Culture - Trees and Irish Social History


A tree is like a biological calendar. You can work out how old a felled tree is by counting its rings or a live one by looking at a core. You can also say something about the climatic conditions relating to that year by comparing rings in contemporary trees. Eamain Macha an important Celtic site at Armagh can be dated to 94 BC because the base of its central wooden post survived

Early History

After the Ice Age (9000-6000) BC. Birch, Willow, Pine, Oak and Yew came back from Europe followed by Aspen, Cherry etc. As the land became inhabited the early Irish use wood for shelter, fuel, canoes and weapons. This was during the Mesolithic (stone age period about 6000BC). By 4000BC large-scale forest clearance had occurred with wood based house construction. With the Bronze Age (2500-1200BC) and the Late Bronze Age (1200- 600BC) wood was widely used as human activities spread. Post and wattle building was widespread, roadways and hill forts were constructed and working tools, boxes planks and vessels were in use. By the Iron Age (600BC 500ad) Transport had developed and wood was used for wheels, carts and road building. Trees were formally venerated at this time.

The Early Christian, Viking and Norman Periods
In the period 500-1000 AD there were some 30,000-ring forts involving wooden construction and numerous wooden churches. The Vikings brought their wooden ships and indeed Irish oak was used in the construction of some of those, which survived until today. Wattle and daub buildings constituted the Viking towns such as Waterford and Dublin. The Celtic form of land ownership did not really change in this period other than the gradual expansion of farming into wooded areas.

The Normans (1200-1400) introduced new absolute ownership systems including the concept of Royal Forests ( SEE Module 2 CLICK). These were areas reserved for the Kings (or his deputys) ownership mainly for hunting, run by an extensive administration of sheriffs and foresters with powers of death or torture in cases of infringement. This system was common in England and shaped and protected forests there. Royal forests never became widely established here and in Wicklow a local Bishop successfully challenged an ownership case by the Kings agent. This may in part explain why very few extensive forest areas survived. For the first time Irish timber was sourced for England. Wood was used in this period for wattling, bridges, housing and roads. Forest cover may have been as high as 50 % when the Normans came.

Tudors to the Act of Union
Henry VIIIs Forest Act was driven for the demands for woods for shipping and under Elisabeth woods were cut down to contain rebellion. The Tudors had a keen eye for business and exploited woodlands for shipbuilding, house construction and staves and barrels for the wine trade. The charcoal industry was also set up. By the end of the Tudor era forest cover was down to 12%.

During the era of plantation (1600- 1700) extensive tree clearance for political and commercial reasons happened to the extent that Ireland became a net importer of timber. A large volume of ineffectual legislation by the Stewarts, William and Mary and subsequent monarchs was enacted to stop the rot but really ended up penalizing the Irish for traditional uses. There was a continuing demand for Irish oak particularly for Londons reconstruction after the great fire.

Some reversal of the deforestation trend occurred in the 18th century with tree planting on the great estates once the owners felt politically secure. The RDS, set up in the 1740s supported tree planting with grants. However the penal laws and poor laws further discouraged the native Irish from land improvement and alienated them further from an interest in woodlands. However, two events of forestry significance occurred. Samuel Hayes the owner of Avondale wrote a book on woodland management and the Botanic Gardens were established in Dublin.

Act of Union to Independence
After Grattens Home Rule parliament was abolished. Incentives fizzled out. Absentee landlords grew in number and when following a battle of ironclad ships in the American civil war, the oak market collapsed, estates went into further decline. The Land Acts of the late 1800s helped this on. The new small holders had little interest in tree growing associated as it was with the Land Lord system. By the end of the 1800s the forestry situation was considered so dire that through a newly created Department of Agriculture and Technical instruction a committee was set up to evaluate a state forestry programme. Following its report in 1908 moneys were allocated to land purchase and some estates were acquired. This included Avondale in1903. By WW1 the remaining woodlands had been further depleted and forest cover stood at less than 1%.

Modern times
The first Dail adopted a forest policy in 1919. A new Department of Agriculture framed a FORESTRY ACT in1928 based on an English law passed in 1919. In 1946 an extensive new act was passed which is still the basic legislation for forestry today. After WW2 an OECD commissioned report with targets of 10.000 ha planting per year was implemented mainly through the intervention of the then Minister of External Affaires Sean McBride.

Two further acts were passed in 1956 and 1988 the latter setting up Coillte to run State forests instead of the Forest Service which continued on as the forest authority responsible for legislation regulation and grant assistance. Private forestry, supported by the EU took off in the 1990s and today the forest area is over 700k ha or 10% of the land area. Some 250k ha are farm forest, 50k, estate woodland and 5k native woodland. (See also Module 2 CLICK). Current forest policy aims at 17% cover by the 2030s but forest expansion now at 7,000ha would not be enough to reach the target by then.

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