James Fairley obituary: Zoologist who brought rigour and zest to study of Ireland’s mammals

Former professor of zoology at University of Galway helped to modernise the study of Irish mammals

Born: August 12th, 1940

Died: January 2nd, 2023

James Fairley, a former professor of zoology at University College Galway (UCG, now University of Galway), who has died suddenly in his Belfast home, was a leading expert on Irish mammals.

Fairley wrote the first two editions of Irish Wild Mammals: A Guide to the Literature (1972, 1992) which provided researchers with crucial background material. His books for lay readers, An Irish Beast Book (1975, 1984) and A Basket of Weasels (2001) popularised the study of mammals in Ireland and Irish Whales and Whaling (1981) increased the interest in recording whales around the Irish coastline.


Belfast born and a committed Ulster unionist and member of the Presbyterian church, Fairley was a rarity among Irish academics when he took the position of lecturer of zoology at UCG in 1968. He continued as a lecturer until 1991, after which he became associate professor until his retirement in 1999. He was elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 1993 and was later awarded a doctorate in science by the academy.

During his tenure at UCG, he co-authored many academic papers on mammals such as bank voles, pygmy shrews and bats. “He was very generous and good to his students, treating them – particularly postgraduate students – as if they were his own children, bringing them out to dinner, encouraging them and mentoring them as they progressed through their careers,” said Colin Lawton, the current head of zoology at the University of Galway.

One such student, Caroline Shiel, remembers him as a “very exacting supervisor who didn’t suffer fools gladly”. “He was like a Victorian professor transported to the modern day. He wore a tweed jacket, tie and V-necked pullover. He didn’t have a mobile phone or an email address and he kept in touch with students with typed or handwritten letters,” said Shiel, whose doctorate (supervised by Fairley) was the first study of Leisler’s bats in Ireland.

Another former student, Kate McAney, who did the first study on Lesser Horseshoe Bats in Ireland – now works for the Irish branch of the Vincent Wildlife Trust. She says Prof Fairley chaired the first all-Ireland bat conferences and gave generously of his time to this organisation which is dedicated to the conservation of the Lesser Horseshoe Bat, the Irish stoat and the pine marten. “He was the first person I ever saw on television talking about mammals. He had a tremendous ability to communicate with non-academics,” said McAney.

Colleagues credit Prof Fairley with modernising the study of Irish mammals. Earlier research on Irish mammals had been dominated by data from the UK yet Ireland has only about half of the mammal species found in Britain. Mammals such as weasels, moles, polecats, beavers and roe deer never made it across the Irish Sea.

And while Fairley acknowledged the long tradition of expert amateur naturalists in Ireland, he brought scientific rigour to articles he wrote for the Irish Naturalists Journal and other publications. He was awarded a medal for his research by the [British] Mammal Society.

He became somewhat of a minor celebrity through his interviews on radio and television, at one point asking viewers of the Late Late Show to send him fleas from their pets so that he could identify them.

The eldest of three sons of William and Mary Fairley, James Fairley grew up in East Belfast and attended Campbell College from 1953 to 1958. He studied science at Queen’s University Belfast, continuing on to do his doctorate studies in zoology. A research contract at the then department of agriculture for Northern Ireland led to study of the native fox, which at the time was deemed to be a scourge to farmers with a bounty offered for every fox killed. Fairley’s study found that the bounty scheme was having no effect on curtailing fox numbers and it was subsequently discontinued.

Robert (Robin) Boyd, a colleague from his early years at UCG, said Fairley loved his work. “It took him all over Ireland to meet farmers and other landowners as he trapped and studied pygmy shrews, wood mice, foxes, bats, bank voles and otters,” said Boyd.

While working in Galway, Fairley lived in digs, returning to his home in Belfast outside of the academic terms. His nephew Jon remembers many family holidays back in Belfast from the UK as a child. “He always did interesting things with us like finding bats with bat detectors and seeking out otter spraints,” said John Fairley.

Following his retirement, Fairley returned to live in Belfast, where he enjoyed listening to his vast collection of classical and jazz albums and playing chess at the Belfast South Club. In 2006, his local history book, Fun is Our Business, about Barry’s Amusements in Portrush, Co Antrim, was published by Blackstaff Press.

James Stewart Fairley is survived by his brothers Joe and David, his nephew Jon and his niece Victoria (Goralski).