Cabragh Wetlands: Oak - a story of stewardship

A time tested weather lore states that when ash trees produce green leafs before oak trees then we are in for a wet summer

Oak - a story of stewardship

The wood and charcoal of oak occur again and again on archaeological sites with the Corlea trackway being the wonder of the ages.

From the time of early Christian Ireland, oak has witnessed the trials and tribulations of Ireland’s story.

Prior to that time the men wielding the flint and bronze axes were very successful in removing the original forests particularly on the western seaboard. We know from the legal tracts of the Celts that oak and hazel head the list of noble trees and that a fine for interfering with such trees could well be of the order of two milch cows.

The wood and charcoal of oak occur again and again on archaeological sites with the Corlea trackway being the wonder of the ages. Mike Baillie of Queen’s has constructed an oak tree ring chronology of over ten thousand years. Oak is a very large tree, its wood was used in carpentry, its bark in tanning and its acorns as valuable food for swine.

Although much of Tipperary was judged to be excellent maghery land by the Normans and suitable for growing wheat, the great forests of Aherlow were still intact. The rights of hunting, cutting timber, grazing and eating acorns were spelt out in detail.

The acquisition of Munster in 1585 after the Desmond rising had been crushed meant that about 600,000 acres were available for new owners. While pasture and tillage were not hugely successful, the commercial exploitation of the forests began in earnest. From the woods, a continuous stream of timber flowed out - trunks of good large trees for ships and houses, branches from these trees for barrel staves with lop and top for charcoal in iron and glass works.

The production of staves made tremendous inroads into the oak woods. Throughout the 17th century, the number produced in Ireland rose steadily and overproduction led to eventual exhaustion of supply by 1770.

Production of charcoal began in Munster before 1600 and such was the consumption of woodland that one hundred years later, acts were being passed to conserve any remaining stocks and to encourage the planting of trees.

By 1785, the last Irish wolf had been killed and the only places where any substantial timber stands might exist were within walled estates like oases in the desert, particularly after the famine. With the Land Act of 1881,the landlords decided to turn their estates into money while the going was good. Timber was turned to a source of cash and many landlords sold their stands of timber to travelling sawmillers who came over from England and moved across the country from estate to estate leaving devestation in their wake. Anything left vanished in World War 1 and when that was over, 200,000 acres more of woodland had disappeared and less than half of one per cent of Ireland was covered by forest.

Contrast this with the great restoration story of Paris of modern times. Eight tall slender and slightly curved oak trees have been chosen to become the base of the replacement of the spire burnt down in the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. The trees were marked for felling in a ceremony attended by two government ministers. They come from a forest planted on the orders of Louis XIV to provide wood for the French naval service in the 17th century. About 2.000 such oaks will be cut down across France for the project.

The initial thousand were felled before spring when the sap rises and every French region is represented. The oaks will be taken to a sawmill and left to dry for up to eighteen months until their moisture level falls from 45% to 30%. The eight oaks needed to be a metre in diameter with a trunk of 20 metres and a slight curve at the end. Aged between 200 and 300 years, they were found in the former royal forest where fourteen generations of forestry workers have nurtured them. They have survived two world wars, the German occupation, fires and crises and now for Notre Dame.

Such was the paucity of oak long ago that the master decorators of the time such as Jim Hogan of Ballycurrane or the McCormacks of the Pike, became extremely skilful at reproducing an oak grain with stain on a yellow base using ochre and scumble. The piece de resistance was when Jim Hogan took a handkerchief from his pocket and with his thumb nail created a perfect replica of an oak knot as the centrepiece of a stained door from a lifetime observation of oak trees. When varnished, this stain lasted generations in Big Houses and artisan dwellings around Thurles.

Get planting some acorns!
Stay safe.
Slán go fóill.

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