Sitting beneath centuries

Outdoor Living

TIME CAPSULES Ireland was stripped of her forests for wood before the 19th century, and the country remains one of the least forested in Europe.

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

On Carra’s woody shore I put up my hare. He lay tight, as hares do, until my foot was nearly on him, then leaped and stretched a lithe, elastic, leggy yard to put twenty yards between us. There he sat with his back toward me, turning his round, brown head to watch with fearful eyes.
For ten full minutes I stood frozen to the spot, until pins and needles crept into my calves. A minor shift in weight sent him away with a jump and a sprint until he was lost in the trees. He wouldn’t go far, of that I was sure, but would soon hunker down to see if I would follow.
Sure enough, I soon disturbed him again. This time he gave just a glance and showed a clean pair of heels.
With the noonday sun my only clock, I thought shortly of those who must of necessity bend to the will of another more mechanical. How those hands drag themselves around their numbered dial! Here in the wood the day fleets by. I find a seat in the sun; too soon it becomes a shadow. The speckled wood, our specialist forest butterfly, forewarns me by flitting across our glade to better catch those warming rays, and I know I shall have to shift.
Now, with my back against the dark bole of old oak, I get to work making notes and a simple sketch. The hare appears before me once again, this time as a crude apparition on paper. My leaning post is cold and hard like iron. I wonder at its age. Britain’s first Poet Laureate John Dryden wrote of oaks he found in 17th-century England:
“The monarch oak, the patriarch of trees,
Shoots, rising up, and spreads by slow degrees;
Three centuries he grows, and three he stays
supreme in state, and in three more decays.”
I doubt any Irish tree would stand 900 years. The oldest I can trace is the Silken Thomas yew that stands in the grounds of St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, that some claim to be 800 years of age. What about the oak at my back? Could three or four centuries have passed since it threw its first shoot toward that same sun? Perhaps the acorn which gave it life was brought to this spot by rook or by jay, birds which cache food in times of plenty and unwittingly help the forest spread.
In Dryden’s day Irish forests were being felled indiscriminately after Queen Elizabeth I had ordered their destruction. Still, as late as 1629 British surveyor Philip Cottingham reported to the Queen that Ireland still abounded in noble oaks well suited for building of ships, but also noted they were used more for making illicit wooden barrels. Which is more commendable, I ask, to build a military naval force or to provide continental winemakers with barrels for their produce?
A few years prior to that another royal adviser and MP for Belfast, Lord Blennerhassett, demanded ‘periodic manhunts to track down the human wolves to their lairs’. These ‘human wolves’, also known as ‘woodkernes’, were none other than the Irish who resisted English rule and used the forest that remained as a refuge, from which they emerged at night to plunder those taking possession of their land.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666 there was huge demand for Irish oak – English forests had already been degraded – and the removal of ancient woodland here was accelerated. Landlords acquired wooded property and immediately cashed in the value of the trees it held. A new phrase was coined: ‘Making the feathers pay for the goose’ led to this country losing virtually all of its woodland.
Political events including absentee landlordism drained Ireland of capital. Everything that could be sold was liquidated, with the money raised going directly overseas.
Property owners loyal to the English crown took the lead in an attempt at reforestation, but this led to the willful destruction of newly planted woodland by those disaffected. There could be no winner.
The Land Act of 1881 saw farmland transferred from landlords to their tenants. Before releasing their estates landlords sold what little mature timber still remained and Ireland quickly became the least forested country in Europe.
Today we have few real trees. Shouldn’t we plant some, just because we can? Three hundred years from now a man might like to sit and think or write a bit, and maybe watch a woodland hare.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.