The Lost Woods of Killarney

By Solnit, Rebecca | Sierra, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

The Lost Woods of Killarney


Solnit, Rebecca, Sierra


The first day I set out to see the last great old-growth oak forest in Ireland, I ended up in a grove of redwoods. Looking for old , growth in Ireland was something of a fool's errand to begin with, because the most famous fact about Irish forests is that they were all cut down by the English. I wanted to see the exception, which is widely advertised to be Tomies Wood in Killarney, County Kerry, the country's most famous scenic spot for more than two centuries. In 1776, its combination of tranquil and running waters, stately trees, dense forests, and steep, stony mountains led English traveler Arthur Young to proclaim it "the wildest and most romantic country I had any where seen."

But about that first day. It was November, which meant that the sky hung low like a sodden wool blanket. There was frost on the grass, night arrived in late afternoon, and the tourists had long departed. It looked like an easy walk to Tomies Wood at the far side of Loch Leane, the largest and lowest of the region's lakes, and so I set out with maps, some oatmeal cakes, and a pint of water in the pockets of my waterproofjacket.

The town of Killarney is on the northeastern edge of this lake, and the landscape becomes wilder toward the middle and upper lakes, which are fed by streams running down from Ireland's highest mountains, MacGillycuddy's Reeks, topping out at 3,414 feet. When the clouds cleared, the mountains loomed steep and rocky over the placid waters, a world of blue, green, and gray, of swans and ruins and lakes.

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Lost Woods of Killarney
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.