Forests in Seventeenth Century Ireland

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Like all indigenous people around the world, the Gaelic clans around Ireland would have been hailed as conservationists considering current mentality in the caring for our natural environment.

That said, the forests of Ireland at the beginning of the 17C covered 1/8 of the land mass of Ireland. The above fraction sounds insignificant, but the island of Ireland had many uninhabitable areas and landscape that couldn’t sustain any growth at all such as bog terrain, mountainous regions, karst lands and estuaries. Therefore, the relative size of woodland cover in Ireland at this time was high.

Leinster, the first province of Ireland to be colonised by the English in the late 12th century was slowly deforested over the following few centuries although County Wicklow, areas of Carlow, Wexford and Laois still had substantial pockets of woodland by 1600. The lower Suir Valley had the Great Wood of Kilconish, north of Enniscorthy had the Wood of Coillaughtim and the Shillelagh in County Wicklow all need to be mentioned within the Leinster area by 1600.

Munster which was well-settled by Anglo-Irish and New English by 1600 was still a very densely wooded area. Munster in many parts was above 1,000 metres leaving many valleys enjoying the privacy from human contact and industry because of limited access. The great forests of Munster were well known in Tudor times. Forests such as Glanekinty north of Tralee and the woods around the Killarney region were particularly dense with native trees.

Connaught is and was a province that varies in landscape because of the bogs, mountainous areas and land with poor soil. However, by 1600 Connaught still held on to some forested areas such as the Forests of Leguy and Fasach-Coille near Lough Allen in Roscommon. A dense wood on the Galway-Clare border called the Wood of Suidain near Lough Derg also existed.

The final province to look at was the last place to be colonised by the English/Scots. Ulster was heavily forested after Hugh O’Neill and his allies were defeated by Mountjoy’s forces in Kinsale after the Nine Year’s War. That said, the east side of County Down was for centuries occupied by Scottish settlers that lived in reasonable harmony with the native Irish. Forests such as the Glens of Antrim, Killultagh, Dufferin, McCartan’s Country, Glenconkeyne, Killetra and Mountreivelin all sat side-by-side with Ulster Gaelic folklore and survived until new English and Scottish settlers became intently dedicated to new industry which relied on timber as a fuel and resource.

Before we move towards the causes of deforestation in Ireland after 1600 it is important to understand some contemporary thoughts from foreign invaders and how they saw the Irish woodland.

By 1603 the Nine Years War was over and wherever the war-weary troops of both sides passed through, they paid havoc to the lands and resources around them. New settlers would look at the woodlands as a haven for woodkerne[i] and renegades. As early as the late 14C, Richard II feared the woods of Ireland when he landed on the east coast in an attempt to subjugate the Irish. He, alongside future Viceroys of Ireland toyed with the idea of cutting down vast swathes of forest to make a profit but also to secure the provinces from Irish renegades. Not only did the victory of the Nine Year’s War for the crown see the final Gaelic power in Ireland diminish it also opening the floodgates for the incredible resources available to the business-minded settlers such as Lord Chicester, Thomas Philips and Lord Mountjoy. New planters at the start of the century also toyed with the idea of cutting down all Ulster’s forests. Blennerhasset, an early planter described the wolf and the woodkerne as the most serious dangers to the colonists in Ulster. He continued by saying ‘no doubt, it will be a pleasant hunt and much prey will fall to the followers’. The wolf finally died off in 1770 but the settlers in Ireland enjoyed the chase moreso against the woodkerne and the last were dragged from hiding at the beginning of the 18C. Ironically, but not directly related, the woodkerne disappeared alongside the wild forests of Ireland.

From the beginning of the 17C exports in Irish timber increased. By 1625 the French and Spanish casked all their wine from Irish wood. The London Companies that managed much of the escheated lands of Ulster early in the Ulster plantation enticed many settlers from England that much profit can be made from the ancient woods. Their written word persuading prospecting settlers to Ulster in 1620 and stressed, ‘All sorts of wood do afford many services for pipestaves, hogshead staves, barrel staves, wainscot…[ii] (staves being the constituent parts that make up barrels). Although the 17C cannot be entirely to blame for denuding the island of Ireland of its forests but it can be prime suspect for corralling it in the wrong direction. A ‘free for all’ may be too strong a way to describe it but it can’t be far off as a description.

The main industries that made Irish timber top the lists of exports were iron making, stave making (barrel making), house building, shipbuilding, tanning and glass making. Out the above list it was iron making and glass making that used the forests as fuel.

The forests of Munster filled the insatiable furnaces of the White, Raleigh, Boyle and Petty dynasties. Great profits could be made from the untouched forests away from the beaten track in Kerry and Cork. The greatest cost for the fuelling of the iron works was not the purchasing of the timber to burn but the transport of it across badly negotiable tracks where there were no tracks before. William Petty is said to have invented a single-wheel carriage to get him through the roads of Kerry to his Kenmare estate. Even in 1812, an Edward Wakefield mentioned the travelling through Kerry as a ‘place which is seldom visited by travellers, as there are no roads to it of any kind’.[iii] This is the reason iron works sometimes moved when tracks of forest were used up and works sprang up in the most rural of places as they continued to follow the fuel. The valleys of Roaring Water, Bantry, Coomhola and Glengarriff were denuded of oak which fuelled the iron works. Bantry itself became an industrious town at the start of the 17C because of with iron smelting but more famously the tanning industry which we will talk about below put it on the map.

It wasn’t until the end of the 18C that techniques using coal as a fuel for iron working was underway. Apparently, the best charcoal for the smelting of iron is 25 year-old coppiced oak. There is also a calculation that an acre of coppiced wood gave enough fuel to make a ton of iron.[iv]There may have been up to 200 iron works working at any one time in Ireland and their distribution was relatively even throughout the island. Each forge would have been in operation close to the fuel source and some would have only opened for a half of the year depending on the availability of fuel. That said there were quite a number of iron works in production for well over 100 years with the Enniscorthy (close to the Wicklow forests) forge blowing hot air for an amazing 232 years. Without a doubt iron working put paid to many of the ancient forests of Ireland but the forests were managed to a degree in order to support the running of furnaces throughout the 18C. The vast majority of works began in the early 1600’s and once the fuel source diminished a somewhat after 1700 they were all closed up by 1800 or they moved to coal as a fuel type.

Another industry that used Irish trees as a fuel was glass making. Glassworks were introduced to Ireland in 1588 by Lord Burleigh because ‘the woods in England will be thereby preserved and the superfluous woods in Ireland wasted’.[v] Glassmaking didn’t have as much of an impact on Irish forests as iron working and from the 1670’s the glassworks moved from inland to coastal settlements as the process could be completed using imported and native coal.

Tanning, a process essential for the leather industry was extant in Ireland long before 1600. However, after the plantations of Ireland (c. 1580-1630) its production began to pick up speed. It is usually the bark of a broad-leafed tree, preferably an oak, that is used in the process. A competent person could strip a tree in two hours and during the Spring time it was best for felling because this was the best time for stripping the bark. Tannin, an acidic chemical compound found in the bark of oak or fir trees is used in the tanning process to prepare leather. Tanners were not much liked by other industries using trees to line their pockets. Tanners can strip a wood in a matter of days and acomment made by a Peter Brousden who worked for the British Navy in the 17C in search for good trees to fell for shipbuilding said, ‘Sir William Petty’s woods in Kenmare were in better shape than most other woods because of the absence of brogue-makers in the district’. Brogue makers were shoe makers and therefore made of leather. Sir Thomas Philips, Ulster’s opportunist and financial adventurer, mentioned that he thought tanners were lurking in every wood although they appear to have been scarce in Ulster compared to other provinces in the early 17C but a little paranoia kept him on his toes! Unlike iron working, tanning continued to be a financially successful industry even though exports of timber in the early decades of the 1700’s went from exporting timber to importing timber when the Scandinavian fir trees replaced the Irish oak. The number of tanneries rose in Dublin from 36 in 1768 to 45 in 1800.

Other industries like house building had a significant affect on the forests of Ireland. House building increased tenfold to accommodate the new English and Scottish settlers that were given land as payment after the Desmond and O’Neill rebellions were put down. The half-timbered English style houses sprang up in every town and along the landscape of rural areas during the early years of the plantation. James I put a demand to the English and Scottish settlers that they should build to a standard. The Undertakers (settlers given 2,000 acres or more) were contracted to build and establish communities that would support each other for the survival of these new settlements. House frames fabricated in the English style in plantation Ulster became a middle-sized business and the Ulster forests of Glenconkeyne and Killetra were used to bare the weight of production. The City of London who owned thousands of acres in Ulster tried entice the English to come and settle with the promise of Irish oak to build their properties but by the 1660’s imports of softwood were steadily being requested especially in timber-hungry cities such as Dublin.

Finally, another industry that sprung up in Ireland during the 17C that affected the native forests as a resource was shipbuilding. Normally under 100 tons, Irish ships built in the 17C were generally small. Because of the unchartered estuaries and coastlines around Ireland, in 1618 the navy commissioners advised against any large ships drawing more than 16 feet of water. This means the depth of water the ship submerges to when afloat. In 1611 on the Cork coast, nearly 30,000 trees were earmarked by the navy for shipbuilding. All of the timber the navy were interested in was within ten miles of the coast or navigable rivers due to the high cost of transport. In 1621, the English Act supporting the English Navy prohibited any felling of trees close to the coast, but this was never implemented.[vi] The life of a ship was quite short and twenty years would see a ship go to retirement.

The forests of Ireland were a commodity to the English and Scottish planters. The 17C settlers and the Gaelic Irish minority that moved with the changes in society saw timber as a means to an end and the resource was more precious than one would think today. With the influx of settlers so too was the need for farm land. The depletion of the Irish woods began centuries before 1600 but the socio-political turn around after the Nine Years War from 1603 onwards saw a hunger never witnessed before to use Irish resources to the point of elimination. Towards the end of the 17C Irish timber became scarcer and landlords became stricter in what their tenants could take for themselves. An early example of this on the Rawdon estate was the detail in a lease of 1653 where tenants could only cut wood on their land with the permission of the landlord. Parliament passed acts from 1689 to 1791 to conserve existing broad-leafed trees and to enforce planting. To replace the diminished Irish timber, pines were planted and imported. With rarely little replanting, the landscape of Ireland changed for the first time since the last Ice Age. Today, Irish woods cover 1% of land cover. This statistic is a sad one as the majority of the timber planted in Ireland is Scot’s Pine and other types of quick growing trees and they are bound for the market for selling after 30 years of growth. Although An Coillte (Forestry Service of Ireland) employ many people there needs to be a rethink as to how we see the future of Irish forestry. Scot’s Pine was re-introduced to Ireland after centuries of extinction by Cromwellian settlers during the middle of the 17C. Native Irish trees that flourished since the last Ice Age were oak, ash, birch, hazel, whitebeam, holly, willow, alder and juniper to name a few. Interestingly, a number of broad-leafed trees that sound very familiar such as horse chestnut, sycamore and beech were introduced in recent centuries. An Coillte earned 287.7 million euro in revenue in 2016. The landscape of Ireland is generally bare of trees and the random rectangular shapes of conifers on hillsides don’t particularly look pleasing to the eye. A future strategy for An Coillte could be to plant native Irish trees around the country to the levels of pre-Cromwellian times. Agreed, broad-leafed trees take much longer to grow and this generation may not reap the fruits of what we grow. That’s why it should be regarded as a long-term plan. There are many thousands of hectares in Ireland that are unused and underdeveloped. The financial gain will not come from felling the trees after 100 years but to open up forest trails and activities for future generations to enjoy. There can be many break-away financial opportunities to capture the visitor numbers using the forests. An Coillte shouldn’t lose any revenue as they can continue to fell conifers each year and it is the planting of broad-leafed trees that will incur the initial cost. Could this cost be siphoned from another sector? Could there be a national charity push to finance the planting? Could volunteers give some of their time to help with the planting? A national drive?

It has been proven that volunteering has had a positive effect on the mental wellbeing of the person volunteering. That said, a replanted deciduous Ireland will have an incredible surge of interest from the nation. In a time where children are more inclined to embrace digital software and stay under roof it would be less complicated if we could give people more reason to venture outside to an oak and yew forest much like those that Gaelic Irish clanships passed through on a day to day basis. Currently, the Irish government plant coniferous trees to use in the energy industry such as biomass to power private and industrious boilers. They give grants to farmers to grow trees which is nearly all coniferous to use as fuel. In 2017 a report was published by T.D Andrew Doyle, Minister of State who is responsible for forestry in Ireland. The report seemed very positive and it revealed that ‘Irish forestry cover was at its highest level for the last 350 years and that over one quarter of our forest estate contains broadleaves’. There has been a concerted effort to develop Irish forests but the main reason to do this is for short-term financial benefits. A much more beneficial approach would be a long-term strategy to plant broad-leafed trees to survive until mature. A slight shift towards tourism and recreation as opposed to short-term finance from the government and a public outcry to show ambition to change the look of our country and there is every chance a change could prove beneficial to the lives of future generations of Irish people and the millions of tourists to the country.

[i] Gaelic Irish disaffected from defeated battles against the English. They would use the woods as hideouts and pounce similar to highwaymen in England & Scotland.

[ii] McCracken, Eileen,; The Irish Woods Since Tudor Times, pg. 98.

[iii] Architecture 1600 – 2000, Vol IV, pg. 145.

[iv] McCracken, Eileen,;  The Irish Woods Since Tudor Times, pg. 92.

[v]Longfield, Anglo-Irish Trade, pg.211

[vi] Carew, MSS, 1603-24, pg.194.

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