PADDY of Toney is probably unknown to most of us, but to the people at the Lamb Clarke Historical Apple Collection, Paddy of Toney is a very special chap indeed.

Paddy of Toney is a tree, the last of his kind, the last in a long line of Irish apple trees which was about to become extinct until someone decided that Paddy was worth saving for future generations. So Paddy has joined the Siberian Russet, the Cavan Honeycomb, the Kilkenny Honeyball, the Cavan Wine, the George, the Cabbage Stalk, the Cavan Newington and an Early Red Piltown Cooker as the last surviving examples of their line of old Irish apple varieties.

Ireland's apple tree heritage is and natural degeneration take their toll on the old tree lines. Most of these trees date from the turn of the century, and the few people who can still name them and tell their stories are nearly as old as the trees themselves.

When they die, the name and history of the tree will die with them, and the knowledge and flavour of that particular apple will be lost to us. The trees themselves are also dying, or being uprooted by developers to whom one apple tree is pretty much the same as another.

The only thing standing between them and extinction are the hardy souls of the Irish Seed Savers Association, who have dedicated themselves to preserving our apple heritage. "When these trees go, it means that a huge amount of genetic diversity disappears," says Anita Hayes of the Seed Savers. "Seed saving is one way in which ordinary people can conserve things which might become important in the future."

Orchard travellers

In fact, the first picture of an apple tree ever sent to the Seed Savers proved to be of a variety which had previously been thought extinct. Now the Seed Savers travel to sites around the country, talking to local people and taking samples of fruit from likely suspects.

"I think the message we have got out of it is the tremendous knowledge that older people have," says Anita Hayes. "The information they have is fantastic. They think no one cares about so called `backward' methods anymore, but these methods are the result of generations of work.

The samples collected are passed on to Dr Lamb, the former Chief Horticultural Research Officer and a man to whom apples are as individual as children. Dr Lamb confirms the identity of the fruit and, if it's a rare specimen, graft wood is harvested from the tree.

This is then taken to the Department of Horticulture in University College Dublin, where grafting takes place under the supervision of Dr Hanratty, the head of the Department of Horticulture in the university. Scions of desired varieties are commonly grafted to nursery seedlings of about 18 months and are then added to the Lamb Clarke Historical Apple Collection in UCD.

As with Paddy of Toney, most of us probably know little about historical apple collections. In our minds, historical apples are the ones which end up spending too long at the bottom of the fruit basket. When they are eventually found, they tend to be covered in fur and full of nasty things which are quite happily tucking into your apple from the inside.

Panking in the hedgerows

The Lamb Clarke historical collection, by contrast, holds native apple varieties, many of them created from grafts. The graft represents the genetic material and determines the fruit, while the root stock to which it is grafted determines the size of the tree. These apple trees are held in the collection where they can be used and cultivated.

Apples have been cultivated from ancient times over 2,000 years ago we were already identifying particular varieties and cultivating improved versions. A unique vocabulary has also evolved around the apple industry: "panking", for example, is the term used for coaxing obstinate pippins from branches using an instrument known as a "panking stick".

This clearly offers unsubtle and possibly obscene rhyming possibilities. As the writer Harry Pearson once remarked, if it wasn't for the double entendre potential offered by the word "pank" there would be no jokes in Shropshire at all.

As a nation, the Irish have always been fond of the odd apple. The word ull recurs in placenames throughout the country, as does the word ullghort, or orchard Ballyhooly, Oulart, Knockullard, Ballinoulart and Ballywhollart are all redolent with the scent of apples. Our trees have also proved remarkably resilient to disease, so we have strong domestic stocks to draw on.

In our enthusiasm for apples we have occasionally done nasty things to them, such as baking them in thick, suety pastry with lots of cloves or dipping them in toffee and handing them to children who, unable to eat them, use them as maces or stick them to each other's hair.

We have also, it should be noted, used them to make cider and the cider industry has rallied to the call of the Seed Savers. Lord Drogheda made plenty of cider available to his troops at the Battle of the Boyne, thereby making them among the first officially sanctioned cider louts.

Our local off licence, although perhaps somewhat limited in its knowledge of Lord Drogheda or any other peer or royal (with the possible exception of Prince Rupert, a brand of champagne cider), unwittingly follows this fine tradition by making plenty of cider available to its customers. It displays a huge range of cider in its window, with a price range catering to both the more discerning punter and to the punter who would squeeze out his socks into a glass if he thought there was a drop of cider on them.

Sickly surrogate

Champagne cider, incidentally, is pretty gruesome stuff. If apples could sue, they'd take action over champagne cider, a fizzy and incredibly sweet drink which bears the same relation to champagne that tinned meatballs bear to filet mignon. In fact, champagne cider is so sweet that it's the sort of tipple bees would choose if they could sip from a glass without falling into it and drowning.

Apples and their by products, good, bad, sticky and sometimes quite unpleasantly fizzy, are part of what we are. The Seed Savers are now engaged in a race against time in an effort to obtain samples of as many old apple varieties as possible before they disappear from our collective memory, from our taste buds, from our nostrils, and from our heritage. They can be contacted at Capparoe, Scariff Co. Clare or through the Cider industry Council at (01) 2830088.