Ask people who have visited Ireland what they remember about the country and you will invariably hear mention of how green it is. Which is surprising, considering that Ireland is now the most treeless land in Europe. Ireland’s native forests were effectively wiped out during a four century orgy, removing from the face of the land trees that had first emerged in the aftermath of the last great ice age 10,000 years ago. When the last glaciers retreated from Ireland the first trees to rise again were those tolerant of cold conditions – birch, willow and juniper. They were followed by species less tolerant of cold. Broadleaved forests of oak, elm, alder and ash covered the lowlands. Native pines (such as Scots pine) rose in the highlands and in the poorer soil of the west. There was so much growth that by the time the first farmers began to cultivate the land between five and six thousand years ago Ireland was covered with broadleaves and evergreens. The economy of Ireland under the Celts was that of the forests. This great resource was the provider of raw materials, medicine, weapons, tools, charcoal, food (in the form of berries, nuts, fungi, fruit, wild animals, insects and grubs) as well as the basis for spirituality and wisdom. No other country has as many place-names connected to the forest.
As many as 40,000 still exist, which, without the woodlands and forests, mean little to anyone who doesn’t know the local history. There are many family names associated with native broadleaf trees (McIvor is Son of Yew, McCarthy is Son of Rowan, McColl is Son of Hazel amongst many others). The original Gaelic alphabet for the old Irish language came from the native trees of Ireland – alim (elm), beith (birch), coll (hazel), dair (oak). When the Romans conquered most of Britain, Ireland was said to be two-thirds mixed hardwood forest. Despite the emergence of agriculture and the practices of invading tribes, Gerald of Wales, a Norman who came to Ireland as part of Henry II’s war mongering entourage in the late 12th century, described Ireland in 1185 as a country of ‘many woods and marshes’ and ‘here and there, some fine plains, but in comparison with the woods they are indeed small’. Sweeney (from the 12th century story Buile Suibhne) refers to the oak, hazel, alder, blackthorn, sloe-bush, watercress, saxifrage, apple, rowan, bramble, ivy, holly, ash, birch and aspen. It wasn’t until the 17th century that beech and chestnut were introduced into the Irish woodland landscape.
A few generations later Ireland’s rich forests were gone. Ireland’s original farmers had started the destruction, clearing woodlands for cultivation, and this practice was continued by peasant subsistence farmers. The depletion continued as people used wood as a source of fuel and for building material. Then the colonizing English started to fell the woodlands to deny the Irish hiding places in the early battles for the land. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries they cut the forests down to provide timber for the British ships which would plunder and exploit other lands and other people. Since then the nature of Irish farming and Irish politics wrought more damage. Ireland, however, is still a forest country. The conditions are perfect for the growth of trees. Sadly this has led to the plantation of spruce, which grows three times faster in Ireland than elsewhere in Europe. Timber products are the largest EU import after oil. Ireland is only nine percent afforested, whereas the European average is 31 percent.
But there is hope. An Irish company called Rooted in Ireland has started to reforest parts of Ireland, beginning in Armagh. Each tree they plant can be bought as a gift for someone, and a portion of the purchase price goes to REACT, who are a charity engaged in peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. A project like this has a huge social, environmental, and economic impact on the landscape of Ireland and will hopefully allow future generations to enjoy Ireland as it should be.