A National Treasure Despoiled by Invaders?

A BOOK REVIEW by COLIN RYANSetRatioSize745550-9781846825057

Nigel Everett. The Woods of Ireland: A History, 700-1800. Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-84682-591-0

RRP: €27

Ireland, it has been said (perhaps a little too often), was once the site of extensive woodland, with its destruction attributed to the depredations of invaders, leaving a national treasure despoiled. On this narrative Nigel Everett casts a pleasingly sceptical eye. The Irish themselves were wielders of the axe from the earliest times, and the Irish landscape was largely characterised by agriculture and grazing. Woodlands certainly existed, in various degrees of plenitude, but they were vigorously exploited by Irish lords, merchants and craftsmen for commercial gain. (Irish timber could be found in English churches.) In Everett’s words:

What appears primarily to have taken place in the medieval and modern eras was the steady erosion, by many parties, of a long-diminished woodland resource, operating in circumstances of minimal regulation.

The poets of Gaelic Ireland were wont to praise the beauty of woodland, but Everett contends that the Irish in general shared a common European distaste for dense forest.

The Elizabethans were impressed by the woodlands they encountered in Ireland, though they proved consistently unable to measure their true extent. The Irish forests were a convenient metaphor for Irish barbarity and lack of industry, though the metaphor suffered when English officials noted, despite themselves, that farming also flourished. The thicker woods were recognised as a formidable barrier to expeditions from the Pale; the branches could be plaited against an enemy’s progress, though one colonist observed that it was the marginal scrubland that furnished the best sites for ambush. Calls for the felling of woodland seem to have referred to the clearing, not of forest, but of the passes which allowed one to traverse that forest.

Irish Woodland

Irish Woodland

In official circles another concern was prevalent, in Ireland as in England: forests were being needlessly ‘wasted’ and despoiled. The official view was that they were both a valuable commercial resource and a source of naval timber. In the seventeenth century, the Crown began to pay attention to the conservation of the Irish woodlands, a concern not widely shared, it was feared, by the natives. English settlers were keen to get their hands on useful timber, but accused each other of reckless felling. It was acknowledged that the warfare that racked Ireland in the Cromwellian period had woodland destruction as a consequence, but it still proved difficult for the authorities to gauge the extent of what remained. The Dublin Society pressed for the planting of trees, and at the end of the seventeenth century the Irish parliament passed legislation to the same effect.

The Irish had long engaged in the export of timber, chiefly for barrel staves. Tanners stripped oak bark for the purposes of their trade, an activity whose destructive effects led to complaints. There was also concern about the proliferation of iron-works, which required the felling of trees for charcoal, but smelting rarely proved profitable and faded away in time.

The Anglo-Irish gentry, once established, showed a taste for arboreal improvement, partly for profit and partly for appearance. Painters of the larger demesnes showed woodland carefully arranged in accordance with the prevailing aesthetic. Native oak, hazel and ash were supplemented by such imports as sycamore and maple. But woodland shrank regardless, largely because of the assertion of what was felt to be a communal right to wood.

Everett argues that the ascendancy concern for woodland in the eighteenth century and its accompanying rhetoric constituted a body of values to do with public commodity. The general community saw such commodity in a different light, preferring exploitation to conservation. The ‘radically new civility’ expressed in statements of appropriate woodland practice (an ascendancy concern) led to the destruction of woods as an expression of native resistance. Despite the later tendency of nationalists to lament the lost forests, Irish woodland failed to benefit from the establishment of the Irish state. There is nothing as yet to replace the language of prescriptive rights and duties once seen as balancing  the tendency to destruction.

Everett’s account ends at the beginning of the nineteenth century. His case is strong, and will no doubt invite contestation of similar vigour. We await with interest a promised second book on the fate of Irish woodlands from the Union to the present.


Colin is a regular contributor to Tinteán, and has recently published (from Australia) a volume of short stories in the Irish language.