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Memories of Early Modern Deforestation and Modern Irish Forest Policy

During a vigorous discussion in the Dáil in January 2023 on the Irish semi-state forestry company Coillte’s proposed deal with an Irish branch of the British investment fund Gresham House, Independent Galway West TD, Catherine Connolly quipped that it was “ironic that after colonisation led to the deforestation of Ireland over 400 years ago, after which we had very few trees left, it took almost 200 years to increase the proportion from 1% to 11%, and we are now relying on our former colonisers to reforest our country, for profit and with the help of the Irish Government and public money.” Connolly is not alone in linking the current state of Irish afforestation (the lowest in Europe) to early modern colonization. The Limerick author and popular podcaster Blindboy has repeatedly argued that the long process of colonization and the specific actions of Oliver Cromwell deliberately deforested Ireland. He urged re-wilding (efforts to return land to a “natural” state) as a decolonial act. These are just a few examples. As Ireland seeks to address climate change, early modern forest history regularly appears in debates about present policy and visions for a greener future.


In my book, I argued that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English claims about Ireland’s arboreal abundance and its depleted woods were both products of the colonial plantations that sought to re-shape Irish people and landscapes. Seeing references to this period shape current Irish environmental thought led me to begin investigating how historical memory of the period I had studied had evolved over time.


A strikingly green image of in the depths of a forest. Trees extend in all directions but the ground and trunks are all covered in a bright green groundcover.
Nicolas Raymond, Lush forest scenery in Killarney National Park, Ireland, 2011. Image Courtesy Nicolas Raymond at flickr.com/photos/82955120@N05/10325152716/in/album-72157630648140498/.

Present debates about Coillte and rewilding are not the first time that histories and memory of early modern deforestation shaped Irish forest policy. In the first issue of the journal of the Society of Irish Foresters, Arthur C. Forbes, a towering figure in twentieth-century Irish forestry who became Director of Forestry for Ireland after the creation of the Free State and delivered the forestry degree program at University College Dublin from 1931-1935, lamented that the early modern period had “been very thoroughly dealt with by modern historians, but unfortunately they have nearly all repeated a number of mis-statements on the supposed abundance of woods and forests in Eire about that time.” The problem, he wrote, was sourcing. Historians were too willing to believe “various descriptions of Ireland written by travellers between 1598 and 1650, and which mix up bogs and woods in a manner which renders it practically impossible to get any clear idea of the actual state of affairs.” Early modern English authors were confused—Fynes Moryson admitted as much—and thus the best path to adopt was “to steer as carefully as possible between various divergent views on the former wooded state of the country, and to assume that a great deal of native woodland of a rough and scrubby character existed down to the 16th Century, and that much of this was cleared, or became incorporated with holdings before the year 1700 or so.”


The chronology of Irish forest cover, Forbes argued, had been badly compressed. As he put it, “The interval of time which elapsed between the two extremes [a fully forested island and one with the least forest cover in Europe] must be calculated in thousands of years, and not in three or four hundred as is often done.” Instead, he proposed a more limited historical approach focused on close reading of various non-literary sources. Doing so showed that “the great bulk of the forests had disappeared centuries before…The Elizabethan trade simply cleared up the remnants.” To argue for this earlier deforestation, Forbes went to the laws, annals, and other medieval Irish texts to examine their discussion of tree species and landscapes. While there were, as proponents of a densely forested ancient Ireland noted, many references to trees, Forbes argued that there were also many references to fields and bogs. Most importantly, there were abundant references to livestock grazing, which, he noted, had a significant impact on forest morphology, composition, and regeneration. “The forest conjured up by many patriotic and imaginative persons consisting of thousand-year oaks or yews and mammoth ashes, with pine-covered mountains,” he chided, “may have existed at one time, but not in that dealt with by the historian.”


These stories of destruction, Forbes claimed years later, missed the most important development in early modern Irish forest history—deliberate planting, most frequently on large estates. These efforts both supplied trees that enabled Ireland to survive an import crisis during World War I and provided the model for the state forestry that was to follow. The long absence of native or wild woods, the dramatically diminished state of those that were subject to felling in the early modern period, and the successes of plantation forestry from the seventeenth century provided, for Forbes, a powerful lesson, one that recent experience of “The Wood Crisis” during the Emergency (World War II, in which Ireland was neutral) confirmed: practical, production-oriented scientific forestry needed to triumph over sentimentality or nostalgia. “Uneven-aged woods, resulting from interplanting, under-planting, or natural regeneration,” he warned, “may look much better from an aesthetic point of view, but the difficulty with rabbits and hares, the lack of intensive sunlight, and other drawbacks not always anticipated, such as extraction of mature timber without damage to the younger trees, discounts a good deal of the theoretical value of these systems.” A more sober, empirical view of the past, he claimed, justified present-practices that tended towards rapid-growth, high-yield forestry—learning from early modern history, in other words, should produce a landscape of conifer plantations.


Twentieth-century proponents of pine plantations and twenty-first century rewilders both looked to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for a usable past and there are many more examples from the late-eighteenth century onward. For scholars, ongoing contests over historical memory of early modern deforestation provide an opportunity to engage with new audiences, to show why our work matters, and, hopefully, to help inform better deliberations on environmental policy at a crucial moment. To do so, however, it is useful to study not only our period but also its many afterlives.


 

Keith Pluymers is Assistant Professor of History at Illinois State University where he teaches early modern European and environmental histories. His first book, No Wood, No Kingdom: Political Ecology in the English Atlantic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021) won the NACBS John Ben Snow Prize in 2022. His current project is a history of Philadelphia’s water supply and stormwater management over the long-eighteenth century, the climate anxieties underpinning these, and the ambitions for climate control in proposals for urban infrastructure.

 

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