Growing old gracefully

 

THE OLDEST TREE:The most accurate way to determine the age of a tree is to wait until it is dead. So Geoff Powerhas his work cut out for him as he goes in search of Dublin’s oldest tree.

‘A QUALITY OF AIR emanates from old trees that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit,” said Robert Louis Stevenson.

In pursuit of the oldest living tree in Co Dublin, it was no surprise that certain charismatic, beguiling types would appear, demanding the odd detour. Was this mission doomed from the start, though? The most accurate way to determine the age of a tree, after all, is to wait until it is dead.

I begin my search where one of the oldest yew trees in the country had stood. Unfortunately, it fell in a storm more than 100 years ago, but that was after 1,000 years of living. In any case, it left descendants behind.

The old Irish name of Palmerstown, Tig Giuire, which has been interpreted as Church of Yews, describes the ancient site at Mill Lane. It is a largely forgotten part of Dublin.

Now aged 75, Hugh O’Connor has lived all his life near the ruined church. All around him buildings have been torn down, or hollowed out structures have been shoved aside by vegetation. Gaping windows and overgrown thatch appear. But ancient trees still reside here.

The church pre-dates the arrival of the Normans. The yews associated with the site, and the palms they produce, are the probable source of the town’s English name. Synonymous with religious sites – pagan and Christian – yew trees are symbols of both immortality and death, due to their longevity and toxic qualities.

O’Connor and I come along a muddy path that was hacked back last year after a murder in the area. The body of a man was found in the old church.

Several yews, both the Irish and common varieties, were in the graveyard next to a pair of 200-year-old oaks. The longest surviving yew is about 300 years and has tombstones wedged up against it. “Fourteen children alone are buried under the old yew,” says O’Connor.

The Tree Council of Ireland produces a list of Ireland’s greatest living trees. Aubrey Fennell, from Carlow, is its chief recorder. We meet at the Church of Ireland in Swords soon after the Irish rugby team won the Grand Slam. We were after an even more rugged champion – Dublin’s oldest tree.

The Tree Council had been alerted to a yew at St Columba’s Church. To be of significant age, it would have to be a common yew. A second variety, the Irish yew, differs in that it is an upright tree with radiating leaves. It is also the result of a mutation – one of nature’s tricks first revealed in Florence Court, Co Fermanagh, 250 years ago. The mother tree of this species of yew is still alive today – if the tenant on the estate who discovered this twist of nature had been able to patent it, he would have made a fortune.

Fennell measures the girth of a yew in the front to get a rough estimate of its age. Trees are measured at chest level, or at a height of one-and-a-half metres. The result doesn’t reach our expectation.

“It’s three metres in girth, which suggests an age of not much more than 250 years,” he grumbles. “It’s relatively youthful – a bit disappointing. Although no tree is disappointing,” he adds.

Quickly to the next location, then . . .

Strictly speaking, Gormanston College is not in Dublin, but the tree we are aiming for is beside the playing fields at the back, right next to the border. It’s a sycamore, and it’s at least 300 years old. Fennell is as thrilled as I am to see it.

“I’m delighted it’s still standing here. It’s been a good few years since I saw it, and you never know what may happen. If the public should see any tree, this is it. It’s an amazing tree. It’s like one of Tolkien’s mythical Ents.”

Only one sycamore in the country is older; it was planted in Cavan in 1630. “This one here is not a typical sycamore in style or look. Its girth was seven metres 83cm when I measured it last, in 2000,” says Fennell. It was now eight metres 26cm. Fennell admits it could be older. “I’m being a little conservative with this tree.”

Our next stop is St Mobhi’s Church, Glasnevin. Fennell had attended a funeral there 10 years before and wanted to return to measure a particular yew. It proves another disappointment. It had a girth of three metres, but he is willing to push the age back a little. “Internal decay like this in the trunk starts at 250 to 300 years.”

Nearby, at the Convent of the Holy Faith, there are more yews of a similar age. But this is an avenue of yews, separated from the National Botanic Gardens by the gurgling River Tolka. “These are beauties,” Fennell gushes. “They were planted together and they’ve merged into one another. I love the muscular aspects of the trunks and bark. They’re fabulous.”

Our last stop is the Dean’s Tree, at the Old Glebe, in Newcastle, named because Jonathan Swift used to visit and write while sitting underneath it. He was Dean of St Patrick’s at the time, which meant the tree dated from the 17th century, at the very least.

The Old Glebe used to belong to the Church of Ireland. The church dates back to the 13th century but the present house was built in 1710. The current owner, Frank Kerins, bought it in 1989. In a corner of the garden (open to the public in summer) surrounded by benches, stands a wonderfully wide and healthy yew. Like any tree, its age is up for dispute. With a bulging girth of five metres, Fennell estimates it at 500 years plus. “Some of the branches have been lifted, but it’s probably Dublin’s oldest tree.” Kerins is adamant it is older. “There are local references to it and to Jonathan Swift – it’s definitely over 700 years.”

Fennell is conservative when estimating age. “Yews are probably older than most people think. Some time in the future they will be able to nail it down with new technology and humble previous opinions.”

In the meantime, Kerins, like others before him, enjoys his tree. “We’ve restored the gardens and the house. The wildlife and shrubs have returned. We love to sit under the tree and take a glass of wine and imagine what Swift must have been thinking when he sat here 300 years ago. He wrote to his friends and he also had a girlfriend in the area, from Celbridge.”

That would seem to have decided it then. Oldest tree in Dublin? Dean’s Tree, Newcastle. Or is it? Fennell leaves me instructions to see a few others in my own time.

The first of these is the curious case of the Hungry Tree in the grounds of the King’s Inns on Dublin’s northside. In front of the gate lodge where barrister Audrey Coen lives, is a London plane that is literally eating the bench that dared to lean against it. City park superintendent Gerry Barry estimates the tree is about 120 years old.

The next two are champions in their own right. Monterey cypresses were all the rage in the latter half of the 19th century, and the specimen at the Burton Hall Gardens, in Sandyford, shows just how well suited these Californians are to our temperate climates. Horticultural supervisor Ross Dawson measured its girth at 10.7m – the largest in Dublin by over a metre.

Next, the oldest pear tree in the county, and probably the country. It stands gartered in time and place to the onion-domed mill of the Liberties. Guinness archives refer to plant and structure together circa 1805.

Before going on to see the final tree Fennell had recommended, I pay a visit to two glamorous imports and receive an unexpected bonus.

The Oregon Maples in Trinity College’s front square are among the finest in the British Isles. The one closest to the Old Library may even be the largest of its kind in Europe. The great Scottish plant collector, David Douglas, brought seeds back from the Americas in 1827 and it is thought these two beauties could have been among his first consignment.

After admiring the pin-ups out front, David Hackett, TCD’s grounds and gardens supervisor, brings me round back to where a couple of gnarly, bottle-nosed ingrates are holed up. New Square has two bruised Oriental planes that are unique in this country and possibly anywhere. Hackett is at a loss to explain why they have such an unruly and plump demeanour. “We can’t exactly say. It could be something in the soil or an insect infestation back when they were young. It’s only on the main trunk, not the branches.”

However, the most memorable tree in the whole of Dublin may, or may not, be the oldest. Tallaght village has an ancient history, and a wondrous old tree associated with it. It’s a walnut called St Maelruain’s Tree after the eighth-century saint. It lies on the site of a medieval castle. A weave of stories connects the walnut with the place; and a sense of intrigue surrounds the massive tree that lies propped up on its side, split in two and spread out across a quarter of an acre, at the Dominican priory of St Mary’s. The archbishops of Dublin converted the castle into a palace and used it as a summer residence for 500 years. The Dominicans bought it in 1855.

When local historian Tomás Maher suggests the tree could be as old as 600 years, I dig a little deeper. Fennell believes it is at least 300 years. Either way, it is probably the oldest surviving walnut in Britain and Ireland.

Archivist for the Irish Dominican Province, Fr Hugh Fenning, guides me around the ancient gardens. “There are very few priests left. What used to be a community of about 100 is down to 20, and very few of us go to the garden now,” says Fr Fenning, a wonderfully sharp-tongued, keen-eyed and inquisitive man.

Strolling along Friar’s Walk, known by that name well before the Dominicans took over, we surveys the tree from every angle, observing the stubborn sprouts that had shot up in every direction from the sprawled out trunk that had split in a storm. It is truly a marvel.

“From this angle, it has the appearance of a spider – a great tarantula. Could there be an underground trunk or is there independent growth? I’m no farmer but I think it’s all one tree; it just seems to dislike the perpendicular.

“We used to harvest walnuts from it in the 1950s. A Spanish student with us at the time – his hands turned brown, and he was to be received by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. There was no way to clean his hands. We had to write to the archbishop and ask him not to kick up a fuss; we explained it was from picking the walnuts from Maelruain’s Tree.”

Fr Fenning urges me to read William Handcock’s History and Antiquities of Tallaght, published in 1876. In it, the historian refers to “an immense walnut tree of great age”.

“It was originally one stem of about 10 feet high, dividing into two branches, which towards the end of the last century separated.” Handcock says it fell in the storm of 1797 and “many of the branches rest on the ground and, having taken root, serve to prop up the tree . . . it must be many hundred years old”.

Could the tree be older, then, than the Dean’s? Fr Fenning isn’t sure. “Handcock didn’t have any competence . He got it from talking to local people and from its sheer size. It must have been pretty massive to fall the way it did. I think it might have been planted about 1720 or 1730,” he says with a whimsical smile.

This would certainly correspond to John Hoadly’s time as archbishop. Handcock describes Hoadly as “a great agriculturist” who “pulled down a great part of the old castle” and “built a mansion” in its place.

“There is an important factor in this puzzle,” chuckles Fr Fenning. “When did walnut trees come to Ireland? That would solve Handcock’s ‘many hundred years old’ mystery.”

I phone Fennell, leaving Fr Fenning at the front entrance where he lingers to marvel at a pair of newly-arrived herons nesting in the garden’s tallest tree.

“It’s possible,” Fennell says, in reference to the age issue. “The first walnuts may have arrived in the UK and then Ireland in the late 16th century. I would’ve thought it was over 300 years old but it could be even 100 years older again, and that would be incredible.”

An impatient arboriculturist can always bore into a tree and take a sample of its rings, but that leaves a gaping wound. No, part of the fun is guessing the age of a rugged and resolute tree, and letting your imagination trace its weathered history.

Hmm . . . now what about trees in the rest of the country?

For further information, or if you feel there are potential champions in your area that should be measured and recorded, contact the Tree Council of Ireland, tel: 01-2849211, e-mail: trees@tree council.ie