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  • Trees, Big House Culture, and the Irish Literary Revival
  • Anna Pilz and Andrew Tierney

It was with an adept understanding of his historical setting that James Joyce employed arboreal references in Ulysses to attack nationalist pretensions:

—As treeless as Portugal we’ll be soon, says John Wyse, or Heligoland with its one tree if something is not done to reafforest the land. Larches, firs, all the trees of the conifer family are going fast. I was reading a report of lord Castletown’s …

—Save them, says the citizen, the giant ash of Galway // and the chieftain elm of Kildare with a fortyfoot bole and an acre of foliage. Save the trees of Ireland for the future men of Ireland on the fair hills of Eire, O.1

Trees were similarly of great concern to the doyenne of the Irish Literary Revival, Lady Gregory. “Ireland, more than other countries, ought to be a country of trees,” she had written in an 1898 article on “Tree Planting” for George Russell’s weekly the Irish Homestead, “for the very letters of her alphabet are named after them.”2 Gregory thus suggested that Ireland’s forestry in the late nineteenth century was as much a matter of cultural identity as an economic resource, and that only the Irish tongue could properly recover her trees. For Gregory, deforestation was one of a parcel of forgotten national antiquities that could be revived in Ireland’s cultural memory; for Joyce, it was a symptom of English colonial exploitation. In his 1907 article “Home Rule Comes of Age,” he proposed that Irish self-governance should not be seen as an expense to the English taxpayer, “but rather a partial repayment of England’s debt to Ireland.” Joyce linked the financial question to the country’s limited woodlands: “the moral debt of the English government for not having seen to the reforestation of this disease-ridden swamp for over an entire century amounts to over 500 million francs.”3

Ireland’s plentiful supply of oak, Patrick Duffy asserts, “was as much a driving [End Page 65] force for British colonisation as other economic or political considerations,” leading to the destruction of “the most extensive woodlands.”4 Consequently, the Irish discourse surrounding trees and reforestation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has its roots in Irish colonial history, and that discourse emerged potently in literary texts that looked to the Irish landscape for narrative and meaning. It was a period of intense political discord. The last two decades of the nineteenth century witnessed aggressive agitation over land, as well as separatist nationalism that would challenge the status quo of the landed elite. In consequence, there was a revival in the discourse on landscape improvement in general, and estate improvement in particular.

New tree plantations, encouraged by parliamentary intervention, were established and existing forests were protected from the eighteenth century onward. The acreage of woodland increased from 143,000 to an estimated 500,000 acres between 1791 and 1841.5 Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary (1837), the most extensive written survey of Ireland in the years immediately prior to the calamity of the Famine, contained several overviews of the countrywide attempt at woodland regeneration. Lewis commented extensively on both the loss of woodland under colonial exploitation and the attempts at private regeneration within newly planted demesnes. “The country,” he wrote,

in general is extremely deficient in timber. Its ancient forests have long since been cleared away; their only remaining traces are on the shores of some of the lakes; and not until lately have any general or enlarged exertions been made to reinvest the country with this useful and beautiful appendage. The only plantations are in the neighbourhood of the mansions of the nobility and gentry.6

The private woodlands revered by W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Katharine Tynan, and, later, Elizabeth Bowen, had been artfully contrived from the 1750s in the naturalistic style of the English landscape architect Capability Brown, and estate managers were still laying out demesnes of Big Houses in this manner in the 1830s. Lewis repeatedly describes Irish plantations of the gentry as “thriving” and “flourishing,” calling attention to new growth.

And yet, already in...


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