Ball, Robert (1802–57), naturalist, was born 1 April 1802 at Cove (Cobh), Co. Cork, eldest of four sons and third of nine children of Bob Stawell Ball, mayor of Youghal, and Mary Ball (née Green). Educated in Clonakilty, Co. Cork, and later at the quaker school, Ballitore, Co. Kildare, he returned to Youghal, becoming a magistrate in 1824. Unable to afford medical studies, he became a clerk (1827) in the Constabulary and Yeomanry Office, Dublin, and its assistant librarian and keeper of records (1831). He was subsequently denied promotion on the grounds that he was too competent to be replaced, and retired (1852) on a modest pension at a time of staff reductions, on the grounds that he devoted more attention to scientific pursuits than was appropriate for a public servant.
Having developed an extensive knowledge of natural history from his boyhood days, he and fellow naturalist William Thompson (qv) visited (1834) the west of Ireland and the Aran Islands, listing plants and their locations, and discovered Astragalus danicus and Allium babingtonii, plants that had not previously been recorded in Ireland. Ball was primarily a zoologist; his lasting legacy lies in his many observations, generously given to Thompson for use in his Natural history of Ireland (1849–56), which reveal Ball's extensive knowledge of Irish fauna. He wrote only ten scientific papers, which included reports on fossil bears, extinct mammals found in Irish bogs, and cephalopods in Irish waters. As hon. secretary (1837–57) of the recently founded Royal Zoological Society of Ireland, he contributed significantly to the development and popularity of the zoological gardens, particularly through the organisation of public lectures (1838) and the Sunday afternoon penny admission scheme (1840), an innovation so successful that average annual attendance between 1840 and 1855 exceeded 75,000. Appointed director of the Dublin University museum (1844) at a time when its collection was mostly confined to Polynesian artefacts and minerals, he donated his large botanical and zoological collection, which numbered 7,000 specimens, some of which were new to science. Given a liberal allowance from TCD and specimens from many others, including his sisters Anne and Mary Ball (qv), themselves noted naturalists, Ball organised the zoological and ethnological collections, which proved valuable for scientific reference and as a popular educational exhibit; with free admission, the museum attracted 14,000 visitors in 1852.
He was appointed secretary of the new QUI (1851), and of the joint committee of lectures (1854). He achieved a commanding position in the world of amateur science: he was actively involved in the RDS, life member (1834) and president (1852) of the Geological Society of Dublin, member (1835) and treasurer (1845–57) of the RIA, founder member (1847) of the Statistical Society, and founder member (1853) and president (1857) of the Dublin University Zoological and Botanical Association; he was also a member of the Ray Society, London, and of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh. A man of great ingenuity, he restored the harp of Brian Bóruma (qv), and invented the use of naphtha as the medium for colours for zoological drawings. Conferred with an hon. LLD (Dubl.) (1850), he was elected FRS (1857) as the inventor and improver of the naturalists’ dredge.
Ball lived at 3 Granby Row, Dublin, died 30 March 1857, and is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. He married (21 September 1837) Amelia Gresley Hellicar of Bristol; they had three sons and four daughters. Their eldest son, Sir Robert Stawell Ball (qv), became royal astronomer of Ireland; their second son, Valentine Ball (qv), geologist and FRS, became director of the Science and Art Museum, Dublin, and their third son, Sir Charles Bent Ball (qv), bart, became an eminent surgeon.