Delap work) here:

[xiv] See also and

[xv] Doireann Ní Ghríofa, ‘Maude Enthralled’, 


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