‘People think we go out killing stuff for taxidermy. It couldn’t be further from the truth’

Donal Mulcahy pursued his passion for taxidermy from a young age, eventually turning his hobby into his vocation

I was born in a small village called Cappamore in east Limerick. Big family, nine kids, a wild lot. How my parents reared us is beyond me, because money was scarce. We had a small farm. My father used to do a lot of hunting – deer, pheasant, rabbits, and that’s really what we were reared on. We lived off the land. The big thing for me in Cappamore was hurling as well. We were born with a hurley in one hand and a gun in the other. Hunting and hurling, those were the things you had to do.

I was quite good at hurling but always my number one was just birds and being down the fields. I was just mad into nature. I was doing bird surveys before anyone was doing bird surveys. You’d find them dead and I used to hate to see them fade away. I discovered taxidermy when I was about 12. My father got a pheasant “stuffed” – that’s what you called it then.

We went back to a place in Clare to collect it and there was this big showroom of taxidermy. That’s where it all fell apart for me. It set me off on a passion that couldn’t be stopped. I was trying taxidermy with razor blades, starting to open them up.

My mother used to hide the birds to make sure I was doing my school work. I would ring the four or five taxidermists I could find in the phone book but none of them would talk to me. My father got me an old taxidermy book when I was 13 and I studied that inside-out, read it 100 times until somebody decided one day that they would buy a pheasant off me and gave me £10.


A lot of people think we go out killing stuff for taxidermy. It couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s about preserving something beautiful. People come to me with birds they pick up off the roads, that have flown into windows or been poisoned with rodenticide. People put down poison but these rats and mice take days to die and during that time, barn owls and other birds are picking them up. About 80 per cent of barn owls that have died, even those hit by cars, have rodenticide in them.

I always say to people, “better alive than dead”. I’m just trying to keep the beauty of the bird. You have to handle them with respect. You try to get the best out of them. When someone rings me, I’m trying to find out if it has been on the road long. It would want to come to me within a day or if not, it needs to be put in an airtight plastic bag in a freezer.

If you want to get into taxidermy, you have to get a taxidermy licence. The National Parks and Wildlife Service will visit to ensure your facilities are right. Every bird that comes into me is registered. If I have an endangered species that I want to sell on, I have to get a permit.

The important thing is to learn the anatomy of the bird, the muscle groups, where the wings attach, where the legs attach. Some people will mount a crow but it will look like a position a pheasant would be in. You can’t just stand up a barn owl in any position. It’s like art, it has to be that bird, it can’t look like another bird.

I give all my time to watching birds, how they stand, the way they fly. There is always something new to be learned. Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology wanted some taxidermy that would show the effects of marine pollution on birds, so they put a team together of artists and marine biologists and we did five birds.

One was a gannet. They build their nests with netting and plastic. When the young ones hatch, they get tangled up and die. That’s if the mother doesn’t die first. We mounted a seagull, flying with balloons wrapped around its legs. It had been found dead on a beach. People are crying over plastic pollution but then letting balloons off: that’s the one thing that makes me angry.

Another we did was a puffin. The amount of plastic taken out of its stomach was unbelievable. Small particles, very colourful, they think it’s food. They can’t get rid of it from their bodies, so there is no room for food and they starve. I was thrilled to get asked to do that because conservation is a huge thing for me.

Last year, I won in the best professional taxidermy bird category at the UK Guild of Taxidermists. An Irish person had never won that. That was huge for me. I think children know very young what they want to do. They should be brought aside in school and asked, “What are you interested in?” Then go down that road. You just want to be happy at the end of the day.

In conversation with Joanne Hunt