An Irishman's Diary
Never mind the Song for Europe. A more important competition comes to a head this week and will be decided entirely by public vote. I refer of course to the European Tree of the Year contest, in which Ireland is taking part for the first time, represented by a magnificent Co Offaly oak.
The Tree of the Year competition has at least one thing in common with the latter-day Eurovision: countries from eastern Europe tend to dominate it. This is understandable, because it was a Czech environmental group that founded the event two years ago. Since when, the winners – both lime trees – have been from Romania and Hungary, respectively.
The pattern has continued in the first part of this year’s month-long vote, during which a Polish plane tree has made the running.
But, to increase suspense, the organisers draw a veil over the last week of internet voting, which ends tomorrow, February 28th. The question now is whether Ireland – in third place before the moratorium – can bridge the gap and win on its debut, having been invited to participate because of the EU presidency.
Whatever happens, we could hardly have a better entry. The criteria demand that a nominated tree should have a demonstrable importance to its community. And in this respect, the King Oak at Charleville Forest Estate, near Tullamore, has a back-story few trees can rival.
First there’s its age. The oak is at least 400 years old, but it could be twice that and has the scars to show for it. Nobody knows by whom, if anyone, it was planted. Indeed, it may well have sprung up unaided by human hand, a descendant of the great oak forests that carpeted ancient Ireland.
It has since grown to prodigious proportions, with branches now spanning 50 metres. One arm alone extends for nearly 30 of those, parallel with the ground. Generations of Offaly people have climbed the tree. And I’m told that, apart from the usual things that blossom on oak branches, teenage romances have started there too.
But according to local tradition, the King Oak also has a more ominous significance. It used to be said that, when a branch fell, it portended a death in the Bury family, owners of the estate. Thus, the wooden props placed under its lower limbs, while protecting the tree, may also have been a form of life assurance.
One famous member of the family must have had inordinate confidence in the branches’ strength. Born in 1881, Charles Howard-Bury was a naturalist, writer, and fearless explorer, who travelled so widely – sometimes, of necessity, in disguise – throughout Europe and Asia, that he learned to speak 27 languages.
In the process, he developed a penchant for wrestling mature bears. And as a prolific wildlife hunter, he once shot a man-eating tiger that had terrorised a holy city in India, killing 21 fakirs before Howard-Bury caught up with it.
He was a holy man himself, or at least had a life-long fascination with the sacred: one of the reasons the east so attracted him. Among his writings, he records witnessing – entranced – the spectacle of a prostrate pilgrim, crawling inch-by-inch from Lhasa to Katmandhu, a distance of 650 miles.
Being an Eton-and-Sandhurst-educated Anglo-Irishman, however, he was also part of the generation that had to fight the first World War. He served at Ypres, the Somme and Paschendale. Having lived through all of which, he was chosen to lead the Everest reconnaissance expedition of 1921, ascending to 22,000 ft himself.
As the writer Lavinia Greacen – who has been canvassing for the tree – puts it, he must often have caused the branches of the Charleville Oak to tremble.
Yet he and it somehow survived until 1963, and a poetic coincidence. In May of that year, lightning struck not a mere branch of the tree, but the trunk: splintering it from top to bottom. A few weeks later, the 82-year-old Howard-Bury – his family’s trunk – dropped dead.
If that’s not worth a vote, I don’t know what is. But besides being a bit of fun, the Tree of the Year competition has an educational purpose. For example, its Irish supporters include Just Forests, a charity set up to campaign against the widespread and illegal importation of tropical wood.
The Just Forests website ( justforests.org) also has a link to the competition website, where you can still cast your e-ballot today or tomorrow. Vote early, if not often (there are rules against that). And tell your friends to vote too.