Bigging up a tree

An Irishman’s Diary about the aboreal Eurovision

‘ “A triumph of hybrid vigour,” Aubrey Fennell calls the 42-metre-tall prodigy in his book Heritage Trees for Ireland, which notes that despite the many fine specimens that surround it in Birr Castle Demesne, the grey poplar is the gardens’ acknowledged star.’ Above, Lord and Lady Rosse of Birr Castle and Tom Roche of Just Forests

‘ “A triumph of hybrid vigour,” Aubrey Fennell calls the 42-metre-tall prodigy in his book Heritage Trees for Ireland, which notes that despite the many fine specimens that surround it in Birr Castle Demesne, the grey poplar is the gardens’ acknowledged star.’ Above, Lord and Lady Rosse of Birr Castle and Tom Roche of Just Forests

Thu, Feb 13, 2014, 01:00

The European Tree of the Year competition has more in common with the Rose of Tralee than it has with Miss Universe. A tree doesn’t have to be beautiful (or even female) to win. It just has to be charming, or lovable, or at least entertaining. The key thing, according to the organisers, is that it should have “a story that brings the community together”.

So it is with this year’s Irish entry, a 200-year-old grey poplar from Birr, Co Offaly. In fact, in arboreal terms, it’s a story that brings two communities together. This is because, as the tree scientists among you will know, Grey Poplars are a hybrid variety: a cross between the White Poplar, found through mainland Europe and Asia, and the native Aspen.

Both of those are modestly-sized trees, but their union can produce something much bigger than the two combined. So as befits a competition the voting for which straddles Valentine’s Day, the Birr poplar is the result of that classic romantic story: boy meets girl, they procreate, and the result is a monster.

“A triumph of hybrid vigour,” Aubrey Fennell calls the 42-metre-tall prodigy in his book Heritage Trees for Ireland , which notes that despite the many fine specimens that surround it in Birr Castle Demesne, the grey poplar is the gardens’ acknowledged star.

Whether it can conquer Europe is another matter. As you’d expect, the competition this year is stiff, in every sense of the term. The field has expanded to 10 countries, and no fewer seven have opted for oaks, as Ireland did on its 2013 debut, when the King Oak at Charleville Estate (also in Offaly) finished a decent third.

Not all the oaks entered are in good condition. And as if to underline that this is not a beauty pageant, one or two are borderline ugly. But what they lack in aesthetic appeal or sturdiness, they make up for in character.

Thus the Slovakian oak, which only its mother could love, but which can boast 350 years of adventures, one of them including the Habsburg emperor Joseph II. Or the French bonsai oak, which is a lot younger, and smaller, but is perched eccentrically on the roof of a stone dovecote, into whose walls its roots grow.

New participating countries this year include Wales. And if names alone could win the competition, the Welsh tree would be a shoo-in. The so-called “Oak at the Gate of the Dead” must also be the oldest entrant. It was already an estimated 350 by the time of the event for which it was named – the Battle of Crogen in 1165.

Although that was a fight between English and Welsh forces, its resonances touched these shores too. The English armies were led by a certain Henry II, who was very nearly killed in the battle – one of his men took an arrow for him, sacrificing his own life – but survived that and military defeat to become an infamous figure in Irish history soon after.

In the meantime, along with the human casualties, the Battle of Crogen featured a massacre of trees, cut down on Henry’s orders to clear a path for his troops. Even as the woodcutters worked, however, the Welsh attacked and routed the English forces, close to where the aforementioned oak stood.

It still stands today, just about. Looking every bit its 1,200 years, it split down the middle in 2010, and the bit that fell is now the Dead Oak at the Gate of the Dead. But the upright part is still breathing and, between gasps, has a hell of a story to tell.

The Irish entry might need the help of Joe Schmidt to beat this Welsh foe, although it is an internet poll, and our talent for winning such contests is well known. The most notorious example of the phenomenon was the shock revelation in a 2002 BBC World Service poll that A Nation Once Again was the planet’s favourite song.

So perhaps the Irish affiliates to the ETOTY competition, Just Forests (justforests.org) should invoke patriotism in the cause, mentioning the intimate association of trees with the struggle for national self-determination. Arbour Hill anyone?

Or maybe that would be in bad taste. In any case, voting continues until February 28th at the competition website treeoftheyear.org. And whatever happens, the Irish entry has one big thing going for it. With the other nominees comprising seven oaks, an elm, and a pear tree, Ireland is at least guaranteed a monopoly of the poplar vote.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

@FrankmcnallyIT

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