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Up close with animal wonders of the world


A friend of mine really doesn't like the Natural History Museum on Kildare Street. When I suggested a visit there, he said it was depressing seeing all those beautiful dead animals. I disagree. From the first time I went there in fourth class on a school trip, when most of us spent the time daring each other to look at the large tarantula spiders on the balcony, I've loved it.

To me, it's like stepping back in time, to a museum from a bygone age and I wasn't surprised when I discovered that it was one of the very few Victorian cabinet-style museums left in the world.



The building, designed by architect Frederick Clarendon in harmony with the National Gallery of Ireland on the other side of Leinster Lawn, is unusual, with a series of blank window spaces facing on to Upper Merrion Street. And it has the creakiest automatic doors I've ever come across.

On a fairly overcast January day, the interior is gloomy, but I've been there on a sunny day in July and it's just the same. The skeletons of the three Great Irish Deer (discovered in Limerick and Monaghan) are an imposing sight. They're magnificent and it's strange to think that they became extinct in this country about 2,000 years before man arrived.

Now they gaze nobly upon the gift shop with its collection of bright furry animals and wind-up bath toys (check out the swimming frog, he's a lot of fun). In the glass cases along the walls, it's all about Irish birds, with brightly coloured kingfishers, tiny swallows and martins, nearly black moorhens and huge eagles on display.

The collection of puffins, guillemots, rooks and ravens is impressive and, despite being encased in glass, they strike some menacing poses, some even perching on small, dead animals.

Smaller, and more familiar deer (sika and fallow), are grouped together and look like a small herd that you might encounter in the Phoenix Park.

The cabinets containing smaller Irish animals such as stoats, hares, foxes and rabbits, display these lovely creatures very imaginatively with background landscapes against which the animals play and forage for food.

There's even a magnificent snow scene of a group of animals, displaying the effectiveness of colour change during winter.

A basking shark hovers over a group of herring gulls protecting their chicks on a rocky outcrop, a golden plover looks as if he's about to take flight and some great crested grebes glide across a pond that will never know a ripple.

Towards the back of the ground floor, dark red leather covers protect display cases of beetles, ants, moths and other insects, while a Eurasian badger (found all over Ireland apparently though I've never been lucky enough to see one) glowers over at the extensive collection of Irish echinoderms (starfish to you and me).

The ground floor is a terrific reminder of the wealth of fauna, insect and marine life that we have on this small island of ours.

A very grand stone staircase takes you up to the second floor and this is where is all gets a bit Night at the Museum.

Giraffes, rhinos, zebras, buffalo, kangaroos and elephants all jostle for space on the museum's floor presided over by skeletons of whales, which are suspended from the high ceiling. The heads of antelopes, warthogs and gazelles adorn the walls, like bizarre guardians.



There's a giant moose, a sable in all his prancing glory, a massive grizzly bear, two wild dogs locked in a vicious embrace and a wolf that looks as if he's walked straight out of one of the Twilight films. Further in are the giant cats with lions and tigers next to a fine collection of primates including gorillas and chimpanzees. It's a magnificent sight.

Unfortunately, the balcony levels are closed and have been for the past few years, but I was told that the spiders are still there. Let's hope the public can see them again soon.

There were plenty of people visiting the museum the day I was there – Italian and French tourists, parents and grandparents with small children, wildlife enthusiasts and sketchers – which just goes to show that though this museum's nickname might be the 'Dead Zoo', it's very much a part of living Dublin.