Born to Burn – Frank McNally on the ‘phoenix of the plant world’ and its many names
An Irishman’s Diary
Furze bushes (top right) on the descent into the Phoenix Park’s Furry Glen. Photograph: Frank McNally
There appears to be an immutable law in Irish journalism whereby the plant Ulex Europeaus can have several different names when it’s not making the news but only one when it is.
This is the name by which it is “known to the gardaí”, or more likely to the fire brigade. Because when the plant does make headlines, it is invariably due to its pyrotechnical properties. The rule then, invariably, is that the result must be called a “gorse fire”.
Even in the mountains of Kerry, where when not burning the plant is usually called “furze”, it becomes “gorse” as soon as somebody puts a match to it.
Similarly, recent conflagrations in the Mournes have also been called gorse fires, although in normal times, the bushes there are known only as “whins”.
Gorse has earned such a bad name in Irish newsrooms that I suspect it is sometimes blamed even when not involved. Any fire on a mountain is now liable to be called a gorse fire, whether gorse is present or not.
But then again, alas, it usually is. With its oily foliage, the plant is one of the great auto-arsonists of the natural word. It also seems to benefit long-term from its own temporary destruction.
In the American west, where it was introduced by settlers, it has been likened to a plant version of the phoenix because of its ability to regenerate after fires. As one US writer commented ruefully, it was “born to burn”.
They found this out the hard way once in a place called Bandon, Oregon. Yes, it’s named after the one in Cork, thanks to its founder, George Bennett, who emigrated there in 1873.
Bennett is remembered in Ireland for a classic history of his hometown, first published in 1869 and reissued in 2012 by Schull Books. Writing in this column then, Perry O’Donovan called it “arguably the best Irish local history book ever published”.
But once emigrated, he never returned. And among the things he brought from Cork was Ulex Europeaus, which he planted along with a new settlement at the mouth of the Coquille river on Oregon’s southern coast.
The town quickly thrived. So did the plant. “Irish Hedge”, as it was also known, loved Oregon. The feeling may even have been mutual for a time, as locals enjoyed the yellow flowers and their coconut smell in summertime. Then the relationship soured. The increasingly dominant invader made dunes impassable and the first of a series of fires introduced Oregonians to the plant’s talent for immolation.
Even so, when a blaze started outside town on September 26th , 1938, most people were at first unworried. Then the wind changed. Soon the gorse was shooting flames the height of houses through the streets and locals were abandoning Bandon for the only safe place – the sea.
“The fire-fighters covered their retreat until the tires of the fire truck melted, effectively immobilising it; at that point they too fled to the beach, where townspeople with their backs to the sea knelt behind driftwood logs charred and smoking from the heat, heaping sand over them [to] keep them from burning.”
In the smaller amounts available to firemen, meanwhile, water was no defence: “It was like throwing [it] on a grease fire in the kitchen – all it did was spread flaming oily globs everywhere.” By the end, 10 people were dead. Of 500 buildings, only 16 could be saved.
Bandon has recreated itself since. So has the gorse, which is now “reviled” there and on the list of noxious invaders, as it is in other parts of the world.
Back in Ireland, meanwhile, the plant spends enough of its time not being on fire to be still widely known – and loved – by its traditional names. Whin (a Scandinavian word) dominates the northern half of the country, furze the south. Dublin seems increasingly to prefer “gorse”, even when it’s not burning.
But being south of the Whin Line, Dublin was historically furze country too.
Indeed, speaking of phoenixes, Phoenix Park still has a Furze Road, just north of the column with the mythical bird. It also has a Furry Glen, echoing a time when a single furze bush was known as a “fur” or “fir”.
There have been fires there too on occasion. They were frequent in the 1930s (and usually called “furze fires” then).
But the phoenix effect is not as apparent in Phoenix Park as in Oregon. Furze Road is furze-free these days. When I passed through it the other day, even the Furry Glen had only a smattering of the green-and-yellow plants, all blooming benignly and looking unlikely to be called “gorse” in headlines anytime soon.