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. …

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