Two roads diverged — Frank McNally on historical confusion between the Irish Forestry Society and the Irish National Foresters

The tangling of branches and history

The problem of how to tell the wood from the trees has been well advertised, in Ireland and elsewhere. But except to a few specialist historians, a related issue in this country is much less known.

That one involves telling the Irish Forestry Society from the Irish National Foresters’ Benefit Society: two bodies that despite their names and parallel existences during the early decades of last century, had little else in common.

Founded in 1902, the IFS was as, you might expect, devoted to the advancement of forestry in all its forms.

The older INFS (established 1877), by contrast, had almost nothing to do with trees. It had roots – pardon the pun – in an earlier British benevolent society from which its members were expelled for their involvement in the Fenian amnesty campaign of the 1870s.


Thereafter, the INFS was increasingly synonymous with the Irish national cause: parading in uniform on Ivy Day (the commemoration of Parnell’s death), at Wolfe Tone ceremonies in Bodenstown, and during the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa.

The society’s relationship with nationalism was such that at the back of the Foresters’ Hall at 41 Rutland (now Parnell) Square was a premises in which the Irish Republican Brotherhood drilled in 1913.

It was briefly occupied during the 1916 Rising and afterwards remained a focal point for revolutionary activities.

The IFS, on the other hand, was an apolitical body. Except that its membership was drawn from the landlord class and so would have tended to side with the status quo.

This, along with poor leadership in later years, helps explain why it was wound up in 1923, as an Irish Free State emerged from the Civil War.

In its short life, however, it had done important work. That was a critical time for forestry in Ireland, with the Land Acts leading to a depletion of mature woods, a process accelerated by the first World War and its relentless demand for timber.

The Troubles didn’t help much either. Despite which, the IFS somehow inspired the start of a State forestry programme, championed the purchase of Parnell’s Avondale estate, and had large areas of land bought for afforestation.

The tangling of branches – literally and metaphorically – between the IFS and INFS was summed up in James Joyce’s Ulysses which, deliberately or otherwise, confuses the two organisations.

In the Cyclops episode, set in Barney Kiernan’s pub, where “the Citizen” presides over a gathering of hangers on, the conversation includes a sidebar on the politics of Irish forestry, or what was left of it, circa 1904:

As treeless as Portugal we’ll be soon, says John Wyse, or Heligoland with its one tree if something is not done to reafforest the land. Larches, firs, all the trees of the conifer family are going fast. I was reading a report of Lord Castletown’s . . .

Lord Castletown was IFS president at the time. But John Wyse’s reference to him is interrupted by the Citizen, with a rallying cry to save the trees of Ireland, including: “the giant ash of Galway and the chieftain elm of Kildare with a forty foot bole and an acre of foliage”.

Then Joyce himself interrupts with a long flight of fancy, lampooning the society columns of the time, as it describes a wedding between “the chevalier Jean Wyse de Neaulan, grand high chief ranger of the Irish National Foresters with Miss Fir Conifer of Pine Valley”.

An epic list of arboreal wedding attenders and descriptions of their outfits later, we are told that the happy couple “will spent a honeymoon in the Black Forest.”

But back in real life, the offspring of the organisations thus married by Joyce would include obsolescence and historical neglect.

Just as Irish independence helped doom the IFS, so the welfare state and credit unions gradually condemned the INFS to irrelevance. A few branches remain today, but as David Flood wrote in a letter to this newspaper some time ago, “the Foresters deserve to be remembered better in the history of Ireland”.

Lacking political relevance, the IFS was even more forgotten. At least until a book published recently by the Society of Irish Foresters (its modern successor, established in 1942). The Irish Forestry Society 1902–23, by Hugh Crawford (available from the SoIF via seeks to reinstate the organisation into a history from which it was “air-brushed out”.

To paraphrase John McLoughlin of the SoIF, who brought the book to my attention and to whom I am indebted for much of the foregoing, the IFS’s neglect was a sort-of forestry version of the fate of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which became extinct around the same time due to a sudden change in ground conditions.

Of Crawford, McLoughlin writes: “[He] has done a huge service to the history of Irish forestry by authoring this book and bringing the history of the IFS to a wider audience.”