Naked Ireland, and how we got here (first published on indymedia.ie July 2013)
It is well known that Ireland has a very low level of tree cover, among the lowest of any European country – in 2012 it had risen to almost 11% although it is still way below the European average of 30%. Of course about half of this 11% is Sitkha Spruce, which is non-native and causes acidification of the soil. So we currently live in a country that is fairly naked – stripped of the great forests that once covered most of the country. Today most mountain ranges and hills are bare, populated with sheep and cattle instead of trees. It seems that the bulk of our trees populate the 'long acre' i.e. the side of the road or ditches separating fields.
In my travels around the country I've noticed that many of these roadside and ditch residing trees are in a terrible condition – swamped with Ivy, sometimes damaged by wire and fence-posts or miscellaneous injuries caused by pruning or wide/high vehicles. So how did we get to a landscape that is so bereft of trees and where trees are so poorly valued? The roots of this problem can be traced back to the Norman invasion of Ireland from 1169.
Henry II was accepted as ruler of Leinster by Ruairí Ui Conchobhair (Rory O'Connor) the Ard Rí (High King) at the treaty of Windsor in 1175, however the Norman ambitions did not stop there. Subsequent English rulers attempted to expand their territories in Ireland by a combination of military conquest and exchanging traditional royal titles for Earldom's under English law.
The Gaels of the time lived a semi-nomadic existence, very much in harmony with their environment; their culture was completely rural and made good and sustainable use of the woodlands, bogs and lakes, with the Gaels being intimately acquainted with the lands they lived in. Of course the invaders, although militarily more advanced in terms of conventional strategy and war technology were not accustomed to either the landscape or the Gaelic style of rural existence. After initial success the Normans met with stiff resistance to their advances as the Gaels became used to their techniques and began to use the natural environment against their enemy.
'…by usage and experience the natives gradually became skilled and versed in handling arrows and other arms. Frequent encounters with our men and their many successes, taught them how to set ambushes, while themselves guarding against them.'
'the king of Uladh, came to them, however, on that night, and gave him battle. The Foreigners were defeated, and put to much slaughter.'
In the late 12th century Giraldus Cambensis' 'Topographia Hibernia' described Ireland and its people, somewhat fantastically in places, but it does give an early insight on some aspects of life here:
'Ireland is a country of uneven surface and rather mountainous. The soil is soft and watery, and there are many woods and marshes. Even at the tops of high and steep mountains you will finds pools and swamps. Still there asre, here and there, some fine plains, but in comparision with the woods they are indeed small.'
The Irish legal codes (commonly referred to as Brehon Law) gave protection to the natural environment with harsh fines for abuse of trees, based on their perceived value ranging over four categories from Nobles of the wood to Bushes of the wood. Norse and Danish immigrants also observed a respect for the woods and brought relatively small change to the appearance of the country; this was not the case though with the Normans and subsequent waves of English colonisers.
Having realised that the Gaels were able to mount guerrilla warfare from the relative safety of the forests and mountains the Normans were effectively under siege until they began to dismantle the native habitat.
'The woods and bogs are a great hindrance to us and help the rebels. Much good could be done by Irish churls felling, dressing and burning the trees in heaps. This couldst be done whilst leaving sufficient timber for the use of the country, if a tree is left standing every twenty yards.' (Eoin Neeson citing CSPI).
By the 14th century the Anglo-Normans (or English) were increasingly under pressure from surprise attacks in transit and even rapid full-frontal assaults on their towns from Irish armies that seemed to be able to disappear into the mist and woods just as quickly as they had appeared. The Irish were able to keep livestock and grow vegetables and grains in the lands as yet unexplored by the English and lay in vast stores for the guerrilla campaigns. It was the woodlands and these stores that the English eventually began to target in their efforts to subdue the native people:
'In searching the woods and bogs we found great store of corn, which we burnt… We continued burning and destroying for four days… The enemy in these parts chiefly depended upon this country for provision. I believe that we have destroyed as much as would have served some thousands of them until next harvest.' (Sir Henry Sidney, 1556)
Although highly successful, these tactics were carried out intermittently and not followed up on so that gradual re-colonisation had reduced 'The Pale' significantly. However, Tudor king Henry VIII began to take a serious interest in the unruly English colony and through new laws, 'Surrender and Re-grant' and vicious military campaigns began to turn the tide.
It was under Elizabeth I that the great destruction of the Irish wilderness began, first in her attempts to crush the Fitzgeralds of Munster and later on in Connacht and Leinster. Woodlands were chopped or burned, villages and crops burned also in an all-out war of attrition…
'At this period it was commonly said, that the lowing of the cow, or the voice of the ploughman could scarcely be heard from Dun-Caoin to Cashel in Munster.'
(Annals of the Four Masters, 1616)
This culminated with the defeat of the O'Neills of Ulster in a desperate war that cost Elizabeth an astronomical sum of two millions pounds and almost bankrupted England. Unified resistance was broken but small clans and communites held out in the mountains and woodlands – perhaps the most famous example being Fiach O'Byrne of Glenmalure, who was eventually hunted down and killed in 1597.
Under Cromwell the uprooting of the people from their tuatha to Connaught enabled their lands to be pillaged, taken and exploited for a quick profit. Although 'Tories' continued to attack the English settlers, as the woodlands began shrinking and converting to plantations, resistance became increasingly difficult. With resistance effectively crushed, it was possible to fully exploit the natural resources of Ireland and begin the wholesale transformation of the landscape:
'adorned with goodly woods even fit for building of houses and ships, so commodiously, as that if some princes in the world had them, they would soon hope to be lords of all the seas, and ere long of all the world' (Edmund Spenser)
Of course it is well-known that Elizabeth made use of Ireland's huge forests to help build an impressive navy. Speculators bought vast acreages and had many thousands of trees felled for export, in almost all cases failing to plant any new ones. Although even in these times it was becoming noticed that a huge natural resource was being denuded and wasted…
'There are forests in this kingdon of many thousand acres, some principal ones ought to be reserved for the use of the Crown, and not wasted, as they are now by private men, who purchase them for trifles or assume them upon tricks and devices from the simple Irish' (Eoin Neeson citing Chichester)
Although much of the woodland was felled for warships (two thousand trees to make one seventy-four gun ship), it appears that demand for barrels and casks, and also the iron industry, by far outstripped the destruction wrought by shipbuilding. For example in the late 1630s the export of pipe-staves for barrels and casks reached almost 5 million – a 'pipe' being big enough to hold 126 gallons. The seemingly endless supply of wood meant that Irish colonists effectively cornered the market, until the trees eventually ran out.
Leather tanning, which utilised bark from living oak trees led to the debarking of such huge quantities of oak trees that attempts were made to prohibit the practice. Ironworks also had a terrible impact on the Irish woodlands given that six tonnes of wood were required to make two tonnes of charcoal, which was then able to produce one tonne of iron. Mass clearances for iron making carried on until the use of coal finally reached Ireland – by which time most of the forests had gone…
'The great woods which the maps do represent to us upon the mountains between Dundalk and Newry are quite vanished., there being nothing left of them these many years since but only one tree standing close by the highway, at the very top of one of these mountains.' (Boate's Natural History of Ireland)
The 'Penal Laws' further reduced the land in the possession of the Catholic Irish so that by 1800 only 5% of Ireland's land was in Ireland's hands and that land which was taken was most often commercially exploited, with only the big landlords maintaining forests, solely for their own enjoyment of hunting and an otherwise ugly and stripped landscape. Despite encouragement from the government for landowners to improve their land, by planting trees, perhaps only 2% of the land area had tree cover at this time.
The establishment of the Irish National Land League in 1878 and the Irish Land Commission in 1881 gave some hope for the native Irish to reclaim the land that was in the possession of landlords, but by this time the majority of the country had been cleared, many lakes filled in and bogs dried out for economic exploitation and what was being planted from the early 1800s onwards was mostly conifers.
This process, as we all know, continued into the 20th century so that the bulk of Irish woodland remains coniferous to this day. The situation is improving, with a growing awareness of broadleaf and native species amongst both government agencies, companies and the general public, but with the last minute reprieve of Ireland's woodlands harvesting rights being sold off to help fund deficit payments it shows that there is no room for complacency!