Marking 100 years of Irish forestry


Today, you will recall, is Tree Day, a yearly juvenile festival of oak and ash, elm and Sitka spruce, intended to focus the attention of the nation's children on the economic, social and psychological benefits of trees. Tree Day 2004 has as its theme 100 years - 100 uses, intended to draw attention both to the wide utility of trees and wood and to the centenary of Irish forestry.

Nowadays, the many benefits of trees and timber are universally accepted, but what's this about 100 years of Irish forestry? The story begins with the battle of Kinsale.

Following the debacle of 1601, there began a systematic devastation of Irish woodlands, partly for economic reasons, since timber had become a valuable commodity and partly as a military strategy, because the dense forests were seen as unwelcome rallying-grounds and strongholds for the native Irish. By the early 18th century, Ireland had become a treeless wilderness and a net importer of timber.

Recovery began partly through the efforts of one Samuel Hayes. Born in 1743, Hayes was MP for Co Wicklow and inherited the family estates, Hayesville, at the age of 27. He believed strongly that the dearth of trees was to the economic and aesthetic detriment of Ireland and set about planting large numbers of them on his lands.

Before his death in 1795, Hayes built a new house on his estates and changed the name to Avondale.

Avondale became in due course the home of Hayes's kinsman and successor as MP for Wicklow, Charles Stewart Parnell, whose sad story we know well.

In 1904, 200 hectares of the Avondale estate came into the possession of the Department of Agriculture and experiments began there which would in due course dramatically alter the appearance of our Irish landscape. Hence the centenary of Irish forestry.

The prime mover behind the activity during the following years was Augustine Henry, whom Weather Eye readers may recall from the annual mention of his name in the context of the Augustine Henry Memorial Lecture, organised in March each year by the Tree Council of Ireland.

Henry spent his younger years in China as a doctor, but while there, he abandoned medicine for botany. In the early 1900s he was appointed professor of forestry at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, later to become a part of UCD.

He believed that many trees native to the western side of North America, like the Sitka spruce and Douglas fir, were climatically more suited to Irish conditions than many of the European species being planted, like larch and Norway spruce.

To test this idea, Henry organised the planting of several types of tree in one-acre plots at Avondale. As he had expected, the Sitka spruce grew well and was adopted for the State forestry programme. Thus Augustine Henry became the man primarily responsible for the present-day composition of many of our forests.