Deforestation of Ancient Irish Oak Forests

“In England, the Normans had introduced the notion of a special law applying to large sections of land known as forests(often not always wooded). The Irish idea of land title was very different from the Norman one of absolute ownership. When an Irish lord or king donated land to one of his subjects, he gave not ownership, but dominion subject to recall. Therefore,  the Irish nobleman who ‘gave’ land to a Norman was allowing a rescindable dominion in trust. When he learned that the Norman thought otherwise and was prepared to fight for it, the Irish lord fought back, or agreed to the Norman authority under what he saw as duress.” – Eoin Neeson ‘Woodland in history and culture’

Accounts of the military campaigns of the English forces of Queen Elizabeth I at the end of the 16th century make it quite clear that Irish forests were a considerable natural barrier to troop movements as well as a place for concealment and refuge for the Irish armies. In 1585, following the years of the Desmond Rebellion, Sir John Perrot, President of the council of Munster and thus Queen Elizabeth’s representative in the Province suggested that the woods be cut to “deprive the rebels of their place of succour”. It was about this time, too, that English settlers were planted in Munster on lands confiscated from the natives. These settlers started the clearance of the forests for their own security and prosperity.

The last of the great forests were deliberately burned down by the English military as part of a “scorched earth” campaign under commanders such as Walter Devereux, Richard Bingham and Humphrey Gilbert.

1606 It is estimated that the Shillelagh Woods could furnish the Crown with timber for shipping and other uses for the next twenty years.

1608 Philip Cottingham first surveys Ireland on behalf of the Crown, and again in 1623. His report states that the country is abounding in timber, mainly ‘noble oaks’ fit for shipbuilding.

Belfast’s world renowned  shipbuilding prowess started with the building of timber ships. The shipyard had evolved from building timber sailing ships from native Irish oak forests and had grown large before converting to building ironclad ships, when it had to import all materials such as Steel, Iron, Coal.

The shipyard had built so many timber ships that Belfast had the largest Ropeworks in the world and Ireland had the largest Linen industry making sheets (sails) to support its production of ships. Ireland is covered with old disused linen mills. The timber came from ancient Irish forests – thousands of years old. No other country including England had such a natural untouched resource of timber.