Sunday 13 December 2015

Irish Oak & Midleton Dair Ghaelach - Part II

See also

To recap, Eric Ryan, of Midleton Distillery and the Irish Whiskey Society, has been recounting the history of Irish oak. Eric's full bio is available on Part I of this article.

(Eric will host an Irish Whiskey Society tasting in Cork on Wednesday examining the influence of oak on Midleton's pot still whiskeys.)

When we left off, the English had decided our thick forests were both an administrative hindrance and a handy resource for shipbuilding. The Irish oak's fate was sealed...

Irish Oak & Midleton Dair Ghaelach - Part II

by Eric Ryan

By the beginning of the 17th century, Fynes Moryson, the same gentleman who commented that Irish Uisqebaugh, the forerunner to Irish whiskey, “is held the best in the world of that kind, which is made also in England, but nothing so good as that whisch is brought out of Ireland” admitted to “having found in my long journey from Armagh to Kinsale few or no woods by the way, except the great woods of Ofaly, and some low shrubby places which they call Glins”. 1

Boate noted in his Natural History of Ireland that “the great woods which the maps do represent to us upon the mountains between Dundalk and the Newry are quite vanished, there being nothing left of them these many years since, but only one tree standing close by the highway, at the very top of one of the mountain, so as it may be seen a great way off, and therefore serveth travellers for a mark.

Irish forestry was now down to total land coverage of approximately 12%. Even so, it was estimated in 1606 that the ancient Shillelagh Woods, which once covered all of the hills and valleys of south Wicklow, could furnish the Crown with timber for shipping and other uses for the following twenty years.

Following the wars of rebellion, there was further demand on remaining native forestry by the growth of Irish industry e.g. tanning, building, coopering, glass- making, and iron smelting. Boate commented that “it is incredible what quantity of charcoal is consumed by one iron-work in a year.” Richard Boyle, the well-known Earl of Cork who had once noted in his diary of 20th March, 1617 what was in all probability the first recorded export of whiskey or ‘Choice Aquavite’ to America, was reputed to have made £100,000, a colossal sum at the time, by means of his iron-works alone.

According to McCracken (1971), the forests of Cork and Kerry “were used to cask nearly all the wine that France (and to a lesser extent) Spain would produce”. Philip Cottingham’s 1608 report to the Crown had also noted that oaks were instead being used, contrary to law, to make staves for barrels. In complete reversal to the trade of today, Ireland was a net exporter of oak barrel staves throughout the 17th century.

When the Great Fire of 1666 burned London to the ground, one of the curiosities of this disaster was that Irish oak was used extensively to rebuild the city. Soon after, a law was passed prohibiting the use of wood for the building of houses in Dublin. This measure may have been initiated to protect Dublin from the same flaming fate or perhaps to conserve limited oak stocks. Whatever the motivation during this turbulent time, the laws of supply and demand would have dictated a steep price increase for the already-expensive oak and a corresponding increase in oak felling to serve the black market.

There was a four-fold increase in the population of Ireland between 1700 and 1840 that was to dramatically increase the demand for wood as fuel, shelter and as a raw material for all kinds of booming industry. Despite some government efforts to stem the tide, the destruction of Ireland’s remaining forestry continued and the country became, for the first time, a net importer of wood, timber, staves and barrels.

Back from the Brink - Reforestation Efforts

In 1698 half-hearted efforts were finally made to protect forestry stocks in Ireland, when legislation was introduced by William III to encourage the growing of more trees. Succeeding regimes, until well into the 18th century, enacted various strands of largely ineffective legislation.

By 1765 Irish tenants, rather than their landlords, became entitled to the trees, or value of the trees, that they had planted. This had a marked effect on the number of trees planted over the succeeding decades. Afforestation and principles of forestry management become a minor craze of the time and Irish landlords as well as their tenants began devoting much time to planting, seeding and growing.

By 1794, Samuel Hayes, a member of the Irish House of Commons and a founding member of the Botanical Gardens in Dublin, had published a book ‘A Practical Treatise on Planting, and the Management of Woods and Coppices’.

His efforts further stimulated a revived interest in forestry that lasted another hundred years. It is estimated that between 1766 and 1806 some 25 million trees were planted and it was these efforts that provide many of the mature specimens that we enjoy in Ireland today. 2

A Series of Setbacks

Land league agitation from 1879 included the mutilation of trees as part of the nationwide protests. The deprived peasantry viewed forestry not as a valuable asset, but rather as another means of depriving them of the use of land that they claimed was rightfully theirs.

The passing of the Wyndham Land Act in 1903 effectively killed off the “Landlordism” culture in agricultural Ireland. Government loans were advanced to tenants to purchase their land at reasonable terms, facilitating the transfer of about 9 million acres up to 1914.

Landlords hastily felled forestry to generate revenue before the final transfers of ownership. The new owners often continued the destructive felling process so as, much like the plantation settlers of previous centuries, to recoup the costs of purchase and provide more cleared land to farm.

Almost 880 sawmills were in operation around this time, with numerous travelling sawmills completing the devastation. Woodland cover fell to an all-time low of approximately 1.5%, with the remaining areas being of very poor quality.

World War I signaled the absolute low point for forestry coverage in this country. Shortages during the war accelerated the felling of mature trees, and so reduced the extent of Irish forests planted during the previous century. By the end of the Great War, just 1% of Irish land was now under forest.

The 100 Year Fightback

Even though the First World War interrupted efforts, State sponsored forestry began in earnest near the dawn of the twentieth century, with the acquisition of the woodland areas of some estates and the purchase in 1903 of Avondale House in Co. Wicklow as a forestry training centre.

In the 1920’s, modest afforestation efforts were made by the new government of the Irish Free State.

Within twenty years however, severe timber shortages during World War II (1939 - 1945) was to amplify the dire forestry situation in Ireland.
“Soon after the War, Sean McBride, as leader of Clann na Poblachta, introduced a vastly expanded planting target of 25,000 acres per-year, signifying the nation’s first real long-term forest policy.” 3
In 1973, Ireland had joined the European Economic Community (EEC), later to become known as the European Union. By the end of that decade, EU support for private forestry development helped Ireland to record the largest and most rapidly expanding forest area per capita in Europe. By the 1980’s woodland cover stood at approximately 5% of the overall land area of the country.

In 1996, the Irish government published ‘Growing for the Future’, outlining a strategic plan for the development of the forestry sector well into the next century. Objectives included more emphasis on the multi-benefit aspects of forests, and increased species diversity, including broadleaves.

Oak trees grow very slowly at about one foot per year, reach up to forty metres high, live for hundreds of years and take 120-140 years to mature. The significance of these focused Government objectives has been that native broadleaf species, such as oak, are being planted in higher numbers than at any time since the start of the Free State afforestation programme in the 1920s. These demanding tree species are increasing in number as tree planting moves from the mountains to the valleys – a direct result of the grants and support structures becoming more viable for farmers in particular.

There has been, since 1996, a significant increase in broadleaf planting. Broadleaf afforestation was almost 20% of the total Irish forestry in 1995, up from an average of 2 – 3% in the 1980’s, but accounted for nearly 38% of new planting in 2010.

In a far cry from the situation of 1% woodland cover after World War I, Ireland now has circa 11% of the country under forest cover with, due to improved grant schemes, an ever-increasing broadleaf forestry ratio that includes oak. The 2012 National Forestry Inventory showed there to be 16,850 hectares of oak woodland in Ireland, although this is shown to be growing by 2.4% per year thanks to the sustainability planting scheme that is supported by the Irish Government.

  1. A Description of Ireland, by Fynes Moryson (1600 – 1603) 

  2. Communities and Forest Management in Western Europe, by Sally Jeanrenaud, IUCN (2001)
  3. Forestry Focus Website accessed on 7th Dec 2015: forestry/forestry-since-tudor-times/