Ussher, Richard John (1841–1913), ornithologist and speleologist, was born 6 April 1841, the only child that survived infancy of Richard Kiely Ussher (1778–1854) of Cappagh, Co. Waterford, and his second wife, Isabella Ussher, daughter of Col. Jasper Grant, of Kilmurray, Co. Cork, at one time governor of Upper Canada and later Carlisle. His father entered the Royal Navy at the age of 12 and sailed to the West Indies at the age of 16, where he was engaged in the capture of St Lucia and Martinique from the French. On the death of his brother (1796) he returned to Ireland to inherit the family estate at Cappagh, becoming a magistrate for Co. Waterford and Tipperary. He was 63 at the time of his son's birth.
At the age of 12 Richard junior was sent to school, first in Portarlington and then in Chester. The death of his father when he was 13, and his delicate health, prompted his mother to have him educated at home by a tutor. He entered TCD as a non-resident student, but owing to ill health never took a degree. Several winters were spent with his mother and tutor in Spain, Italy, and Corfu.
He married (1866) Elizabeth Owen Finlay, eldest daughter of the Rev. John Finlay of Corkagh House, Clondalkin, Co. Dublin, and his wife Henrietta Isabella, daughter of Maj. Henry Cole of Twickenham. They travelled abroad for some years after their marriage but on their return lived at the house his father had built at Ballynahemery, near Cappagh, before building a new house (1875). They had five children. He had an income as a landlord, but also took up public duties as magistrate, deputy lieutenant, grand juror, and high sheriff (1901) in Co. Waterford. He also acted as director for one of the Irish railway companies. His great interest in church matters led him to become a member of the Church of Ireland general synod for many years. Politically he was a strong unionist.
As a child he was fond of birds and egg-collecting. According to Praeger (1947, 326) he developed this ‘futile and objectionable’ pursuit further, after his wife became an invalid in 1877 and her early death a few years later. In his search for the breeding haunts of rare birds he became interested in the birds themselves and became a highly skilled ornithologist, as well as amassing a unique collection of eggs, which was later acquired by the National History Museum. He gave up egg collecting but continued his bird observations in all parts of Ireland, sometimes as a delegate of the Irish Society for the Protection of Birds. He was particularly fascinated by the breeding birds of coastal clifffs. Many naturalists, both national and international, visited his home at Cappagh. In 1890 he published Birds of Ireland with Robert Warren. He was the main author and it remained the standard work on birds for many years. Later he undertook to revise More's ‘List of Irish birds’ at the National Museum and wrote the section on birds for the Clare Island survey (1913). A list of his extensive publications is found in the Irish Naturalist (Dec. 1913). In more recent times a comparison of the results of a 1982 survey of breeding choughs with Ussher's researches found that the birds continued to nest in the same sites as a century earlier.
The finding of a cave containing fossil remains on his own property encouraged his interest in speleology and palaeontology. In his later years, with the cooperation and support of the RIA, he spent much time and some of his own money in digging caves in Waterford, Cork, Clare, and Sligo. His valet John always accompanied him, and he would spend weeks working underground and living in his ‘hut’, uncovering the bones of the extinct fauna of Ireland – mammoth, bear, hyena, and lemmings – and showing little regard for discomfort. He published many papers on cave exploration with Professor Leith Adams and Robert Scharff (qv) and donated thousands of bones to the National Museum. He was a member of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, the Waterford Archaeological Society, the Royal Society of Antiquaries, and the RIA (1905).
A quiet courteous man, he showed absolute conscientiousness in his scientific work. He was said to be deeply religious, with a gentle manner which conveyed little of his determination and fearlessness; his expeditions necessitated descending the most dangerous cliffs. His daughter, Isabel Mary Grant Ussher (Odell) (1871-1943), became a painter. After losing her mother at an early age, she went to live with an aunt in England at the age of 12. Her nephew was the writer Percival Arland (‘Percy’) Ussher (qv). After a short illness Richard died 12 October 1913 at Cappagh, aged 72, and was buried in the family vault at Whitechurch, near his home. He gave his manuscripts, books and notes, as well as his ‘hut’, to the RIA.