An Irishwoman's Diary

 

‘WISH I’d written it myself. Very cross about that.” Author Michael Morpurgo’s recent sentiments about his favourite book would resonate with many, for who wouldn’t want to be Jean Giono when the Reader’s Digestfirst published The Man who Planted Trees? And who wouldn’t want to be associated with a gathering this week, when a group of artists commemorate a similar sylvan theme?

“This wood is the last of its kind in Ireland,” the late Jerome Stephens had said of Tomnafinnogue in south Wicklow which was threatened with clear felling some two decades ago. Stephens, a sculptor and a haemophiliac who became very ill when he contracted Aids, had put his name to a movement which aimed to silence the chainsaws back then.

The idea was that of RTÉ producer Anne McCabe, who had made a Today Tonightdocumentary on Coolattin woods in 1987. Tomnafinnogue (as in Tom na Fionnóige, the bush of the hooded crow) was described by this newspaper at the time as the “last pearl” in the “once-vast Shillelagh woodland”. The 10,000 acres of Shillelagh had a particular provenance, with beams from its mighty oaks trussing up the roof of the medieval Westminster Hall in London.

King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, the British naval fleet, Trinity College, Dublin and St Patrick’s Cathedral all benefited from the resource. When the Rockingham estate of Coolattin passed to the Earls of Fitzwilliam in 1782, extensive planting was carried out by the new owners. However, when Countess Olive Fitzwilliam died in 1975, the property was sub-divided, and became subject to clear felling.

A Coolattin Woods Action Group was formed, and one of its main movers, Paddy O’Toole, enlisted the support of former taoiseach Charles J Haughey to fly over in a helicopter to express his concern. The climax for developers Bridgefarm Co Ltd came in 1991-92. By then Hothouse Flowers vocalist Liam Ó Maonlaí, Maria Doyle of the Black Velvet Band, composer Ronan Johnston, broadcaster Ciana Campbell and children’s writer Don Conroy had joined Stephens and McCabe as “Artists for Oaks”.

U2’s The Edge, film director John Boorman, An Taisce and local councillors pledged support, as did Chief Jake Swamp, Mohawk keeper of trees, who sent a message from “Turtle island”, the native American name for the US. “The generations to come have a right to touch the bark, to enjoy their shadow and listen to their whisper”, he said.

There was an eventual happy outcome. Irish Timesreporter Uinsionn MacDubhghaill noted that it may have been due to “more prosaic action” by concerned locals, when a dawn raid of June 1992 resulted in removal of identification tags from hundreds of mature oaks. As the campaign by “Friends of Tomnafinnogue Wood” gained momentum, some of the trees were “spiked” with long nails – a serious threat to unwitting chainsaw users.

Wicklow County Council bought the site, with funding provided by action groups, in 1994. The National Parks and Wildlife Service took custody in 1998, and the restoration works that followed include provision of a new footbridge and three looped walks. McCabe and fellow Artists for Oaks intend to meet in the Courthouse Arts Centre, Tinahely for a celebration of 25 years of Tomnafinnoge Wood, on the night of April 29th – also the eve of the Tinahely Walking Festival.

MCCABE HAS another reason to celebrate, as she has just self-published her own page turner, Under the Avalanche, a fictional account of family secrets buried deep in the Wicklow hills. Inspired by Coolattin and an avalanche in that area in 1851, more details are available from her at email annemccabe13@gmail.com.

NO SUCH HAPPY outcome yet for environmental campaign which another artist, over on the north-west coast, gave his support to almost six years ago. A north Mayo coastal village didn’t have oaks to save, but protected bogland and shoreline habitats, when Sean Nicholson was moved to write a song.

Nicholson, from Boyle, Co Roscommon, took up music at the age of eight, playing guitar, accordion and tin whistle, and his passion sustained him during years working in Britain. His band, Ye’r Man, was one of the top trad-rock-folk groups on the Irish circuit in British capital in the late 1980s. The “backbone” was Jim Miller, who worked with The Pogues, Phil Lynott and Billy Connolly in his time.

Nicholson was back home, listening to the news on MidWest Radio when he began thinking about words which eventually became The Rossport Five. The lyrics were inadvertently credited by this writer last year to Michael J Togher, but, mea culpa, it was Togher who made a successful recording of Nicholson’s song.

Nicholson has continued writing and his recent numbers have been released on ITunes.

He still picks up the guitar, but finds there are few enough vacancies for bass players now. If video killed the radio star, technology has extinguished the need for the backing group.

Latterly, Nicholson has taken to amateur drama where he lives in Grange, Co Sligo. He was so convincing as the bishop in a recent amateur production of John B Keane’s The Fieldthat he had the audience blessing themselves. “In unison”, he laughs. “And they didn’t even blink.”