“Pine for your lifetime, ash for your children, and oak for your grandchildren.” – Irish proverb
The Gaelic Woodland Project is a wonderful tree planting project in Ireland raising money to plant a 50 acre woodland in the heart of Ireland dedicated to the spirit of the land and her scattered generations. A commemorative standing stone will be placed at its center in 2045, on the 200-year anniversary of the Great Famine. The project runner, Eoghan hopes to fill the land with biodiverse and native flora and make the space a true homage to our ancestors as well as a gift to our descendants. 100% of the money raised will be used to buy the land, maintain the space or participate in other reforesting projects.
How did the beautiful Éire come to lose her trees?
Arthur Sullivan tells us that “Ireland was once a land of woods and forests. The small island had forest cover of around 80 percent, but today has one of the lowest rates in Europe, just 11 percent (only 1% of that considered native).” (1) To put that in perspective, most European nations have at least 30% tree coverage and mainland Europe on the whole is up to 38% tree coverage and increasing. (2)
The reasoning for this is nuanced and intertwining having a lot to do with colonization and forced plantations as well as just necessity for survival. The trees were stripped against the land’s will, too often harvested and sold to build ships, furniture or other materials to be sold in Britain or Europe. Ireland is the only country in Europe where such complete and utter destructive wholesale of her trees took place.
“…the plantations and their related agricultural development radically altered Ireland’s ecology and physical appearance. In 1600, most of Ireland was heavily wooded, apart from the bogs. Most of the population lived in small townlands, many migrating seasonally to fresh pastures for their cattle. By 1700, Ireland’s native woodland had been decimated; it was intensively exploited and sold for profit by the new settlers for commercial ventures such as shipbuilding, as much of the English forests had been destroyed and the navy was becoming a great power. Several native species, such as the wolf, were hunted to extinction during this period. (A beautiful film was recently released in the spirit of this called Wolfwalkers) Most of the settler population was urbanized, living in permanent towns or villages. Some of the Irish people continued their traditional practices and culture under the shadow of heavy control and punishments. By the end of the plantation period, almost all of Ireland had become integrated into a market economy. But many of the poorer classes had no access to money, still paying rent (for land that was once owned by Irish people) in kind or in service. The plantations also introduced a new measurement system to Ireland called the Irish measure or plantation measure which had some residual use even into the 20th century.”
Approximately half of the remaining woodlands in Ireland are privately owned, patchworks, that often may or may not contain native species or be large enough to sustain a flourishing habitat for native wildlife. It’s an understatement to say there are few places Irish citizens, or anyone can safely visit a healthy and native forest ecosystem. Ireland is so deeply rooted and associated with the ‘tree of life’ motif, for towering oak, ash and aspen and yet these vestiges can too often only be proven to have existed by the presence of their beautiful bones buried in the bog.
Why is this association with Ireland to trees so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness? While somewhat speculative, it’s thought that in ancient Ireland, when a piece of land was cleared for the main part of a town settlement, they would leave a great tree in the middle known as the Crann Bethadh or tree of life, or the Bile Buadha, tree of power. As recorded in the Irish Annals of the Four Masters (1632), inaugurations took place under these important trees and possibly other unique social events such as weddings or special gatherings so the sacred therein the tree may bear witness to such events. In the ancient Irish Brehon Law, there is a section entitled “Fidbretha” or tree judgements. Trees were classified as either chieftains (noble trees), peasants (common trees), shrubs (lower trees) or brambles (bush trees) and it was of the highest offense and monetary penalty to fell a chieftain tree. These were the oak, hazel, holly, ash, yew, pine and apple. (3) In the ancient pagan world in fact, the penalty for harming particularly old and sacred trees was often death. (4) Trees are often referred to in mythology and historical folk records as having magical and healing qualities and branches cut from particular trees were imbued with magic and power in mythology as well as given during coronations. They feature in countless Irish folklore, poetry and thousands of place names shedding important light on their significance. Even up into more recent times in fact, they were often referred to as ‘sacred’ such as the Sacred Tree of Clenor in County Cork which ‘despite great need, never had one branch cut’. (5) Many churches were built near or directly over sacred trees to supplant their significance and wells often had and still have, their blessed tree guardians. As the trees were cut down, so too was the culture and the language but not all was lost. Even without trees, hedge schools flourished where the ancient language and customs continued to be taught and practiced in secret. To read more information about Ireland’s magnificent trees, I would recommend Niall Mac Coitir’s Ireland’s Trees, Myths, Legends & Folklore.
County Wicklow has the highest tree coverage while County Meath, where this woodland is intended to be grown, has the lowest which is why projects like Eoghan’s are so vital. For our ancestors, descendants or just out of a great love for Ireland, please dearly consider donating to this wonderful organization using their Gofundme page. You can also find the organization on Facebook, instagram or twitter.
“There is not a way into the woods for which there is also not a way out of it.” – Irish proverb
I asked Eoghan a few questions to narrow down the organization’s mission.
How did your organisation get started / whats the inspiration?
The evolution of the GWP happened and continues to happen iteratively. The first installment came in Winter 2017 like a moment of satori. We’re boundlessly grateful to the trials and triumphs of our ancestors and believe that we now blessed with breath have the capacity to honour them by being in service to posterity. We’re inspired by them and the potential of being alive.
What is your vision for a future Ireland?
I want every community to take ownership of their land and work together to expand hedgerows to create a network of green corridors that link existing natural sites with new community woodlands. I believe that in order to take ownership, we need to feel responsible, to feel responsible we need to be empowered. I want every person on this island to bloom.
What are your favorite things about trees and native plant life?
Learning about the interconnectivity between plant life and the mycelium network was like a reconnection to childhood wonderment. I’m a believer that nature is not more complicated than we think, its more complicated than we can think. So I like to imagine the trees talking to each other and that brings me great peace.
What are the best ways you connect with the living landscape?
I’d like to say sitting around a fire but I live in Dublin City Lockdown. I like to run and cycle. Sea swimming is a treat too.
What experience led you to want to work with the Diaspora?
I was working as a receptionist in a hostel in Temple Bar in 2011. An Irish-American named Ross came in and said he had never been to Ireland but his Great Great Great Grand Uncle came to the US after the Famine leaving a brother behind. He knew the parish and wanted to try find his old family.
Ross came back two weeks later after having spent 2 weeks reconnecting with his lost kin in Roscommon. When he came back I was shocked and that moment stuck with me. It’s too much to get into now but I imagine what musicians are missing from the sessiun and who would fill the empty chair.
What made you become a steward of the Land?
Aristotle called it Eudaiomonia: the flourishing human. All holy texts talk about stewardship of the land, Adam was made as the gardener for Eden. That said, the GWP is a secular vehicle for people-powered reforestation. Whatever your motivation or belief, you’re welcome.
If someone could plant one native tree in Ireland, which one and why?
Plant fruit trees. Why? We import 96% of our apples.
- Foresty and Woodland in Ireland
- Forest Mapes of Europe, Scientists See Forest Trees
- O’Donovan, John and O’Curry, Eugene, Brehon Law Tracts, Vol. 4, A. Tom & Co., Dublin, 1879, pg. 147.
- Storl, Wolf, The Untold History of Healing, North Atlantic Books, California, 2017, pg. 18.
- Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Vol. 2, Cork, 1892, pg. 58.