The earliest Irish poets handed down their works in an oral tradition. Often, their inspiration came from trees and forests and many of their public performances might easily have relied upon trees for shade and shelter. This regard for nature and forests manifested itself most strongly in the 17th century by the publication of the first account of Irish trees as a topic for a book.
Don Phillip O’Sullivan Beare’s unpublished work about trees, ‘Zoilomastix’, was written in Spain between 1624 and 1626. In spite of being exiled from Ireland, he was well-informed and knew about some rare and unusual trees recorded in the Irish vernacular, such as the strawberry tree and the sweet chestnuts which grew in Ulster. He also mentioned the pine forests which grew on the north-western shore of Lough Neagh.
Some hundred years later, the first book on the subject to be printed and published in Ireland was by Samuel Waring of Waringstown, Co. Armagh. It was specifically about the propagation of trees and it is believed to be the earliest horticultural work to come from an Irish press.
It was commonplace for authors of the time to publish under initials or anonymously. This was the case with the pamphlet ‘A short treatise of firr trees’. It was issued in Dublin in 1705 and was dedicated to His Grace James, Duke of Ormond. The piece trumpeted the cause of afforestation throughout Ireland with fir trees. His argument was that the British had taken Ireland’s great forests of oak, and that this now forced the Irish to import timber from Scotland and Norway. Ireland, he argued, should grow her own.
Afforestation grants became available from the Royal Dublin Society from about the mid-18th century. These were awarded to landowners for planting trees. As result of getting involved, they often became interested in the subject of arboriculture and dendrology. In the last half of the century, five books on the subject were published, three from Newry, Co. Down.
‘Some hints on planting by a Planter’ was published in 1767 and it is believed that James Fortescue (1725-82) of Ravensdale Park, Co. Louth, was the author. The book gives general advice and hints arising from the author’s experience and is generally regarded as a very liberal and well thought out pamphlet showing a remarkable enthusiasm for trees. The work was re-published and eventually went to a third edition in 1783.
That same year, a slim work entitled ‘An account of the method of raising and planting the Pinus sylvestris, that is, scotch fir or pine, as now practised in Scotland’, was published. It was written by the Second Earl of Clanbrassil, James Hamilton, who owned two demesnes and a retreat, each planted with different native and exotic species.
These three works were each pamphlets covering specific topics within the span of dendrology. A major work covering a much more general span of the subject matter was written by Samuel Hayes, although his initials are the only clue within the work itself as to its author’s identity. Hayes was a prominent member of the Royal Dublin Society and a promoter of the Society’s Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin. The work was entitled ‘A practical treatise on planting and the management of woods and copses’, and was published in 1794. It is regarded as the pinnacle of its age and was not surpassed for more than a hundred years, by which time, advances in technology changed publishing radically.
The book is historically important as it records valuable information about demesnes and estates throughout Ireland. It is also beautifully engraved by William Esdall, a draughtsman and master engraver.
Dr. Walter Wade, a male midwife and surgeon who was elected Professor of Botany at the Royal Dublin Society in 1796, was a close friend of Hayes and was responsible for producing two books about trees, one specifically about oak and the other, willow. Neither is easy to read.
‘Irish flora’ by Katherine Baily was published in 1833 when she was twenty-two years old. This was followed by articles such as ‘Planting foreign pines’ and ‘Observations on some foreign trees suited to Ireland’ which were published in The Irish Farmers and Gardeners Magazine.
Henry John Elwes and Augustine Henry’s work, ‘Trees of Great Britain and Ireland’, was neither published nor printed in Ireland. It is generally regarded as the definitive work on trees of the British Isles, including Ireland. It comprises eight volumes including an index volume. Its attention to detail and beautiful photography and line drawings make it stand out. Published privately between November 1906 and October 1913, it was truly an outstanding account of trees growing in these islands at the time. Dr. Henry’s own copy of the work is preserved in the National Botanic Gardens, along with Elwes’s field notes and clippings, letters and papers.
A more recent book by Charles Nelson and illustrated by Wendy Walsh called “Trees of Ireland – native and naturalized “ was published in 1993. This elegant volume celebrates, and documents, over thirty native and naturalized trees. Individual trees are depicted in pencil silhouette, and watercolors detail mature foliage, flowers, and fruit.
The accompanying text includes botanical information, background history, folklore, traditions, uses and propagation, also noting recorded and champion specimens. Introductory chapters recount the history and literature of trees in Ireland, their folklore and conservation.