By hammer, lens and ... pencil - Frederick James Foot, forgotten Irish geologist (1830 -1867)

This blog post is a tribute to Frederick James Foot on the 151st anniversary of his death. I dedicate it to Ms Sheila Breen, a Grand-niece of Frederick James Foot, Irish geologist and botanist.

This is quite an extraordinary story, which I believe needs to be shared. A month ago, I didn`t even know exactly who Frederick James Foot was, apart from the fact that he was one of the surveyors who mapped Kerry in around 1859.

The first time I came in contact with the name of Frederick J. Foot, was in the discovery of a pencil sketch with a written description which was "from a sketch of F. Foot". I was actually looking for art work of another very famous Irish geologist, George Victor Du Noyer. Du Noyer`s legacy and remarkable illustrations of Ireland are beautifully curated in the 'Stones, Slabs and Seascapes' exhibition currently shown in the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork.

Some of you know that I live in the beautiful town of Tralee, Co. Kerry, and if you follow this blog, you noticed from my posts that I am interested in the landscape, heritage and geology of County Kerry. A few years ago, my attention was drawn to quite an odd-looking limestone knoll, around 15 km west of Tralee, near Barrow. I wouldn't have imagined that around a hundred and sixty years after this place was mapped by a group of surveyors which include Du Noyer and Foot, I would be looking at the same landscape feature.

"Rock of NE corner of Barrow Island", Kerry, Sheet 28-1 (Europeana Collections [1])

Last week, I went back to Barrow to capture the same view of this limestone knoll, as those surveyors looked at it in around 1859. Not much changed despite the fact that many years have passed by. The odd looking outcrop is locally known as "Crosty" and very little is known about this natural wonder which is made up of Waulsortian Limestone and probably eroded into this form during the tertiary period, which is between 65 to 1.8 million years ago.

"Crosty", limestone knoll at Carrahane Strand, Barrow, Co. Kerry (11 January 2017)

Frederick James Foot was born in 1830 in Blackrock Co. Dublin [2]. He received his degree from the Engineering School at Trinity College, Dublin, where geology was part of the course. He developed an interest in geology and was later appointed as assistant geologist to the Irish Branch of the geological Survey. Although engaged in surveying the Irish landscape, he found the time to publish articles on botany and on geological subjects in "Geologist" magazine and other periodicals. He contributed fully or in some cases partially to thirteen small explanatory memoirs to the 1 inch sheet maps of the various districts which he had examined, which are accompanied by several illustrations from his own pencil. Also, a few watercolor paintings were created during that time. Being so much involved with surveying the landscape, he did not have many opportunities to extend his researches in other directions, but during a short period of leave he made visits of observation to Scotland, Germany, Sweden and Norway [3].

Foot is known in Clare as 'The Father of the Burren' [4]. He mapped the Burren of Co. Clare three miles to an inch in 1862, using dots for some plants and boundaries for others (Nelson, 1993). Foot was evidently inspired by the field techniques of the Geological Survey (in which he served for many years) and by incorporating true geological as well as botanical boundaries his map brought out the relation between limestone soil, sand and vegetation [5].

A group of the Survey staff taken around 1860. Frederick J. Foot seated next to George V. Du Noyer (scanned photograph from "North from the Hook" by Gordon L. Herries Davies, page. 67 [6]

He intended to produce papers with illustrations containing his geological and botanical observations, illustrated by collections and striking sketches of physical features, etc. Unfortunately, he did not achieve his goal due to his unexpected and tragic death. On the 17th of January 1867 he drowned in a skating accident on Lough Key, near the town of Boyle in County Roscommon, while attempting to save the lives of two others. He was only 37 years old when this tragic accident happened. His gravestone overlooks the Lough and is located in the Church of Ireland cemetery in Boyle, Co. Roscommon.

Frederick's gravestone in the Church of Ireland cemetery in Boyle, Co. Roscommon (photo courtesy of Ms Sheila Breen) and

Lough Key [7], a place of his tragic death in 17th January 1867


Part of 6 inch map - sheet 8_4. Natural Arch at Illaunamuck (near Meenoghanane Pier), coast of North Kerry. Year 1856 [8]

This is my favorite sheet of 6" map.This image was exhibited last year during Heritage Week event, "Kayaking and Geology", held at Meenogahane Pier. The natural arch featured here doesn`t exist anymore, and it`s quite hard to find out the exact location. Foot marked it on this map, however, his companion - George V. Du Noyer sketched exactly the same arch but the location is quite far from Meenogahane.

Monument of the Last Earl of Kerry. Limestone knoll near Lixnaw [9]

This now non-existing historical monument in Lixnaw is my favorite watercolor of Foot`s work. The Monument was built about the year 1692. It is believed that the monument was constructed by Thomas Fitzmaurice and it was supposed to be his burial place. The Monument stood for many years, until 1957, when it was blown up and destroyed to make way for an encroaching quarry.

Quarry in townland of Coolnaleen Upper, (Lixnaw area) showing junction of Coal Measures Shales and Limestone [10]

Bank of the River Feale near Kilmeany [11]

Drawing by Frederick J. Foot of Bishop Stack in Ardfert Cathedral, near Tralee . Bishop Stack on a stone in Ardfert Cathedral (Photo taken in June 2017)[12]


Doonagore Castle, Co. Clare [13]

Historical 6"map - Sheet 72, Co. Clare. Shingle beach with peat appearing in patches and Shale at Lighthouse looking from the sea [14]

Calp Quarry in Esker, Co. Galway [15]

Waterworn blocks of grey limestone, Co. Roscommon [16]

Wave stones were first recorded in 1865 by F.J. Foot along the shores of Lough Ree, during the course of field work for the first systematic geological survey of Ireland. He made an attractive (but somewhat diagrammatic) drawing (shown below) of these water-worn limestone blocks ‘eroded up to a certain height by the solvent action of former lake water, [showing] the level at which Lough Ree once stood – 10 to 15 feet higher than the present summer height: the lake shore, moreover, is now some 300 yards distant.’ [21]

Unconformity (?) in Shale, Co. Longford [17]

Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim [18]

A page from his notebook surveying Co. Westmeath [19]

Historical 6" map - Sheet 7, Co. Kilkenny. Hill of white dolomite. Castle Pierce [20]

List of papers written by Frederick James Foot [9]

Paper to Natural History Society, Dublin: "On the botany and marine zoology of Clare", "On Asplenium rata-mararia", "Stations of Cystopteris fragilis in the (Irish) Midland Counties", "On flights of swans seen in Roscommon and Galway, winter 1863-4", "On the mammalia of the west coast of that county", "On the Little Auk taken alive at Athlone".

Papers to B.A.: Geology of the neighbourhood of Tralee (1857). On the geology of Burren in County Clare (1862) (with botanical chart).

Paper to Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy: "On the distribution of plants in Burren, County Clare". Also, other geological, botanical, meteorological writings.

I would like to say a special thank you to Ms Petra Coffey, who put me in contact with Ms Sheila Breen, grand nice of Frederick James Foot. Also, the Geological Survey of Ireland for creating the GOLDMINE online archives, where those beautiful images are stored and available to the general public.

Frederick J. Foot was hoping to publish his illustrations, but his sudden tragic death prevented him from achieving his dream. I like to think that he would like to see people enjoying and admiring his work, even if it's on his 151st anniversary!

References and links:

[1] Europeana Collections, Dataset: 2058619_Ag_EU_LoCloud_DP-e



[3] Biography and Obituray, Geological Magazine (1867) p. 95 and 132. (1867)

[5] "Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural HistoryBy John Wilson Foster, Helena C. G. Chesney"

[6] "North from the Hook" by Gordon L. Herries Davies, page 67

[7] Lough Key image obtained from

[8] - [20] Source GOLDMINE online archive, courtesy of Geological Survey of Ireland

[9] List of papers written by Frederick James Foot

[21] Mushroom Stones of Ireland - Research Project by Ms Louise Dunne and Dr John Feehan

#geology #art #watercolor #sketch #drawing #historicalmaps #geologist

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