by jdurney on December 20, 2011


Seeing the wood for the trees

The rag tree, the tulip tree and the tree-of-heaven … such are some of the unlikely names for trees of special interest to be found within Co. Kildare. On the face of it Kildare would not seem to be sympathetic terrain for woodlands of any extent. The county’s topography is flat offering little of the shelter available to forests in mountain valleys. Man’s intervention on the landscape of the county has not always been helpful to tree culture with most of Kildare’s land being highly managed to maximise farm output with little spare acreage available for forestry.
However Kildare is not without its sylvan charms and National Tree Week is as good a time as any to explore the woodland heritage of the county. The named trees mentioned are part of a schedule of specimen or champion trees drawn up by the Tree Council of Ireland, an organisation which promotes an appreciation of the multitude of ways in which trees enrich our surroundings.
The rag tree refers to the superstitions which surround trees in some rural parts where draping rags from the foliage was considered to be a kind of offering to the supernatural. The example mentioned in the Tree Council survey is to be found at St. Brigid’s Well at Tully near Kildare town. The tree is a sitka spruce which most likely replaced a native species which once formed part of nature’s architecture at this holy site.
The tulip tree is also a non-native species but one which flourishes in the grounds of the Curragh Military Hospital … a splash of bright green against the background of red brick so characteristic of a military institution. An institution of a different kind, although no less regimented in bygone years, is St. Patrick’s College Maynooth where generations of gardeners have nurtured a range of native and exotic species. Given the theological repute of the college it is appropriate that a species named the ‘Tree of Heaven’ should be represented by an outstanding tree which, quite literally, soars to the heavens in the college grounds.
Maynooth is also the location for another striking example of mankind’s intervention in the landscape – but this time with a positive and incredibly long term vision for the place of trees in the landscape. The avenue to Carton planted by the Dukes of Leinster in the mid 18th century is regarded as one of the most magnificent avenues of lime trees in Ireland or Britain. Although it no longer serves the purpose of an entrance to the Carton Estate proper, it is now appreciated as an outstanding amenity affording a walk of a kilometre or so among swaying lime trees over 250 years old.  Not quite as old but no less impressive is the lime-lined entrance to Clongowes Wood College which was planted around 1840. The squires of the country houses who planted the trees knew they would never live to enjoy them approaching a mature height. They have left a generous legacy to later generations of Kildare dwellers.
Another very old specimen tree in the south of the county is the ‘turkey roost tree’ at Moone – a European larch with a girth just short of three metres. According to local folklore the flat profile of the tree is a result of compaction caused by turkeys that used to roost in the upper foliage. While many localities will claim to have trees which are the ‘oldest’ or ‘tallest’ of their kind in Ireland, identifying record breaking trees is not an easy science given the endless variety of trunks and branches to be found even among examples of the same species. However a dizzyingly-high cedar in the grounds of the K Club at Straffan is recorded by the Tree Council as being the largest of its species in Ireland measuring a whopping 29 metres tall and a hefty 6.6 metres around its trunk. 
The walls of the old estates watered by the Liffey at Straffan and at Brannockstown shelter spectacular woodlands of broad-leaf trees. Among the old stands of deciduous trees to be found there is one of the few Kildare items to have featured on a postage stamp … the gigantic ash which stands proud in the grounds of Carnalway Lodge was illustrated by artist Susan Sex for the An Post issue of stamps in 2004. Thus a little reminder of Kildare’s arboreal heritage has, no doubt, found its way to many corners of the world.

Series no: 219.

In his column ‘Looking Back’ from the Leinster Leader March 8, 2011 Liam Kenny marks National Tree Week with a look at the role trees play in the heritage of Kildare. As always our thanks to Liam.

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