The American tradition of forests as democratic spacewhether in a wilderness or
in, say, Central Parkhas little equivalent in western Europe; woods there were
usually an aristocratic privilege. The forests that survived in Ireland belonged, for the
most part, to English and Anglo-Irish nobles who kept their estate grounds forested for
beauty and for hunting, and this part of southwestern Ireland is no exception.
Tomies Wood I crossed the elaborately landscaped grounds of Muckross House, which
dissolved by degrees into the relatively natural landscape of Killarney National Park, the
first 10,000 acres of which were donated by the family of Henry Arthur Herbert, who built
the estate. Around that initial gift accumulated the park's current 24,700 acres.
According to a government publication, 3,500 acres of the park are "the closest
approximation to the ancient forests which long ago covered this country."
I had set my heart on seeing this forest. It might, I thought, provide a point of
reference against which all the changes of the Irish landscape could be registered. I
walked past the estate grounds where black cattle grazed in fenced pastures of rich green
grass overhung by handsome spreading oaks and beeches, then along the shore, on a
meandering trail that seldom opened up from the oaks onto a prospect of the water and the
On the thin strip of land dividing the lakes, I reached the deep, dull green of the
country's last significant stand of yew, all 63 acres of it. Red yew berries lay scattered
on the moss, and the roots gripped a rocky terrain as sheer in its own scale as the
mountains in a Chinese painting. "The yew tree wraps night in its dark hood,"
said mad Sweeney, hero of the anonymous 16th-century Irish-language poem. It was a somber
place, and it wasn't very big.
Before people arrived about eight thousand years ago, more than two-thirds of Ireland
was covered by forests. Through the early Middle Ages, these forests were communally owned
and well appreciatedthe fine for unlawfully cutting down an important tree was
two-and-a-half cows, for a shrub, one sheep. And early Irish literature is full of nature
poetry. In Buile Suibhne (The Frenzy of Sweeney), the mad king goes into exile in the
forests, and though he complains about how cold and wet living in the treetops is, he also
says (in Seamus Heaney's translation),
I need woods for consolation and, in the longest speech in the work, praises each
species of tree individually:
I love the ancient ivy tree
the pale-leafed sallow
the birch's whispered melody
the solemn yew...
When England's Tudor armies began their conquest of Ireland in the 16th century, it was
still extensively wooded, but by 1800 only 2 percent of the country remained forested. By
the turn of the 20th century, almost no woods were left, and today Ireland is still the
least-forested country in Europe. The English colonized Ireland and the eastern seaboard
of North America at the same time and in similar ways, with similar attitudes toward the
inhabitants. There is, in fact, a whole body of literature analogizing the "wild
Irish" to Native Americans. One colonizing Englishman advised that "no less
cautions were to be observed" by those engaged in the plantation of Ulster "than
if these new colonies were to be led to inhabit among the barbarous Indians."
Another, in a bad poem of about 1600, wrote
Like brutish Indians these wild Irish live;
Their quiet neighbors they delight to grieve.
Cruel and bloody, barbarous and rude,
Dire vengeance at their heels hath them pursued.
For this small island so close to England, the ecological consequences of colonization
were drastic and immediate, particularly because the land was so profligately distributed.
In 1620, for example, the year the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, 91,000 acres of
Killarney were given to one man, Sir Valentine Brown. The domestication of the landscape
helped bring about the domestication of the people, changing them from seminomadic
pastoralists to peasants tied to a very local landscape.
The nationalist position, still taught in Irish schools, is that Ireland was deforested
to strip rebels and outlaws of their cover. In fact that was only a fringe benefit of
supplying a booming trade in barrel staves, charcoal, and ship's timbers. "Hardwood
was in keen demand everywhere in Europe," writes Irish historian Nicholas Canny,
"which acted as a wonderful stimulus for the British settlers, who set out to strip
the country of its trees without any thought for domestic needs in the future or for
conservation of the environment.
In doing so, however, they could claim to be advancing a
civilizing mission because the Irish woods had always been used to advantage by the native
forces in the 16th century. The promoters of timber processing could also claim to be
promoting manufacturing employment."
(The analogies to contemporary logging are obvious. When Sir Jonah Barrington said,
during the heyday of Irish deforestation, that "trees are an excrescence provided by
nature for the payment of debts," he sounded like Charles Hurwitz trying to slash
ancient California redwood groves to pay off the junk bonds he used to buy them.)
By the 17th century, Ireland was already importing timber. Jonathan Swift commented in
the early 18th century that nowhere had "such a prodigious quantity of excellent
timber" been cut "with so little advantage to the country." Half a century
later, that good English Killarney enthusiast Arthur Young wrote, "Throughout every
part of Ireland, in which I have been, one hundred contiguous acres are not to be found
without evident signs that they were once wood, or at least very well wooded. . . . The
greatest part of the kingdom exhibits a naked, bleak, dreary view for want of wood, which
has been destroyed for a century past, with the most thoughtless prodigality."
With the trees went the wildlife. Wild boars vanished in the 17th century for lack of
acorns, and even squirrels became extinct in that bleak century. (Squirrels! Squirrels
thrive in Manhattan; that they became extinct in Ireland suggests the thoroughness of the
devastation.) The last wolf was shot in southwest Ireland about two centuries ago, not far
south of Killarney, and all today's deer are descended from estate herds managed for
The yew wood was a sad vestige, hinting simultaneously at what the world might have
been like when it was robust, thriving, and ordinary, and at what the world would be like
when this last rare reminder of that condition had also vanished. Americans usually view
Europe as the site of a cultural past, but it is also a cautionary ecological future, one
in which the landscape has been utterly reshaped for human usage. What wildlife
remainsbadgers and foxes and birdsseems mere adornment on the margins of
civilization, as pictures of trees and beasts adorned the margins of medieval Irish
manuscripts. If wilderness is a place where people are one among many species (and not
necessarily at the top of the food chain), wilderness has not existed here for at least
Past the yew forest, on the narrowing peninsula, I came to the famous beauty spot
called The Meeting of the Waters, where the stream from the Upper Lake flows down into the
lower two along tree-shaded banks. My infernally simplified tourist map had merged the
small island I was on with the mainland I wanted to reach, and my topo map left out such
details too, so I had to patrol the whole coast before finding out there was no direct
route toward the woods across the bog. After much backtracking and cursing and waving of
compass, I found another and more useful famous beauty spot, the Old Weir Bridge.
I crossed it, went up over a stony ridge of oaks, and plunged into the bog on a trail
that set out straight to my goal of Tomies Wood. The bog trail I took toward it had no
footprints, only hoofprints. "Aha, the red deer," I said to myself, thinking
that these descendants of the estate's deer herd would no doubt have a handy route across.
But the straight path forked, and meandered and got muddy and full of iced-over puddles,
so I hopped from tuft to tuft trailside and cut across the grassy ridges for the best view
of the lake yet.
The bog itself was beautiful with its ridges and long vistas, however
squishy underfoot. On the other side, I came upon a veritable wall of rhododendrons, an
ornamental exotic that escaped from Muckross to spread all over the Killarney forests,
replacing the native holly with an undergrowth so dense it shades out the oak seedlings
and prevents regeneration. Very well, I thought, I'll slip through the wall, see if the
forest opens up inside, and if it does I'll head west.
But for half an hour it remained so densely undergrown I couldn't move more than a few
feet in a straight line or without ducking under a rhododendron bough. I began to
appreciate the urge to make clearings and the old folklore in which woods are dark,
fearful places. No doubt my destination was somewhere through this tangle, but even my
compass began to wobble confusedly in the dimness. If I continued, I thought, I could soon
make life inconvenient for a search-and-rescue crew and mortify myself by getting lost in
a country I didn't think had any wilderness.
So I turned back east again, crossed a stream
in the dim thicket of branches, writhed through the edge of the rhododendrons and dropped
back into the bog, which immediately squished in over the tops of my boots. When I was
most of the way back, something broke away from a rock and became an old ram with curled
horns, and I realized that I had followed the tracks not of the official deer herd but of
sheep illegally grazing the park.
Sheepish myself, I blundered back into the huge botanical garden at Muckross (famed for
its collection of exotics) and found myself standing in front of a cluster of redwoods,
their shaggy bark as comforting as a friend's face. If Northern California is completely
clearcut, I thought, there will still be redwoods and Monterey cypress to admire in the
west of Ireland.
Forester Barney O'Reilly had left me spluttering a few days before when he asserted
that, unlike Ireland, all the forests in America were protected. It was such a happy
thought for him that I couldn't dislodge it. I had met Barney through Kathleen Gibbon,
whom I had met in Killarney the year before at an environmental conference where she was
trying to interest someone in the fate of her local forest on the banks of the Shannon in
Galway. She succeeded with me, and so I became her guestand when I arrived I found
that despite her jeans and sweatshirts she was more properly addressed as Sister Kathleen,
and that I was to stay in a convent.
A local farmer's daughter and a former elementary-school teacher, Kathleen had found
her vocation as a Sister of Mercy in her chagrin over what was happening to her local
landscape and in her enthusiasm for new ecological ideasand for old ones. Though
many recent environmental philosophers have asserted that Christianity is intrinsically
hostile to nature and wilderness, Christian traditions are simply too diverse to sum up so
easily. Even leaving St. Francis aside, there is the poetry of early medieval Irish monks,
which is second only to that of Zen monks in its intimate love for nature.
10th-century hermit writes,
"I have a hut in the wood, none knows it but my Lord; an
ash tree this side, a hazel on the other, a great tree on a mound encloses it" and
goes on to describe the food he finds there: "A clutch of eggs, honey, produce of
heath-peas, God has sent it; sweet apples, red bog-berries, whortleberries," and the
sounds of his retreat: "The voice of the wind against the branchy wood, gray with
cloud; cascades of the river, the swan's song, lovely music." St. Columba, says an
old book of the Irish saints, lived in a forest in Doire (modern-day Derry, literally
"oak") and wrote a hymn "that shows there was nothing worse to him than the
cutting of that oakwood: Though there is fear in me of death and of hell, I will not
hide it that I have more fear of the sound of an ax over in Doire.' "
had a fine tradition before her, and support from the diocese behind her, so she taught
organic gardening and organized locals around the preservation of Portumna.
She introduced me to local farmers who shared her sense that their way of life was
doomed (more by European Community economic policies than by anything else). She brought
me to a meeting about the effluent from the local frozen-pizza plant, and she enumerated
dozens of small catastrophes of the kind faced by most places under the pressure of
technological change. On my second visit, a year and a half later, she sent me off to see
firsthand what they were up against in trying to protect their local woods.
Barney gladly took me on a long circuit through the woods one frosty day, deploring
what was happening to his forest in a dirgelike monologue studded with Latin plant names
and Irish place names and showing me signs of neglect and bungled tree surgeries
everywhere. Portumna Wood, though it's a 1,500-acre national Forest Park, was not what I
expected from the fervor it elicited from my hosts: half gridded tree-plantation and half
estate, with crumbling stone walls that seemed older than the forest.
Nature in the familiar sense of that which precedes development was nowhere here,
though one grove of stately beeches presiding over a forest floor carpeted in their own
golden leaves was breathtaking, and a few deer watched shyly from the middle distance. It
wasn't a wilderness but a garden they were defending, against more commercial uses,
official neglect, and the incursion of Ireland's ubiquitous golf courses. They were
defending not the wild, but the local.
Barney had been head forester in Portumna Forest Park with 12 men under him, but he
took early retirement when the policies changed and the staff was cut. The West of Ireland
is losing its small farms, he told me, and will soon belong wholly to the tourist and the
timber industries, to international economies rather than local ones. Government
literature proudly proclaims that Ireland is now 7 percent forested, but the three
plantations I had seen hardly count as forests: stands of pine and fir so dense that
nothing grew under or around them, their dead lower depths completely impenetrable to the
sun. Their bleakness only strengthened my desire to see what the primeval forests had
The morning after my fruitless November bog march, I called Padraig O'Donoghue, a
friend of Sister Kathleen's and another former forester who knew the area well. With that
Irish hospitality which may be a cliché but is still a delight, he invited me to dinner
with his family, as though it were inconceivable to meet me without feeding me. The
invitation meant I had a deadline when I marched the other way round to Tomies Wood. It
was about the same distance -- seven or eight miles -- only by a much less scenic
route of inns, golf courses, high hedges, and farms, in a fine drizzle. Going to see the
woods was apparently not a popular activity, because the route lay through a farm,
according to the first sign for it I found, several damp miles after setting out.
myself through the high, barred gate and trod down a dirt lane flanked by smooth pasture
and an electric fence. A huge black-and-white Holstein came lumbering down the lane I was
tramping up. I made sure it was a cow and decided she and all the full-uddered cows behind
her were nothing to be concerned about -- but at the back of the herd was a man in a cap
carrying a switch and waving his arms energetically. The last cow was a Hereford bull. I
looked at the bull, the wet grass, and his urgent gestures and rolled under the fence.
"Boools is ooonpredictable," crooned the cowherd apologetically in the thick,
droning brogue of Kerry, stopping to chat with me across the electric wire in what had
become a serious rain.
The sessile oaks of Tomies Wood were all of a size, gnarled and sturdy, and they formed
a still-leafy canopy 30 feet or so above, through which the rain only trickled. Below was
an open forest in which it was possible to see a hundred feet or more through the
pillarlike trunks and walk freely. Holly grew in this understory, and moss and fungi
covered the rocky ground. Burst acorns lay scattered everywhere underfoot, with a
sprouting shoot coming out of each one, but there were no young oaks.
It was a peaceful,
lonely place, with the same mix of spreading oaks extending for all the miles I walked,
though the lake formed one abrupt border and the slopes of Sheehy and Tomies mountains
another. When I ran into another flock of sheep, I understood the lack of saplings, but
the lack of huge trees left me wondering: nothing here looked like it could have made the
50-foot-long dugout canoe that is a central feature of the Irish National Museum. It
didn't meet my expectations for the kind of majesty that must have inspired all that pagan
and early Christian enthusiasm for trees.
"Of course Tomies Wood is all second growth, replanted a couple of centuries
ago," Padraig O'Donoghue said as soon as we shook hands back in Killarney, and my
heart fell: all that slogging through the rain for the wrong forest. (It seemed typical of
all my experiences of Ireland to be thwarted of a chosen destination and rewarded instead
with unsought hospitality, adventure, and ideas.) "They won't tell you that," he
added, a fair-haired man with a bearded gentle face and a young son in tow. "A
student figured it out, studying the pollen samples." Aghast as I was, I was relieved
to find that the homogenous spread was not the last primeval oak forest.
The real thing,
Padraig told me, was far more remote, far from the trails, in the heights of
MacGillycuddy's Reeks, where even now few people ventured. It has, he said, an ancient
spirit, a sense of its own age, with decaying and fallen trees, gaps in the wood, and
younger trees pushing through. While it has never been cut, even that steep remote forest
has been affected by the rhododendron plague, and by sheep and the sika deer from Asia
that were introduced by the Muckross estate owner in 1865. It was just as well, my
companion added as we drove along the darkening roads, that tourists were still directed
to the relatively accessible Tomies Wood instead, as they had a tendency to get lost and
fall off the higher slopes of MacGillycuddy's Reeks.
Padraig was a local -- no great surprise, as the cemetery near Muckross House was
full of O'Donoghues, the 15th-century Ross Castle on the near side of Loch Leane had been
an O'Donoghue stronghold, and a noble O'Donoghue ghost was a staple of 18th- and
19th-century Killarney lore. We drove to his small house in the country, and huddled in
the unheated front room over cups of tea. Above the mantlepiece was a painting of a vast
yew. It has personal significance to him and his wife, Fiona, he said, but "there
isn't really an Irish feeling for trees -- there was once, but it went with the trees
hundreds of years ago." It's other elements of the natural world that most people
focus on now. "There's a kind of latter-day Celtic revival going on," he said.
"There are no leaders; it's just bubbling up everywhere."
He told me about the
Paps of Anu, and the melancholy with which he spoke of forests changed to enthusiasm. A
pair of mountains not far to the east (which, from many perspectives, resemble a woman's
breasts), they are named after the Celtic goddess Anu and have been important to the Irish
for millennia. Last time Padraig went there, he said, a man was filling the trunk of his
car with bottles of what he regarded as holy water. And when the new bishop of Kerry was
consecrated, the ritual incorporated stone from the four corners of his domain, including
the Paps, thereby reconcilingat least ceremoniallythe place's pagan past and
While Ireland lacks an abundance of wilderness, the rural Irish have something most
North Americans don'tan intimate and ancient symbolic relationship to the existing
features of their landscape. Even if nature has been reduced to a human scale, at least
people are a part of this nature. Sister Kathleen had told me that at their most recent
annual convocation, the Irish Sisters of Mercy had departed from their usual special mass
and held a ceremony at one of the wells sacred to St. Brigid.
A great many of the Irish
people I spoke to had a profoundly personal sense of the land, drawn both from deep roots
in local places and traditions and from new ideas circulating internationally about
imagining and protecting the natural world. And though Ireland has come relatively late to
environmental activism, there are small causes being championed in many places, and a
growing Green Party.
There's a joke about a Kerryman (actually there are dozens, Kerry being the butt of
much Irish humor): Noah's ark sails by Mt. Brandon in Kerry, and a Kerryman sitting above
the floodwaters waves him down. "How about a ride?" he says, but Noah says he's
under strict orders not to take anyone else aboard. "Never mind, 'tis only a bit of a
sprinkle," replies the Kerryman.
Unwilling myself to venture further in Kerry in the
steady deluge that had begun on my way back from Tomies Wood and showed no sign of ever
letting up, I caught a bus to Dublin, vowing to return in a summer or two when the days
were long and dry enough to hike up to the trailless heights of MacGillycuddy's Reeks and
see at last, three expeditions into the question, what an Irish wilderness was like.
Though, having discovered nuns, foresters, scandals, sheep trails, beech groves, colonial
histories, and forest controversies in the course of my quest, I didn't feel entirely
disappointed; for me, Ireland has always been a better place for serendipity than the
fulfillment of goals.
In Dublin, Alain Craig, a scientist in the National Parks and Wildlife Service, spoke
to me about the Killarney's problemsthe illegally grazing sheep, the
rhododendronsand about projects to regenerate more natural, indigenous forests.
Although the standing forests are mostly Sitka spruce and other conifers, a new emphasis
is being placed on hardwoods and on trees as part of the landscape as well as a crop.
Craig was a crisp, clear-thinking ecologist who stocked me up with maps, documents, and
his own paper on Killarney's oakwoods. But even he became dreamy when I asked about
wolves. There were, he said, schemes bandied about among his colleagues to someday
reintroduce them to the Irish forestsno time soon, but perhaps in a few decades when
there was more room for them in the West. They would come, of course, from Scandinavia,
where the genotype would be most like that of Irish wolves. And we both fell silent,
thinking about the forests of the future, real forests again with the wildest things at
large in them.
Rebecca Solnit's Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland will be published in
April by Verso.
Several Irish companies provide walking tours; contact the Irish Tourist Board, (800) 223-6470. If you prefer to plan your own trip, search out Brendan Lehane's Wild Ireland (Sierra
Club Books, 1995). Full of natural and cultural history, it is also a practical guide to
exploring Ireland's wilder corners.
Ireland's leading environmental organization is called An Taisce, The National Trust
for Ireland. Its work includes familiar environmental issues, as well as historic
preservation, urban planning, and publishing a magazine called Living Trust. For more
information, write to An Taisce at Tailors Hall Back Lane, Dublin 8, Ireland.
The Irish Department of the Environment publishes informative leaflets on specific
themes (e.g., "The Bogs and Our Past Beneath Them") through ENFO, its
Environmental Information Service. Write 17 St. Andrew St., Dublin 2, Ireland.