The history of ‘nature’ in early nineteenth-century Ireland is inextricable from that of ‘improvement’. In ways at odds with, or even opposed to, nature by seeking its transformation into society, Irish improvement was principally associated with the rationalizing of agricultural practice and the efficient management of natural resources. Improvers, those advocating and working towards cultivation and thus maximization of resources, were of course seeking to instil particular scientific approaches as widely as possible. But they were also striving to lessen Irish difference by improved means, working towards the eventual absorption of Ireland into the anglicized and homogenized mainstream. Improvement thus required the addressing of a range of social questions and moving beyond strictly material or environmental matters. Indeed, as a term that gradually came to connote an imminently practical approach to numerous social as well as infrastructural problems, ‘improvement’ was deployed in government reports, surveys, tracts, Dublin Society prize essays, novels, short fiction, and the numerous agricultural guides that were widely disseminated throughout the country. Hence, in the post-Union period, improvement became as much associated with social as with ‘natural’ issues. In fact, social questions were addressed as though they were essentially—or at least ought to be—entirely material and thus resolvable by means of the same general methods that were applied to drainage schemes or ploughing techniques. In what follows, it will be shown how Irish improvement writing, in fact the discourse as a whole, reflects the extent to which nature in this period was widely understood to be culturally determined. For improvers, their project could not proceed effectively until nature and society were properly distinguishable and kept distinct. But this vigilance did not of course preclude a countervailing tendency to have improvement in all its guises—landscape, language, housing, culture—entirely naturalized.
Early nineteenth-century Ireland was generally equated by improvers with an excess of naturalness, even brutishness, which was contrary to the more improved condition of Britain at a time of industrial and agricultural revolution. The inhabitants of the overwhelmingly unimproved Irish countryside were perceived to be as much in need of cultivation as the soil upon which they subsisted and from which they were insufficiently distinguishable.