Mar 212007

Published in the WOW! supplement of the Evening Echo 21/03/2007

It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with the stance of religious organisations, but it does happen occasionally.

It happened today, when I heard about a hair-brained scheme to introduce books promoting gay relationships to primary school children in England. I have to say that on that score I’m firmly in the same camp as the Christian and Muslim leaders who are opposed to it. Perhaps not for the same reasons, but opposed to it nonetheless.

One of the books is a fairytale, imaginatively entitled “King & King”. It tells the tale of a young prince whose mother, the queen, is anxious for her son to marry. She introduces him to a series of beautiful princesses, but he doesn’t fall in love with any of them. Instead, the brother of one of the princesses catches his eye. The two princes fall madly in love, marry and become two kings who rule side by side and live happily ever after.

Sweet story – but not necessarily what I want my children to be reading in primary school. Not, I hasten to add, out of any sort homophobic prejudice. I’m all for promoting acceptance and letting consenting adults get on with whatever takes their fancy… within reason. I just don’t think it’s an issue that needs to be rammed down the throats of young children.

Sexuality and relationships are inherently complex issues, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with varying sexual orientation, I don’t feel that children of primary school age are equipped to handle those sorts of issues. Princes marrying princes, princesses with two mummies and King’s who deep down feel they might really be queens: it all just muddies the waters at a time when what children are really looking for is clarity.

In primary school children are laying the foundations on which future learning will be based. They’re acquiring the information that provides a point of reference: a yardstick against which they can measure and make sense of the world around them. For that they need clarity.

Advocates of this scheme say that the books are necessary in order to make homosexuality seem normal to children. My question is why on earth would we want to do that? When it comes to human relationships and sexuality, then surely the baseline for our children should be the heterosexual model upon which the survival of our species depends. Or am I missing something?

Going back to our original fairytale, the two princes may well have married and lived happily ever after, but with no heir to continue the royal bloodline the monarchy itself was doomed. Not, perhaps, the ideal model to promote as the norm to our young children.

At the moment this controversial pilot scheme involves just fourteen schools and one local authority in England. However it is backed by teaching unions, and could potentially be rolled out to more schools over time. For once Christian and Muslim leaders in Britain are in complete agreement, with both groups condemning the scheme as contrary to their religious teachings.

Here in Ireland, while I do have issues with some reading material the girls bring home from school, I don’t think this particular concern will rear it’s head any time soon. While the church’s influence here may well be on the wane, somehow I doubt that “King & King” or its like will appear on the Irish curriculum any time soon.

Read about this story on the The Daily Mail and The Observer websites.

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Mar 142007
If I ask you to picture some of the world’s great wildernesses chances are that your mind will conjure exotic pictures of the African savannah, the icy polar tundra, lush tropical rainforests or any of a host of far-flung ecosystems that feature regularly on our TV screens.

Compared to these wildlife Meccas, it’s easy to dismiss our little island in the north-east Atlantic as practically insignificant. But to do so would be a mistake. Getting your wildlife fix from the television is no substitute for getting up close and personal with the real thing. Nothing quite compares with getting out into the open and experiencing the wonder of nature first hand.

While Ireland may lack the high levels of biodiversity and some of the more dramatic signature species of more exotic, our mix of flora, fauna and habitat is no less unique, every bit as fascinating and, perhaps most importantly, infinitely more accessible. In fact, our wild habitats, plants and creatures are a living, breathing part of our national heritage – and that makes them more significant to us than those found in far off lands.

Anyone out there who doubts that Ireland’s wilderness can be as dramatic, varied and beautiful as anywhere else in the world should take a look at “Images of Irish Nature”, a new book by renowned West Cork wildlife photographer Mike Brown. It’s a publication that unequivocally celebrates the wonder of Ireland’s wild places, plants and animals.

The photography is, quite simply, superb. But then you’d expect nothing less from a photographer of Mike Brown’s calibre (he won the ESB Environmental Photographer of the Year award in 2002, and was named Photographer of the Year by the Irish Professional Photographers’ Association in 2003). The book includes stunning photographs of a wide variety of Ireland’s native wildlife, from common and easily observed species like barn swallows, curlews and foxes to more elusive denizens of our wilderness, like pine martens, barn owls and bats.

Photographing wildlife is, arguably, among the most challenging of photographic disciplines. It’s a painstaking, often frustrating business that takes skill, patience, luck, dedication and, above all, an intimate connection with and understanding of the natural world.

Truly outstanding wildlife photography reveals none of those challenges in the final shot. Images appear effortless, simple and somehow connect with the viewer on a level that transcends a mere moment frozen in time. What’s remarkable about Images of Irish Nature is how many of the photographs in the book seem to achieve that effortless simplicity. Mike Brown demonstrates that he’s at the pinnacle of his profession, well able to hold his own with the very best in the field.

Throughout the book Mike’s photographs are interspersed with informative and thought-provoking essays by some of Ireland’s leading wildlife writers. Gordon D’Arcy reflects on how as a nation we’re becoming disassociated with nature, and how vital it is to rekindle a fascination and understanding of nature and the environment in our children. Richard Collins comments on how local wildlife can be just as intriguing as high-profile species from afar, and introduces us to some examples. Damien Enright takes us on a stroll through the seasons in West Cork, complete with seasonally inspired verse. Juanita Browne introduces us to her favourite class of Irish fauna, the mammals, and ponders the dilemma of reconciling Ireland’s inexorable progress with the pressing need to preserve our natural heritage. Padraig Whooley of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group introduces us to the fascinating world of whale watching, explaining how Ireland now ranks as one of the world’s whale-watching hotspots, and how we can all get involved in cetacean conservation. Finally, Michael Viney takes us beach-coming along Ireland’s tide line, and makes some surprising discoveries along the way.

The writing style of the contributors varies considerably – and I have to say I found certain essays more appealing than others – but on the whole they offer a fitting complement to Mike Brown’s generally exceptional photography.

Perhaps the greatest endorsement of Images of Irish Nature is the Foreword, written by the undisputed patriarch of Irish natural history, Éamon de Buitléar, which he closes thus: “Mike’s ability to produce a constant supply of excellent photographs not only sets high standards for others to follow but his pictures also help to make people more aware of the beauty of Ireland’s countryside and its wildlife.”

High praise indeed, and perhaps that aspect of the book – its wide appeal, its ability to inspire people and to raise awareness of Ireland’s natural history – is its greatest achievement. What more could any wildlife photographer hope for?

Images of Irish Nature is published by Mike Brown Photography, Clarke Street, Clonakilty, County Cork. Copies cost €39.95 and are available in all good bookshops, or direct from the publisher by calling 023 35782 or you can order online from the website

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Mar 142007

Did you know that Ireland’s largest mammal is the blue whale – the largest animal ever to have lived on earth. This oceanic leviathan weighs in at over 100 tonnes (or about the same as 33 African elephants, if you’re counting) and can be up to a staggering 33.5 metres long. That’s bigger than the largest of the dinosaurs. Although extremely rare today, some 30–50 blue whales are thought to pass through Irish waters each year.

Our smallest mammal, by contrast, is the pygmy shrew. No bigger than your thumb it’s found all over Ireland, is active all year round, and it’s weight can drop to a tiny 3g in the winter. At birth these marvels of miniaturisation weigh just 0.25g.

Unearthing facts like these about Irish mammals used to mean wading through dry academic reports, trying to extrapolate from out-dated information in obsolete text books or making educated assumptions based on information from other countries. Now all you have to do is get your hands on a copy of “Ireland’s Mammals” by Kildare based author Juanita Browne.

The first thing you notice about “Ireland’s Mammals” is its good looks. Striking black livery is punctuated by simple white text and a grid of nine striking photographs that leap off the dust-jacket and entice you to take a look inside. As soon as you do, you realise that this is no stuffy text-book or academic reference – this book has soul.

You can’t help but get swept up in the energy and enthusiasm that Juanita Browne injects into her prose, and before you know it you’ve finished the five page introduction. Already you’ve covered what a mammal is, where mammals live and the special adaptations that have allowed them to colonise practically every environment on earth.

Now you get to the heart of the book – the species profiles. There are 39 in all, covering familiar and not-so-familiar characters that share our countryside, our towns, our cities and our oceans. One by one Juanita introduces us to Ireland’s most secretive and elusive group of animals. Each species has an in-depth description that tells you what it looks like, where it lives, what it eats and when it breeds.

The text is comprehensive, authoritative, and above all compelling. While it undoubtedly informs, this book also entertains. The text is complimented throughout by some of the most stunning images of Irish wildlife that you’re ever likely to see. There are also helpful illustrations that show each animal’s size relative to a human, and to help clarify concepts explained in the text. As a package it’s hard to beat!

But wait… there’s more!

The book has an Irish language section, with a brief overview of each species “as Gaeilge”, there’s a section on Ireland’s National Parks and Wildlife Service, a comprehensive list of wildlife and conservation contacts, a short profile for each photographer, a suggested list of further reading and a glossary of terms. You couldn’t ask for a more thorough treatment of the subject matter.

Although this is Juanita Browne’s first book, “Ireland’s Mammals” has already been  lauded as a universal success by such Irish wildlife luminaries as wildlife artist and broadcaster Don Conroy, wildlife journalist Michael Viney and wildlife expert, author and broadcaster Éanna Ní Lamhna.

Juanita caught the nature bug from her father as a young girl, and it’s been with her ever since. It was a fascination that ultimately led her to study zoology at Trinity College, and her desire to tell the story of Ireland’s wildlife to  the masses led her to pursue a masters degree in media studies.

After working for RTE and various newspapers Juanita went on to edit the popular wildlife magazine “Wild Ireland”, which was named Consumer Specialist Magazine of the Year in 2002 under her editorship. She currently edits “Heritage Outlook”, the magazine of the Heritage Council, and works as a freelance editor and graphic designer.

In “Ireland’s Mammals” Juanita Browne set out to bring the story of Ireland’s mammals up to date and to deliver it to a wider audience. Achieving the first of those goals required dedication – the second required talent. Reading the book it’s obvious that Juanita Browne is lacking neither. “Ireland’s Mammals” is an ideal reference book for schools, libraries and homes… but it’s also much more than that. It’s a riveting read that will help foster an abiding appreciation of our natural heritage in anyone who opens it… and that’s an outstanding achievement!

“Ireland’s Mammals” is available from Easons and other bookshops or you can order it direct from:

Browne Books, Calverstown, Kilcullen, Co. Kildare
Tel.: 086 3442140  e-mail:  web:

Book Details:

Ireland’s Mammals
by Juanita Browne
ISBN 0-9550594-0-2
Hardback, 192 pages, full colour, Over 120 photographs + illustrations
Price: €25.00 + P&P

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Mar 142007

I heard a piece this morning on Newstalk’s “Life” programme outlining plans in the UK to introduce a series of books promoting “gay” issues to primary school children aged 4-11. Looking for more info I found this piece on The Guardian website.

One of the books is a “Fairytale” about a prince who despite the king and queen’s best efforts doesn’t fall in love with any of a series of princesses. Instead he falls for another prince, they marry and live happily ever after!

Before going any further I’d like to point out that I have no problem with gay men or women, and certainly am not homophobic in any way, shape or form. However, I do have an issue with the idea of books that essentially promote homosexual relationships as the norm in primary schools.

While it’s obviously important for children to learn to accept differences in people, it’s also important to avoid confusion. What children learn in Primary school gives them a foundation to build on — the last thing they need between the ages of four to eleven is conflicting messages about subjects as complex as relationships and sexuality.

I hate to shatter illusions here, but the survival of our species depends on heterosexual interaction, no matter how much some campaigners might like it to be otherwise. That should be the norm that’s reflected in schools. By all means explore the issues in secondary school, with older children who are perhaps struggling to come to terms with their own sexuality — but not in primary school.

In fairytales princes marry princesses, and as far as I’m concerned that’s the way it should stay. Going back to our gay fairytale the two princes might well live happily ever after, but with no heirs to maintain the royal bloodline the monarchy is, quite literally, shafted.

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