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A Walk with Ted Cooke: A Field Survey in Castleblagh

Mid-winter Field Survey in Castleblagh Townland, adjoining Kilnahoory Townland.

Sunday, January 14th, 2024.

The author dedicates this event summary to the memory of Professor Oliver Rackham and Andrew St. Leger.

“This attitude to woodland was, alas, the parting gift of the British to Ireland. The last one fifth of one percent of the ancient Irish woods that survived into the 20th century has been sought out and coniferised with even more enthusiasm, and with even more success, than the woods of England”

(O. Rackham, 1983).

It took an English academic (and globally acknowledged authority on our temperate rainforests) to remind us of the fate of Ireland’s native woodlands - his above statement best describes what participants encountered at Castleblagh.

Author misguidedly understood that our field outing was destined for Kilnahoory Townland Woods. “Kilnahoorey Wood” is marked on the 1656 (online) Downe Survey, undertaken at Cromwell’s behest with a view to paying his 45,000 strong “Model Army” with eleven million acres of Ireland- Westminster’s war chest a distant memory.

Diarmuid’s online research reveals that Kilnahoory Woods, though yet extant on the 1st Ordnance Survey (1845-’49) has vanished by the me of the (1876 ’79) 6 inch survey and brought under agriculture.

Mediaeval German gives us the word “Field”- deriving from “Felled”- many English words derive from Anglo-Saxon; following their evacuation on in 417 AD by 1 the Roman Empire, German tribes poured into our neighbouring island (Hedge; Ditch; Beam; Penn; Wealth etc.). “Wealth” derives from Old Saxon “Wald” becoming in me “Weald”- a woodland.

Verily “a country’s true wealth is its natural forest”.

The babbling stream below us marks the townland boundaries between Castleblagh and Kilnahoory- and pays tribute to the Blackwater main channel c.200 metres below where we parked up. We walked the trail in the former.

As an aside- townlands’ names record the whereabouts and woodland types from Erin’s youthful days. “Coill na hIurai” (hIurai)- wood of Yewtrees is straigh orward- but modern Gaelic (following Ogham) gives “Úr” for heath- and “Ur” for “rough terrain”. “Eo” is another Gaelic word for Yew eg. Maigh Eo (Mayo) and Eochaill (Youghal). “Dair” (Oak) recurs in hundreds of our 64,000 townlands- but is only one of very many names for “Oak”- eg “Omna- Omney” (as in Portumna or Killumney). “Chromhta”- a gnarled ancient Oaktree; “Rialach”- a linear Oakwood straddling upland mineral soils adjacent heaths. An elderly neighbour in the early 1980’s could recite 30 Gaelic words describing individual Oak trees or Oak Woodlands.

Verily- “A forest people without their forest”.

The ravine also marks the boundaries between the parishes of Kilcummer (Kylenahoory) and Ballyhooly (Castleblagh). In his “History of the Mediaeval Diocese of Cloyne” (2013), Paul Mac Cotter takes his readers on a journey to Christianity’s earliest days in Ireland- and the gradual incorporation on of early mediaeval “Tuathanna” (Tribelands) into our modern parishes.

Both parishes are comprised in the Barony of Fermoy- otherwise “De Roche Lands”- Baron De Roche, Lord Fermoy was granted this Barony by the Plantagenets following the arrival of the Normans- ousting the O’Keeffes from their once “Autonomous Kingdom”.

Castleblagh appears wooded in both of the 19th century Ordnance Surveys- being named “Philips Wood” in the latter survey. NPWS and Coillte maps name Castleblagh as “Philips Wood”, the former state agency listing this site as “long established” in its 2010 “inventory”

Whence “Philip”? In the 1871 “List of Freeholders for Co. Cork” (published 1875), there is a single Richard Philips with an address in Mitchelstown who owns two plots of land each c.100 acres. In the “Register of Trees, Co. Cork 1790-1860”, the Townlands of Conra; Gortroche and Killa y are listed as having been planted 1806-1859.

Sunday’s foray was the author’s first time to visit the Blackwater’s south bank- at Heritage Week walks on the northern limestone banks, we’ve had the honour of a local historian’s accompaniment- anyone out there?

In the 2003-2008 “National Survey of Native Woodland”, its authors fail to record that “Philips Wood” had long been taken into state ownership via Coillte’s predecessors- a company incorporated in 1989, whose shares are vested in by the Finance Minister (99%) and Agriculture Minister (1%). Under 3 this 1989 Forestry Act, our en re forest estate was vested in this company, having been transferred from the then Forest Commission/Service- with one single remit- the Primacy of Profit ( timber production as an exclusive goal).

“Geo-diversity is the Foundaton of Biodiversity”. Geographer Diarmuid introduced us to the nature of the underlying geology at Castleblagh- acidic sandstone sediment- and hence the acid-loving “phytosociology” (Phuton/Phyton- Greek- plant) encountered along the trail.

Of our 31 native ferns, Hard Fern is dominant in the field layer. “Blechnum Spicant” gives us the scientific description for what remains of this linear shred of “Sessile Oak with Hard Fern”- Blechno-quercetum”. This fern is rarely observed on the north banks- and alongside Bilberry (Vacinium) which is widespread here, are “Acid Indicators”.

Field Wood Rush (Luzula) carpets the damp under-canopy- taking me to observe this carpet of Wood Rush in flower from March to early June, in a light breeze, offers blotting paper for our anxieties. Hazel is absent- though comprising the dominant shrub layer, alongside Holly in other woodlands that qualify as “Blechno-querceta” (St. Gobnait’s Wood; Toon Valley Oakwoods etc). Castleblagh’s overbearing evergreen (North American) plantations, that compound the acidity, likely inhibits natural Hazel colonisation. Soil pH in any event may be too low- bountiful croppers are associated with raised pH.

We recorded Wood Sorrel in patches (Oscalis)- a clover like plant of the ground storey- paler and of a more delicate green, with white lilac veined bell shaped nodding flowers in Springtime. Its leaves fold up in the cold- and at sunset.

By mid-January, when Winter’s waste has run its course, the withered seed heads of Bluebell (if it is present) were not visible.

While not listed as an indicator fern of “Ancient Woodland”, our Filmy Fern (which we viewed through eye lens) is hugging the damp shaded rockfaces and verifies a certain “continuity” in moisture levels- and like our 1,300 plus lichens (with exceptions) verify ambient air quality.

Time did not permit an in-depth interpretation of Castleblagh’s Lichen assemblage- hopefully Heritage Week 2024, we’ll gather and lay out, as we did with a score of Oakleaves during our picnic.

An unfamiliar sight for the author is the establishment of very fine Hollies in the “stools” of the “coppiced” Oaks- growing at their ease alongside the “springs” (Mediaeval term for regrowths)- neither “turfing” for dominion.

Late 1970’s research in England, established by “Dendrochronolgy” (study of growth ring patterns in trees) tells us that “coppicing” was the normal form of “woodland management” 3,000 years ago, Early Bronze Age “Toghers” (pathways through marshlands and swampy alluvial forests) were manufactured by the laying of Alder trunks. On excavation, these long sunken Alder limbs corresponded with long submerged Alder Groves that had been 6 repeatedly coppiced to resurface the “Toghers”. In modern speak “Biomass”- “working trees”, as distinct from the “maidens”.

Though not marked on the Downe Survey, Castleblagh is wooded in the mid nineteenth century. Cromwell’s cartographers endured continuous ambush from the dispossessed indigenous population on (as recorded by Dr. E. McCracken, 1959 published). The De Roche Family and vast tenantry remained R.C. and Royalist right up to Boyne/Limerick in 1690’s. That Castleblagh (Philips Wood) is not recorded in Downe is no sound basis for discounting woodland- but also bearing in mind that Boyles (1st Earl of Cork during the Elizabethan decades) set up several Iron Works/Furnaces along the Blackwater in the 1580’s. McCracken describes the stripping of the ravines to feed these charcoal factories. Such ravenous extractive mentality has not abated.

In the 2003-2008 “National Survey” (earlier referenced), “Philips’s Wood) is recorded as “Pendunculate Oak”.

In our 3 ½ hours (granted, along a single trail on the rim of the ravine), we did not encounter “Common Oak” (Pendunculate Oak). Rather, our random collection of leaves, as laid out, pointed to Sessile (Quercuspetraea- “petrus” of the rocks). Common oak is associated with the lowlying deeper calcareous (basic) sandy loams- with marked “penduncles” (stalked fruits). “Sessile” describes “seated” or “sedentary” or stalkless fruits. (Acorns being “fruits”). 7 In mid-winter, of the many distinguishing features (Hybrid Index), we are left with “leaf morphology”. By August we ought to determine the definitive diagnostic- the positioning on the twigs of the “fruits”.

Reference was made to U.N. Earth Summit (Rio) 1992- culminating in “U.N. Convention on Biodiversity” (Rio) 1993. One participant’s contribution that “all organisms are trying to survive” was met with “a passion for existence drives evolution”.

Both Common and Sessile Oak species (and their “Hybrid Swarm”) give or take some Oak Wasps, are home to 284 invertebrates (Insecta); our 5 native Willows 267 (many “obligate”); our Alder 89; our Blackthorn (our 3rd Wild Cherry) 149. Planta on Spruces and Firs respectively support 37 and 16 invertebrates.

We described the scientifically agreed understanding of what constitutes “native” or

“indi-genous” (“belonging”). By predating man and arriving here without man’s helping hand, our 27 native trees and shrubs- and they alone- are entitled to call themselves native. For environmentally-conscious “Patriots” (“love of land”) that such vast swathes of Ireland’s innocent landscapes have been sold into “Industrial Slavery” raises profound unease. These last pockets of semi-natural woodscapes provide us with “Intellectual Nurseries”. The 16th Century Ulster Poet Ó Gnimh witnessing the Elizabethan Woodland clearances wrote- “The Gael cannot tell- in the Uprooted Wildwood- old nurse of his childhood- we are strangers at home- we are exiles in Erin”.

Was it millions and millions of the same North American fast-growing conifers that Griffith had in mind in November 1905, at Sinn Féin’s first Ard Fheis, when responding to the ques on by an English journalist “What are the aims of Sinn Féin?” Griffith listed “the Reforesta on of Ireland” as his “movement’s” first aim! Or was it “Real Trees” (quote Rackham, St. Leger) they had in mind?

Birch is scant in “Philips Wood”- “the Birch- a dainty lady she wears a satin gown” is home to 229 insects (again several “obligate”). Its peeling paper outer bark if found papering the inner sanctums of many of our wildbirds’ nests- a powerful insect repellent when desiccated. Our native “Downy Birch” (as distinct from “silver”) is a “light sensitive” species- or “shade intolerant” and those few specimens encountered intimated near strain as the dense shade deepens.

“Oh Great Spirit, protect our people from the straight lines of the white man’s thinking” (1st Nation Invocation)

Ted Cook (Heritage Specialist).

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