by Ted Cook




Types of Oak

In Journal 2000 the Gearagh was profiled, with its ‘mouth’ at Ballingeary, comprising an ancient forest of Common Oak (Dair Gallda). Common Oak is also known as English Oak and/or Pedunculate Oak.

The Common Oak is best distinguished from the Sessile or Irish Oak by its ‘stemmed’ acorns- the ‘peduncle’ is the botanical description for a fruit or seed hanging on a stem or stalk.

The Sessile Oak is so called because of its ‘seated’ or ‘stem less’ acorn or fruit and in Irish is called ‘Dair Ghaelach’ or Irish Oak.

In fact, both species of Oak are Irish or native, in that both arrived, without man’s helping hand, via the remnant land-bridges in the early post-glacial period c. 9,000 years ago.

Another simple distinguishing feature when identifying our two native Oak species, is to discover whether the leaf has a distinct stem or stalk. The opposite rule applies to that of the acorn: - Common Oak presents a stem less leaf and Sessile Oak leafage is markedly stemmed. (see diagrams Fig 1a and 1b)

Of the known 450 Oak species (globally), Britain and Ireland hosted only the Common and Sessile Oak and their intermediate or hybrid form i.e. environmental factors cause both species to cross with each other producing Oak with a mixture of characteristics peculiar to both Common and Sessile forms.

The most widespread Oak in Ireland is a hybrid between both species. Intact Ancient Oakwood (pre-dated 1600AD) continue to present very little hybridisation e.g. Gearagh, Derrycunnihy and Tomies Oakwoods in Mucross and Derryclare in Connemara.

Ireland falls roundly into Europe’s ‘Atlantic zone’, as distinct from the Meditteranean, Alpine and Continental Zones etc., and is characterised by shallow acid soils.

The Common Oakwoods have established on the deep alluvial soils that have accumulated on the valley floors- the Sessile Oakwoods (Latin; - Quercus petraea) have established on the ‘rocky hillsides’, up to 500 feet above sea level. Only in the Killarney District have our Oakwoods established at over 1000 feet a.s.l. throughout Ireland.


Uibh Laoghaire, an essentially glaciated valley couched among the great sandstone and slate arches ranging East-West, comprises very much a mountain parish much elevated above sea level with the Townland of Shehy Mór having the highest point at 1797 feet and very much the habitat of our Sessile Oak.

From Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of 1837, we know that the entire banks of Lough Allua were ‘richly wooded’ – resembling perhaps the current ‘richly oak wooded’ riverbanks in Inchinaneave and Inchineill Townlands to the east of the Parish. The same Lewis records ‘about 200 acres are woodland’ out of the 42,000 statute acres that comprised Uibh Laoire, in 1837.

Information and/or historical records are ‘scanty indeed’ on the subject of the distribution, extent and species type/ratio of our Ancient and Semi-natural Woodlands throughout Ireland as a whole.

Conversely, Britain, since its annexing by the Normans in 1066, continued to maintain quite detailed records of the British Woodlands via the Doomsday Book of 1086. In the Irish context we have Geraldis records that, nowhere else during his extensive travels, had he come across such vast and widespread Yew Forests as in the Ireland of the 1160’s.

According to Eileen McCracken, in her ‘Woodlands of Ireland in 1600 AD’, about one eighth of Ireland still remained under primeval or aboriginal Oakwood in 1600 AD.

In her 1959 ‘Historical Study’, McCracken states that "the woods began at Lake Gouganbarra and reached almost to Cork" and that " in the East-West valleys of Cork and Kerry lay mile after mile of forests which were to enrich the Boyles and the Whites, which in the first part of the 1600’s were to cask nearly all the wine that France and a great deal of what Spain would produce." The Whites were small time entrepreneurs living at Seafield, Bantry, from the latter 1600’s. It was a Richard White that was elevated to the Irish Peerage, as Lord Bantry, in 1796 for his part in raising a local militia against Woolfe Tone’s attempted landing. In the 1872 Returns, Lord Bantry, who had married Olive Hedges-Eyre of Macroom Castle in 1871, is described, as the owner of 65,000 acres and his address in 1872 is Macroom Castle. (Lord Bantry is listed as largest landowner in Co. Cork).

‘Doire’ in Townland names

A study of the 118 Townlands of Uibh Laoire will quickly acquaint the reader with the extent of Ancient Forest, when one notes the number of Townlands and their extent, that carry the Irish word ‘Derry’ – meaning Oak.

An address to Queen Elizabeth (of England) in 1601 recalls that the Great Oakwoods of Ireland were the only serious obstacle to the Tudor conquest and colonisation of Ireland. It goes "the woods are a great hindrance to us and help to the rebels, who can, with a few men, kill as many of ours in the woods." English horsemen and detached bodies of infantry could not manoeuvre in the woods.

Blennerhasset, in 1610, described the ‘ "woodkerne" as the most serious danger confronting the British settlers, who followed in the wake of the Elizabethan armies that swept Desmond and Muskerry. The "Woodkerne" (Kearney; Carney-foot soldier) and later called ‘Tory’ occupied the forests in their scores of thousands after the flight of the Earls in 1607.

In his ‘Where Mountainy Men Have Sown’, Micheal O’Sullivan records that it was the dense roadside hedgerows that unnerved the Black and Tans during the War of Independence – none more so that in the adjoining Parishes of Kilnamatyra and Uibh Laoire.

Readers will recall that Art O’Leary (of Raleigh), when on the run during the 1760’s hid out in his ancestrally-owned forest at Tirgay, to the east of the Parish.

Oak wqoods and business

By 1618, one Henry Pine in partnership with Sir Walter Raleigh had become deeply involved in the manufacture and export of (oak) barrel staves from local Oakwoods. In a petition to the Irish House of Commons in 1628, to control the unbridled destruction of the Oakwoods by the East India Company (with its’ ship building yards at Cork Harbour), it was discovered that many millions of tons of oak had, since 1618, gone into the manufacture of Barrel-staves; Hogshead- staves and Pipe – staves.

But by 1689, the American Colony were importing, exclusively from Ireland, its’ entire provisions of beef, butter, cheese, tallow, pork and fish in Irish oak barrels.

A map of the furnaces and Forges of the 17th and 18th Century that lined the Lee, tells us more about the destiny of the venerable Oaks of Uibh Laoire.

The ravenous appetite for Oak might be better understood if we compare the price of a cord (120 cubic foot) of mature oak in 1600 AD. In England 7 shillings a cord – In ‘Boyles Wood’ 1 shilling a cord. Labour costs were also considerably cheaper in Ireland.






It is little wonder that records are ‘scanty’ on the subject of the Parish’s native hardwood forests – the 1600’s saw the Treaty of Mellifont in 1607 and the consequent Plantation of Ulster; 1641 saw the Great Rebellion and Cromwell’s arrival "To quell the country." The 1690’s saw the Battle of the Boyne and Treaty of Limerick and Siege of Derry and the introduction in 1695 of the Penal Laws.

Fate of Coolmountain Woods

But, believe it or not, substantial Oakwoods remained in Uibh Laoire in the Townlands of Coolmountain, Shanacrane, Tullagh and Lackabawn (the southern end of the Parish) in the year of 1699 A.D. and the following is a summary of their fate.

In a series of letters between the Freeholder and his Agent (middleman) and dating 1699/1700, we can adduce some notion of the extent and "extremely valuable character" of Oakwoods that clothed the above Townlands. The historic record does not disclose the names of either party but does tell us that Fermoy Alderman, Thomas Phillips and Kilkenny Alderman, Edward Evans, have made an offer to purchase the woods for £8000, but excluding "the blocks and stumps that lie in the coppice." Further research may prove that Lord Riversdale (absentee landlord) was the Freeholder of these Townlands in the late 1600’s.

Reference is made to the scarcity, in England, of Oak fit for shipbuilding – and £8000 was a vast sum 300 years ago – though the woods had no road access. The purchasers spent four days traversing and evaluating the wood – which we know to be oak because of a reference to "Bark being now at the highest value." (Bark from Oak was used in tanning leathers).

The fact that it would take 13 years to cut out the wood is an indicator of its extent and value.

We read that 160 labourers were employed and equipped with "iron bars, pickaxes and iron sledges to break ye rock" to construct the access into the wood.









Two other references in the correspondence are worth remarking on: - the Middleman has determined to enclose the woods after extraction and manage them along coppice lines. It was by now gradually recognised by Freeholders and their Middlemen, that "forestry," in an area, like Uibh Laoire, with natural advantages, permitted a coppicing cycle of as little as twenty years. Soon the entire Anglo-Irish Nobility and Gentry would identify woodlands with "aristocratic permanence" and with the sporting/ gaming activities increasingly regarded as indispensable to their lifestyle. By 1740, the then Dublin Society would be offering attractive "premia" to landowners to plant hardwoods.

The second reference concerns the "visible decay" in the tops of the trees in the Shanacrane/Coolmountain Oakwoods. Both Common and Sessile Oaks are prone, naturally, to die-back and decay in their crowns- it is no evidence of disease and for ecological purposes ought not be cut back, unless along a Public road or Pathway. It is said that Irish Oaks grow for 300 years; live for 300 years and die for 300 years – the dieback in our Oak canopy, leading to limb-drop and shedding of deadwood is a process of remineralization of the soils in which the tree is growing, and is crucial to the armies and relays of decomposer insects and fungi on the forest floor.




2000 marked the first centenary of Ireland’s Forestry Department, which introduced the planting of fast growing exotic conifers on a large scale, but this issue will have to remain for another instalment.

What is left of Our Oakwoods?

What I would like to profile now, are the remnants of Uibh Laoire’s Ancient and Semi- natural native Oakwoods.

In Dromcarra South, lies a small remnant of mixed native Oakwood and Beech at Boylegrove – now a special Area of Conservation (S.A.C.) under the 1997 E.U Habitats Directive. Historically, it was an enclosed copse – very likely using the "coppice with standards" system, whereby a large number of very finely shaped Sessile and Intermediate Oak trees, along with Beech, fill the canopy.

Because, as Mr J Neff (of Wildlife Service) has stated in January 1996 – "Woodlands have never been systematically surveyed in the past for scientific evaluation purposes" there are no complete lists providing an adequate basis for nature conservation decisions.

I would like to take this opportunity of thanking Peter Lynch and family for continuing go provide access to this writer and our local Primary School at Kilbarry, to the Boylesgrove Wood, over the years.


The largest remaining Ancient/Semi-natural Oakwood remnant in Uibh Laoire, lies on the north-facing slopes of the Toon Valley and continues from Cooleen and Doire Airgead (Silver Grove) through Claenrath South into Claenrath North. It is a credit to the landowners – namely the late Bina Murphy and Johnny Mc Carthy and Peter Creedon of Cooleen that, though a fragmented remnant of Uibh Laoire’s former glory, the Oakwoods are ecologically intact and contiguous that just about all of the important indicator plants of Ireland’s Atlantic Sessile Oakwood continue to thrive in their habitat. Credit must also go to the late Mick Dinny Callaghan whose farm comprises several acres of Sessile Oak and intact under-canopy of Hazel, Holly and Alder, Birch and Sally on the wetter portions and flood meadows of the Toon River.

An important indicator fern "The Hard Fern" ((B.Spicant) Raithneach (an) mhadra), is widespread throughout these Oakwoods. (see picture Fig. 2)). Very slow to colonise the shallow acid mineral soils of a Sessile Oakwood, and very long-lived, it, alongside Golden Saxifrage (Glories); Wood Sorrel (Samhadh Collie); Woodhaven’s (Machall Coille); Figwort Fothram); Sanicle (Buine Coille); Self-heal (Ceannbhan beag); Meadowsweet (Airgead Machra); Wood Sage (Saiste Conic); Wood Anenome, Wood Rush, Woundwort (Créachtlus); Bluebell (Coinnle Corra); St John’s Wort (Beathnua Baineann); Foxglove (Lusmór); Bilberry (Fraochán) and Heath Bedstraw are each a vital component in the complex diversity of different plants and animals living within this ancient landscape- that brings our Oakwoods to life.

Before the trees block out the sun, there are also Primroses (Samhairán); Violet; Yellow Archangel and Lesser Celandine (Na Serraigh).

Examples of young Oak (c. 90 years) tell us that for long periods these precious Oakwoods were enclosed, away from "Wood Pasture" or "outwintering" by livestock (see Picture Fig.3 ).

Examples of scores of mighty (semi-mature) Sessile Oak trees with their scores of Oak-ferns (polypody) (see picture Fig. 4), mosses, liverworts and lichens, remind us that our indigenous wild Oakwoods harbour over 500 species of flora and fauna – unique to our Native Oak and many of them very rare. In fact a Sessile Oak tree hosts no less than 264 invertebrates (insects).

That coppicing was in widespread practice is evidenced by the thousands of trees and shrubs that present regrowths on their stools- including Crabapple; Ash; Mountain Ash; Holly and Hazel. (see picture Fig.5)

Largest coppiced Oaktree

Some of the largest coppiced Oaktrees that this writer has recorded in over 25 ancient and semi-natural Oakwoods in the West of Ireland (from Derryveagh in N. Donegal to Glengariff Oakwoods in W. Cork) occur in these Oakwoods straddling the Toon River on Uibh Laoghaire Parish’s north side. In the attached photo, (Fig.6) what we see is not four distinct Oaks but the multiple growths upon a single stool.

Throughout time, our veteran oaks have watched the ebb and flow of our nation’s fortunes, and given our ancestors food; fodder; fuel; shelter; shade; safehouse, beauty, peace, tranquillity and a sense of place.

The remnant small pockets of semi-natural and ancient woodlands are very precious fragments that constitute our single most valuable component of our living natural heritage because they are very long lived; stable and confer stability on other eco-systems.

Woodlands Lying in Wait

Trials in England and Wales (where there still remains 300.000 hectares of ancient woodland) have shown that our ancient woodlands continue to "lie in waiting" and have shown a remarkable ability to recolonise, via Birch and other pioneer species, where conifers have been clearfelled and the land left to "natural succession." (note un-replanted clearfells in Claenrath N). Deconiferisation has commenced in 80 woodlands in Britain through a partnership of the Forest Commission and Woodland Trust. Research has shown that the capacity for local bio-diversity to re-colonise in a post- coniferised forest will depend entirely on the impacts of harvesting i.e. if harvesting is badly managed, the long sleeping "mycorrizae" (fungal threads) will not re-awaken.

Plant Extracts

It occurred to the writer that over 90% of all those little bottles on the Chemist’s shelf are in fact plant extracts – or synthesised plant extracts. Next time you take that Aspirin, Disprin, Neurophen – remember that the active ingredients comes from the Sally Tree (Salinic Acid). Or if someone you know is receiving Chemotherapy – remember the active ingredient in intravenous chemotherapy is a compound called "Taxol" an extract from our Yew tree.

The two most important human enterprises on Earth are Agriculture and Medicine – both of which are inextricably connected with the "wise management" (conservation) of bio-diversity and our greatest repository of bio-diversity occurs within and on the verge of our ancient woodlands- described as "Nature’s’ Highest Achievement."

The Jay

And to conclude on a very positive note. The Jay (Garrulus Glandarius) of the Crow family and easily identified by a cobalt blue and white patch on its wings and a white rump is on the increase in several districts in the Parish. The Jay is associated with both Common and Sessile Oaktrees and woods and can hold as many as six viable acorns in its mouth and travels up to seven kilometres radius of its oaktree habitat, spending its time storing the crop by burying the acorns. In many instances the Jay will not return to its store – and given a chance, the acorn sprouts the following Spring and in time may grow to a sapling – and in time grow to a tree. Caring for that young Oak is more eco – auspicious as planting an Oak.






(Ted Cook is a Heritage Specialist employed by The Heritage Council and I.N.T.O. Partnership and will gladly visit any Primary School, if invited. Contact him c/o Kilbarry Post Office, Macroom, Co. Cork)