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17 Aug 2022

Bad management, no vision in the Slieve Aughty region

Former Taoiseach Sean Lemass wanted to plant Leitrim land with timber

Much of our sacred heritage has been destroyed by indiscriminate conifer plantations

I have often driven from Portumna to Gort across the beautiful and vast, open space that is the Slieve Aughty mountain region. There are very few houses in this enormous place and a great deal of indiscriminate sitka spruce planting. My heart has often ached as I drove through as I could sense the lost potential and the lack of appropriate management of a special place.
The lost potential relates to the tree cover and the lack of trails. If the people who manage this land changed the tree cover from the industrial mono-culture of the sitka spruce to deciduous trees (reasonably spaced out, like a natural forest) then the character of much of the region would be dramatically changed. Where once there had been conifer woodland which was impossible to walk through and which contained a barren floor, there would now be more light, more growth, more wildlife. A place which made you feel despair because you were thinking about people's lack of vision and lack of appropriate management, would be transformed into a remarkable, wonderful environment which would fill you with hope and healing. Waymarked trails for walkers and cyclists (and for horseriders, who would love more trails) could then be created within this deciduous forest. People would no doubt flock to this new, transfigured environment. What had once been a landscape dominated by an industrial, profit-making mentality would once again be a landscape for the people, bringing them pleasure, rejuvenation and a sense of the sacred. We would be walking in a forest-scape as beautiful as our ancestors enjoyed.
Gort is not my final destination when I am driving from Portumna. My final destination is nearly always the Burren, a range which I love and which I have spent many happy hours in. This limestone upland is, of course, very famous. By contrast the Devonian sandstone hills of the Slieve Aughty range, which are not far from the Burren, are scarcely known and are terribly underappreciated. With the right approach and vision that could all be changed.
We are a people with a lost heritage. Something that should be ours has been taken away by a mercantilist ethos without a soul. We were once a forest people, but we have lost our forests and much of their ancient culture. Ireland's oak woods covered about 75% of the land. One of the ancient bardic names for Ireland was “Inis na bhfiodhadh”, meaning “Island of the sacred trees”. The tree cover today is about 10% and of this less than one fifth of 1% is native woodland. We held onto ancient wildwoods longer than other European countries which lost their ancient forests to the Romans long before.
Several oak-woods still exist in the Slieve Aughty region. The famous botanist Robert Lloyd Praeger came here at the turn of the 20th Century and talked enthusiastically about some of the oak-woods he found and their notable botany. More recently, other botanists came here about 15 years ago and were similarly enthusiastic, pointing out they had come across many plants of interest. In their report they say it's likely that these isolated oak-woods are remnants of a much larger oak-wood which covered much of the wider region. They add that the isolated woods were shown on maps made two centuries ago; therefore, allowing an additional century for establishment (if it was ever cleared), their age is a minimum of 300 years. “Such an age,” they say, “pre-dates the first largescale planting in Ireland and makes a natural origin more likely....Even as late as 1920, several extensive oak-woods remained in Slieve Aughty. However, ill-considered conifer afforestation appears to have destroyed or damaged most of these sites during the 20th Century, including what was once the largest oak-wood in Ireland, near Woodford....A visionary project would be the re-establishment of natural forest over a wide area of the Owendalulleegh valley.” The word Owendalulleegh comes from the Irish Abhainn Dá Loillioch, the river of the two milch cows, and in their report the botanists say the valley is ideally suited for the re-establishment of natural forest, as a large nucleus of semi-natural woodland already exists. The Portumna / Gort road runs along the valley. Much of the valley is under conifer plantation and owned by the state, while much of the remaining land is no longer farmed and becoming derelict. “Only by conceiving and carrying out such largescale projects,” comment the botanists, “can we hope to restore rather than further degrade our landscape and allow future generations the experience of native woodland.”
It's believed that Owendalulleegh was once part of the Great Forest of Aughty (which was also known as the Forest of Suidane – a reference to the sacred and the beautiful, in ancient Gaelic). The Great Forest of Aughty once stretched from Derrybrien near Gort, across to Tulla and down to Tuamgraney. It stretched across the Slieve Aughty hills to the shores of Lough Derg. This great oak forest was inhabited by Brian Boru and his people (Derrybrien was known as Brian's Oakwood) and was seen by the Gaelic people as being a refuge during times of war. The destruction of Suidane began during the 1500s. Ships were built with the felled oak. Iron smelting used huge amounts of charcoal made from the trees. The British also wanted to remove areas of shelter for rebels and confiscate land to pay officers after the Cromwellian and Williamite wars.
Our forestry heritage is just as important as other aspects of our culture and identity (such as our music, poetry, sport, dancing and storytelling). The Ogham alphabet was also part of our woodland culture (it's believed that Ogham was used as an ancient divination system). Apart from the Owendalullegh valley other identified oakwoods which were probably part of Suidane include Cahermurphy on the old road to Derrybrien, the Lough Graney area, and Raheen Oakwood beside Tuamgraney. It's estimated the oaks are between 400 and 600 years old. When we walk beneath their canopy we get a sense of viewing a portal through time giving us an idea of how Ireland would have looked when she was still clothed by her forests. As well as being rich in field and ground plants the remnants of Suidane have an extensive collection of rare epiphytes and bryophytes (ferns and mosses). Ferns and mosses are associated with ancient oak forests. The jewel in the crown of the remaining oakwoods is Raheen, which includes forty acres with a hundred foot canopy. The famous Brian Boru oak tree is located in Raheen. It's over a thousand years old and is still growing. The tree has long been associated with the last High King of Ireland, who was born nearby. It was possibly planted by Brian Boru himself, still bears fruit and thousands of its acorns have been planted throughout the country. People refer to the Raheen oaks as being like a green cathedral.
There has been talk for the last few years of creating “The Great Forest of Aughty project” which would link Clare and Galway in a partnership to create a long term sustainable plan to ensure the cultural and ecological richness of this region is harnessed under the umbrella of the oakwoods. The Slieve Aughty area map from Ger Madden's excellent book on the region could mark the boundary of this partnership.

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