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  March/April 1997 Features:
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Let The River Run Through It
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Sierra Magazine
The Lost Woods of Killarney

In search of Ireland's last primeval forest.

by Rebecca Solnit

The American tradition of forests as democratic space‹whether in a wilderness or in, say, Central Park‹has 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.

Halfway to 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 hills.

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 appreciated‹the 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 sport.

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 remains‹badgers and foxes and birds‹seems 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 200 years.

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 guest‹and 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 ideas‹and 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.

An anonymous 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: ŒThough 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.' "

Sister Kathleen 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 looked like.

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.

I let 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 reconciling‹at least ceremonially‹the place's pagan past and Christian present.

While Ireland lacks an abundance of wilderness, the rural Irish have something most North Americans don't‹an 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 problems‹the illegally grazing sheep, the rhododendrons‹and 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 forests‹no 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.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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