The Earliest map featuring County Laois is found within manuscript in the British Library and is somewhat known as the Cotton Map of Laois and Offaly (see map). Commissioned by the English administration in the mid-1500’s, with the view of providing information on the land, resources, and a sense of space, for a new wave of Tudor Settlers, which arrived here with gusto, seeking a prosperous life on the lands just west of the Pale which had been effectively confiscated from the natives during the Plantation of both Counties. The most striking features of the map, show lush green woodlands which have since disappeared, their vestiges only found in pockets across the County, ironically today associated with large demesnes whose roots, can be traced to the very settlers that established themselves here during the Plantation Period. To plant was to establish firm roots in the soil, husbandry the science of the day, ensured that woodlands would be cut, and agriculture was to form the basis for a sustained settler presence in the County on their future generations.
The new settlers understood the value of these woodlands, not just economically but in terms of strategic importance to a successful military conquest of the County. Contemporary accounts acknowledge that the native clans exploited the woodland areas as places where they took shelter in times of war and launched guerrilla style attacks on the crown forces. The “Great Wood” along the west bank of the Barrow which stretched from Monasterevin to Athy, was a favourite refuge for rebels. In 1548, a raiding party of approximately 100 kerns (Gaelic soldiers) led by O’Connor and O’More, plundered the property (consisting of sheep and swine) of Raymond Óge FitzGerald and Richard Mannering of Kildare, and took sanctuary in the Great Wood, “no man or beast were seen” thereafter. These kern, also known as woodkerne were despised as savages and bandits, being likened to wolves in contemporary accounts, where they were hunted by settler forces from wood to bog and would later become the dreaded rapparees of the Jacobean Era. Conveniently enough, the same Kern would often be hired as mercenaries by English forces both in wars on the Island and on the continent. We come across a gleaming correspondence in August 1548 of an expedition led by Captain Cosby, Travers, and Brereton, who “slayed more woodkerne than the oldest man in Ireland ever saw”, during an excursion into the Gaelic “fastness”.
During the Battle of the Plumes over 50 years later we come across an account of how the Irish, under Owney MaC Rory O’More, used plashed fences (abattis) along the woodland edge in a successful attack on a column of troops under the command of Lord Essex Robert Devereux, who went on to explain that “horses were utterly unserviceable” in such wooded skirmishes. The disgraced commander was later tried for treason and beheaded. It is not surprising that Queen Elizabeth ordered the destruction of woodlands to “deprive the Irish of their shelter”, during this period. Highways and passes through woods were cut and we find a reference that “8 days during the summer should be put aside for the cutting of passes”. The Great Wood pass was considered as one of the “most dangerous passes in Ireland, the chief fastness of the O’Mores”. At Lea Castle we find a reference to the Castle itself, being defended by a thick woodland plashed in places guarded by abatis, a formidable defensive settlement, on the banks of the Barrow and located close to the Great Wood.
The woodlands also provided a source of high-quality timber for construction of Forts for the Tudor Settlers. At Monasterevin, during works there in the Summer of 1549, “45 carts with 180 labourers” were employed there to shore up the town’s defences. This required the chopping of vast amounts of wood needed for construction and to fuel the many “limekilns” which produced mortar and plaster. The previous year, the Fort at Portlaoise was constructed using the same methods, with a heavy reliance on raw materials from the local woodlands.
By the time the Plantation had been complete, and the last major Gaelic resurgence ended in defeat for the natives at the turn of the 17th Century, the woodlands that had survived destruction, were exported, and used for industrial and domestic purposes. For instance, Iron works were established at Mountrath, Ballinakill and the Cullenagh Mountains by new settlers such as the Coote Family and the Ridgeways. At the Mountrath Ironworks, special permission was given to Coote in 1654, “to employ 500 Irish workers provided that they lived within musket shot distance of the works”. These required vast amounts of timber, ideally oakwood during the extraction and smelting process, which unsurprisingly resulted in the wholesale depletion of local woodlands, to the point where commentators during the era advised that production sites had to be wound down due to “lack of wood”. Dr. Molyneux in an account from Mountrath in 1722, comments that this type of Iron, was known as “Merchants Iron”, which required two smelting processes and consequentially double the amount of wood for furnaces, which made it “fit for all types of use”. Such areas of production are still immortalised within townland names found in the County today, which include Ironmills near Ballinakill and Forgelands along the Nore at Castletown. Vast amounts of wood from Ireland were also transported across the English Channel for use in mining operations near Skiddaw in the English lake district.
Tanneries were another important indigenous industry, considering that hides and leather products were highly sought-after export commodities. The tanning process involved the destruction of trees whereby the bark was stripped away and used to treat and colour hides. In April 1549, John Moorton applied for a licence to Lord Deputy Bellingham to set up a “Tan-House” at Fort Protector which was also granted permission to use as much “wood and underwood” for its construction.
Considerable amounts of Irish woodlands were processed into staves which were used for a variety of purposes, these included shipbuilding, casket making, and building material. Most of this was exported to England, Holland and as far away as the Mediterranean. In fact, it is stated in 1625 that Spain casked all its wine in Irish oakwood. The East India Company with its shipyard at Plymouth, imported Irish wood to build part of its substantial merchant fleet in the early 17th Century. Much of this trade activity was conducted through Irish ports, such as New Ross and Wexford, which from a Laois perspective, were connected along the Barrow and Nore Rivers, where rafting operations were invariably carried out, as woodcutters felled trees along both navigations in the County. A law passed in 1621, prohibited the felling of trees within 10 miles of navigable rivers, unless a permit was issued by the King. This provided the administration with a ready stock of woodland that could be felled and transported when needed, with particular emphasis in this case on the provisioning of timber for the English Navy. One could assume trees from the Great Wood of Leix, which straddled the Barrow, were eventually put to sea under the English flag. Not just trees were exported but wildlife whose natural habitat requires woodland were sent across the water. There are several references to raptor birds such as goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) and tarsell or peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), which were highly valued hunting birds being gifted to court officials, usually for favours from the administration. For example, in 1561, Walter Pepparde sent a goshawk to Lord Deputy Cecil, as part of his efforts to acquire leasing rights to a mining operation in the woodlands of Slieve Margy.
Yew trees, a native confer, were highly valued and used to make “bow-staves” for English as well as Irish Archers, which still appeared on the medieval battlefield as it transitioned towards the use of gun powdered munitions in the 16th Century. Little remains of these forestations, apart from the occasional yew tree that we might associate within a graveyard setting, whereby they take on a ritual significance in that their evergreen leaves symbolise everlasting life!
Many of these former woodlands were used for agricultural purposes by the 18th and 19th Centuries to support a growing population which peaked at over 8 million on the Island before the Great Famine in the mid-1800’s. According to Coote’s statistical survey of Queens County (1801), conditions for leasing of lands included “to cut, burn or destroy so many acres of timber annually, and clear the land for the plough”. With much of the woodlands depleted by the 19th Century, boglands were increasingly exploited throughout the County (I hope to revisit this topic in a later post).
Evidence can be found in old placenames which attest to the former arboreal landscape which covered Co. Laois. These include placenames such as Durrow (Darú – Oakwood), Cullenagh (Cuileannach – place abounding in holly), Derrylahan (Doire Leathan – the wide Oakwood), Derrynaseera (Doire ná Saortha – Oakwood of the Craftsmen), the townland Mayo (Maigh Eo – Plain of the Yews), Derrygarran (Doire na nGarrán – Grove of the Oaks) and Kyle (Coill – the wood), of which there are many more. These woodlands were mainly deciduous and hosted much more biodiversity than we find in the conifer plantations that we are accustomed to today. Incidentally one of Ireland’s oldest Oak trees has been recorded at the former De Vesci Estate at Abbeyleix, which retains perhaps the largest track of ancient woodland in Co. Laois.
Today apart from a few isolated pockets mainly found on demesne lands in the County, and the odd old, isolated tree we might find within a field, little remains of our once thriving natural native woodlands. Hedgerows an important habitat can be regarded as perhaps the last redoubt of our former arboreal landscape. These “natural corridors” often contain plants termed “ancient woodland indicator species” such as toothwort (Lathraea clandestina), wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), wild garlic (Allium ursinum), and the charming bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). Wouldn’t it be great to make a real effort to replant and revive what was once a landscape consisting of enchanting native woodlands and move away from the stifling spruce monocultures which lack any capacity for biodiversity.
Coote, Sir Charles., 1801. Statistical survey of the Queen’s County. Dublin: Graisberry and Campbell
Everett, N., 2015. The Woods of Ireland, A History, 700 – 1800. Four Courts Press.
McCraken, E., 1968. The Irish Timber Trade in the Seventeenth Century. Irish Forestry Journal
O’Hanlon, Canon J., 1907. A History of the Queen’s County
Calendar of Documents relating to Ireland
For anyone interested in ancient woodlands of Ireland I would highly recommend getting a copy of Nigel Everett’s book, a thorough piece of research available from Four Courts Press.