Champion of the development of Irish forestry

Niall OCarroll: March 21st, 1934 - February 26th, 2015

 

Niall OCarroll – he insisted there was no apostrophe in his surname – played a leading role in developing Irish forestry.

In his early years he pioneered procedures for scientific field research. Later, as chief inspector of the Forest Service, he was involved in the process leading to the formation of Coillte, the commercial State forestry company managing the timber resource, which he had helped establish. In retirement his frequent letters to The Irish Times were influential in shaping public opinion whenever State forests were threatened with privatisation.

Seán MacBride, in government between 1948 and 1951, had succeeded in putting forestry on the political agenda, insisting that planting trees in remote places had social and commercial value. He set a target of planting 25,000 acres per year, one million acres in 40 years, and this was achieved. Ireland now has a thriving wood-based products export trade.

Back then, however, forestry was the poor relation, and when OCarroll enrolled in UCD in 1951 he would be the only agriculture student in his year to opt for the forestry module. He and fellow pioneers had to make it up as they went along.

His approach was based on scientific experimental design, using replicated field trials, something of a novelty at the time. The productive nature of Irish forests today owes a lot to OCarroll’s leadership, says colleague Padraic Joyce, retired professor of forestry at University College Dublin.

Niall OCarroll was born in Athlone, Co Westmeath. He graduated from UCD in 1956, and then took a master’s degree.

Teagasc

After college he taught at Johnstown Castle, Co Wexford, headquarters of the soil section of what is now Teagasc, but soon left for the research branch of the forestry division of the Department of Lands.

His experimental approach led him to a number of important discoveries, including unravelling the essential role of potassium in forest growth in the midlands, and the cause of group dying disease in conifers.

In 1972 he was awarded a PhD for his work on tree nutrition. He became chief inspector of the forest service in 1986, retiring in 1995 and moving from Dublin to Ballinrobe, Co Mayo.

Here he found time to write. He dedicated Forestry in Ireland – A Concise History to the memory of “those who worked hard for little reward and less thanks to create the asset we all now enjoy”.

His was a musical family; he was an accomplished uilleann piper. His renderings of The Rocks of Bawn were a feature of rowdy Saturday gatherings in Dublin student flats. At the Adelaide ballroom in Dublin, he met civil servant Theresa Hamilton from Co Leitrim, and they married in 1961.

Throughout his life he was passionate about state forestry. His uncompromising nature sometimes led to disagreement with those who viewed forestry as too long-term an enterprise, or those who saw it merely as a resource to be exploited.

Niall OCarroll is survived by his widow, Theresa, and children Cormac, Aoife (Jordan), Derval, Eadaoin, Ellen and Art .