28 August 2020

Maude Delap, Valentia’s
home-grown, self-taught
marine biologist

A plaque in Knightstown recalls Maude Delap, Valentia’s self-taught marine biologist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

It is difficult on Valentia Island to escape the sense of local pride in the work and legacy of Maude Jane Delap (1866-1953) was a self-taught marine biologist who was the daughter of a local rector.

Maude Delap was the first person to breed jellyfish in captivity and to observe their full life cycle. She was also involved in extensive study of plankton from the coasts of Valentia Island.

Maude Delap was born in Templecrone Rectory, Co Donegal, on 7 December 1866, the seventh of ten children of the Revd Alexander Delap and Anna Jane (née Goslett). In 1874, when Maude was 8, the family moved to Valentia Island when her father became the Rector of the island and of Cahirciveen.

The family home was at Reenellen House in Knightstown, overlooking the coast and half-way between the harbour and the Church of Saint John the Evangelist.

Reenellen House in Knightstown was the Delap family home (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Maude and her sisters received very little formal education in contrast to their brothers, although they benefited from some progressive primary school teaching. Maude and her sister Constance were encouraged in their interest in zoology and biology by their father, who published papers in the Irish Naturalist and other journals.

Maude and Constance were prolific collectors of marine specimens many of which are now housed within the collections of the Natural History Museum, Dublin. A survey based on their work was undertaken by the Royal Irish Academy, headed by Edward T Browne of University College London in 1895 and 1896. This was a precursor to the Clare Island Survey.

After this collaboration, Maude and Constance Delap continued to collect specimens through dredging and tow-netting as well as recording sea temperature and changes in marine life. Maude kept in correspondence with Browne, sending specimens and drawings, until his death in 1937.

Maude Delap became increasingly interested in the life cycle of various species of jellyfish. She was the first person to successfully breed them in captivity in her home laboratory using home-made aquariums. She bred Chrysaora isosceles and Cyanea lamarckii in bell jars and published the results, observing their breeding and feeding habits.

It was because of her pioneering work that the various life cycle stages of different species of jellyfish was first identified.

Her laboratory was referred to as the department which her nephew, Peter Delap, described as an ‘heroic jumble of books, specimens, aquaria, with its pervasive low-tide smell.’

Due to her contributions to marine biology she was offered a position in 1906 in the Plymouth Marine Biological Station, she declined. Her father is said to have reacted by declaring, ‘No daughter of mine will leave home, except as a married woman.’

The Delap family grave in the churchyard at Saint John’s, Kilmore, outside Knightstown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Her interest continued in many forms of flora and fauna, and she identified a True’s beaked whale that was washed up on the island. This whale species was previously only known from an incomplete specimen found in the US.

Maude Delap had a sea anemone named in her honour, Edwardsia delapiae, which she first recorded in eelgrass on the shores of Valentia Island. This anemone is found in shallow sea water and it is unknown outside Valentia Island. The naming had been suggested by Thomas Alan Stephenson in his book British sea anemones. Stephenson notes in his book that ‘Miss Delap's skill and persistence in collecting rare species are indefatigable.’

Delap was made an associate of the Linnean Society of London in 1936.

Maude Delap died on 23 July 1953. All her siblings had died before her, and she was buried alongside her parents and sisters in the churchyard at Saint John’s Church, Kilmore, the earlier Church of Ireland parish church outside Knightstown.

The family home at Reenellen House in Knightstown is now in ruins, behind protective fencing. But a plaque was erected to her nearby by the Irish National Committee for Commemorative Plaques in Science and Technology in 1998. She was also the subject of an art work by Dorothy Cross, exploring her life and work with scientists and artists of her day.

A plaque in the old churchyard at Kilmore commemorates Maude Delap (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Is Saint John’s Church on
Valentia the ‘most westerly
Protestant church in Europe’?

The Church of Saint John the Baptist, Knightstown … built in 1860 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Valentia Island and its neighbouring islets are scattered with ancient cairns, dolmens, wedge tombs, standing stones, Ogham stones, a promontory fort, and the remains of churches and numerous beehive huts.

Mug Ruith, or Mogh Roith, ‘slave of the wheel,’ a mythological, powerful, blind druid of Munster, is said to have lived on Valentia Island. Legend says he could grow to an enormous size, and that his breath caused storms and turned men to stone.

But the first historical, recorded evidence of people living on the island is found in 1291, in the Papal taxations of Pope Nicholas IV, when a church on the island is valued at 13s 4d.

In church records, the parish was also known as Kilmore, but the list of vicars or rectors of Valentia only begins in 1627, when the Revd Donogh O’Giltenan was presented to the parish.

Canon John Warburton, who was Rector of Valentia in 1812-1830, was a younger son of Charles Morgan Warburton (1754-1826), Bishop of Limerick (1806-1820) and Bishop of Cloyne (1820-1826).

While Warburton was Rector of Valentia, he was the very model of a pluralist, absentee rector, and he was, at various time, also Vicar of Kill and Lyons in the Diocese of Kildare, Vicar of Loughill, Limerick, Rector of Drumcliffe or Ennis in Co Clare, and a minor canon or vicar choral of Cork and Cloyne cathedrals, Precentor of Ardfert (1811-1814).

He was also one of my predecessors as Precentor of Limerick (1818-1878), while his elder brother, Canon Charles Warburton, was one of my predecessors as Rector of Rathkeale in 1813-1855.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist, built at Kilmore in 1815, was designed by James Pain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Despite John Warburton’s lengthy absences from Valentia during his time as rector, a new Church of Saint John the Baptist was built at Kilmore in 1815, almost a generation before Knightstown was laid out and developed by Alexander Nimmo on behalf of the Knights of Kerry.

This was a Georgian hall and tower church, designed by the Limerick-based architect James Pain, a pupil of the renowned London architect John Nash. The Pain brothers were involved in designing many of the churches in the Diocese of Limerick including, it is said, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, and Castletown Church.

The church could seat a congregation of about 60 people. However, as the Church of Ireland population of Valentia grew with the growth of Knightstown, the expansion of the slate quarry and the arrival of the transatlantic cable, the church became too small for the needs of a growing parish.

Successive generations of the Knights of Kerry are buried in the former chancel of Saint John’s Church in Kilmore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A new church, also dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, was built in Knightstown in 1860, when the Revd Edward Lee Sandiford was Rector of Valentia (1848-1869). This is one of the last churches designed by Joseph Welland (1798-1860).

The stained-glass windows are memorials to the Knights of Kerry. The oak panelling and the mosaics in the chancel date from 1925.

The other rectors of Valentia include John Godfrey Day (1830-1847), later Dean of Ardfert (1861-1879), father of Bishop Maurice Day of Clogher and grandfather of Godfrey Day, Bishop of Armagh and Archbishop of Armagh; Abraham Isaac, later Dean of Ardfert (1894-1905); the Revd Alexander Delap, father of the marine biologist, Maude Delap (1866-1953); and George Lill Swain, later Dean of Limerick (1929-1954).

Other clergy on the island also served in developing scientific roles. For example, the Revd Thomas Kerr, who is buried in Saint John’s Churchyard in Kilmore, was also Director of the Meteorological Observatory on Valentia.

The sensory garden at Saint John’s Church in Knightstown was designed by Arthur Shackleton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Church of Ireland population on Valentia began to fall in numbers with the loss of British officials in the early 20th century, moving the headquarters of the cable stations to London, and the eventual departure of the Knights of Kerry from Valentia.

Today, a sign claims the church in Knightstown is the ‘most westerly Protestant church in Europe.’ Although the church is closed this summer due to restoration and renovation works, it is normally open in summer from May to September, and the church is also the venue for an ecumenical Christmas service and regular musical recitals and lectures.

The Sensory Garden was designed by Arthur Shackleton to cater for people with disabilities and was opened by Bishop Michael Mayes in 2005.

Saint John’s Church is lovingly cared for by the churchwarden, Richard Williams, who also welcomed us to the former church at Kilmore and its churchyard and pointed us to the graves of the Knights of Kerry, the Delap family, and the marine biologist Maude Delap.

The Revd Michael Cavanagh has been the priest-in-charge of Kenmare, Kilcrohane, Dromod and Valentia since 2010.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist in Knightstown is closed this summer for renovation and restoration works (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)