President plants a Tree as part of the ‘Giants Grove’ project

Fri 21st Apr, 2017 | 12:30
location: Birr Castle, Co. Offaly

Speech at the Giants’ Grove Tree Planting Ceremony

Birr Castle, Co. Offaly, Friday 21 April 2017

In the old Ireland, trees were held in high respect, not just due to their size, longevity and majesty, but also because their roots, seen as doorways, pierced the underground realms of the otherworld, while their branches reached high into the heavens.

Lord and Lady Rosse,
Minister Corcoran Kennedy,
Dear friends - lovers and protectors of trees,

It is an honour, and my very great pleasure, to be here to plant this redwood seedling, the first of a thousand giants-to-be, who shall, thanks to all of you, grow and prosper for hundreds of year on the auspicious soil of the Birr Castle Demesne. May I thank Lord Rosse for his kind invitation and generous welcome to Birr Castle; and may I also pay tribute to "Crann-Trees for Ireland", with whom the seed of the beautiful idea originated.

What a fine idea indeed is this venture of creating, here, within the magnificent demesne of Birr Castle, the largest grove of redwoods outside of their native habitat, in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. We know that giant sequoias once grew throughout the northern hemisphere, including on the land of what had not yet become the island of Ireland, in the radically different environmental conditions of the pre-ice ages, over 2.5 million years ago. Only three species of redwood survived the ice ages: the giant sequoia [Sequoiadendron giganteum] and the coast redwood [Sequoia sempervirens] in California, and the dawn redwood [Metasequoia glyptostroboides] in remote areas of southwestern China’s Lichuan county.

As I found out while I was preparing for my state visit to China, three years ago, the metasequoia, or dawn redwood, was, for long, known to scientists through fossils only. It was rediscovered in the mid 1940s by the great Chinese botanist, poet and intellectual, Professor Hu Hsen-Hsu, whom the sixth Earl of Rosse happened to meet in China before the war. The two men thenceforth maintained a correspondence, exchanging letters and seeds, so that the first specimen of dawn redwood in Europe was planted here, at Birr Castle, where it is still growing today.

The Birr Castle Demesne is thus on the point of completing its position as the Irish home of all three rare species of redwood trees, for the Giants’ Grove we are planting today will also contain, as you know, about 25% of coastal redwoods. These splendid trees will add to the marvellous collection of exotic trees and plants, including older redwoods, that are already thriving on the demesne, enjoyed and admired by all visitors.

Few living things appear as permanent and humbling to us humans as the giant sequoia trees of California’s Sierra Nevada, whose towering heights can reach 90 meters, whose girths can grow to 8 meters, and who can live in excess of 3,000 years before being naturally toppled by a combination of weather and gravity. The planting of those mighty trees, here, at the heart of Ireland, is not just an extraordinary silvicultural undertaking. It has been devised to symbolise, too, the abiding bonds that unite those who have passed away and their loved ones, and the equally strong bonds through which Irish people all over the world are connected to this island. We are all aware of the powerful symbolism of trees, with their rich connotations of life enduring and renewing itself, their connection to family lineages and ancestry. The fact of the establishment and care of Birr’s giant redwoods being enabled by the generosity of individual Irish people, from Ireland and abroad, only reinforces the status of this grove as an “arboreal diaspora”, to quote Lord Rosse’s beautiful phrase.

These giant trees, with their height, great bulk, long life, numerous offshoots and deep root system, will be a living tribute to the enduring memory and flourishing legacy of those who have left this world, as well as signifying the central place our Irish diaspora and migrants hold in the hearts and minds of those in Ireland. By sponsoring redwoods in Birr Castle's Giants' Grove, members of our diaspora can, both metaphorically and very tangibly, replant roots in Ireland – roots that will grow, thrive, and thus enrich and sustain both our lives and our natural environment.

The importance of this redwood project is not, of course, limited to the symbolic. It is a meaningful contribution to the vital objective of sustainability and the urgent shift our world needs towards a more balanced coexistence between all those, human and non-human, who dwell on this fragile planet. May I, then, commend Crann, the Birr Castle Demesne, the Birr Scientific and Heritage Foundation, and all of you here who have a stake in this beautiful collective project, for your vision, your concern, and your committed generosity.

We all know how vital trees, forests, and woodlands in general, are to our collective future. Forests are not just a resource amenable to commercial exploitation, a source of wood and timber: for so many communities around the world, they are a crucial source of food, fodder, fuel, medicine as well as a rich well of beliefs and traditions; everywhere, forests and woodlands are irreplaceable habitats for wildlife, as well as indispensable carbon sinks and reservoirs. They are, in other words, essential to the maintenance of all forms of life, both social and natural – the two being, of course, deeply interrelated.

The value, at once economic and non-economic, of forests, was recognised by the Rio Declaration on the environment, twenty-five years ago, and its related UN Forest Principles, which heralded in the new global consciousness of sustainable development. Advocating as they do a holistic approach to forestry issues and the need to “take into consideration the multiple functions and uses of forests, including traditional uses”, those Principles of 1992 state that forests and woodlands:

“are related to the entire range of environmental and development issues and opportunities, including the right to socio-economic development on a sustainable basis.”

The text then goes on to describe how:

“All types of forests embody complex and unique ecological processes which are the basis for their present and potential capacity to provide resources to satisfy human needs as well as environmental values” for humanity as a whole.

We are, today, even more acutely aware of the vital importance of forests and woodlands in the context of global climate change than we were at the time of the UN Rio Conference. We also have, unfortunately, even more evidence of the vulnerability of trees to global warming. The latest scientific evidence thus indicates rising death rates amongst trees that are 100 to 300 years old, on every continent except Antarctica, and across a wide range of global landscapes, from forests, to savannas and cities, and from arid to wet regions alike. On current trends, global warming alone holds the horrific prospect of seeing most of the planet’s older trees be wiped out at some point over the course of this century.

Despite their extraordinary size, deep root system, and sturdiness, giant redwoods are sensitive to moisture stress. I understand that the melting of winter snows has thus far provided the giant sequoias with the necessary moisture to take them safely through the dry Californian summer. However scientists say that the existence of those trees is threatened by the vagaries of a changing Sierra Nevada mountain snowpack and rising temperatures. Should no drastic counter-action be taken, they foresee trouble for sequoia seedlings in 25 years from now, and then, in the longer-term, for the big trees themselves.

I very much hope, as I know you all do, that our American friends will manage to ensure the future of their treasured redwood trees in their natural environment. The creation, here in Ireland, of the largest grove of redwoods outside of California could, however – it is hoped – represent an additional guarantee for the continued survival of a naturally regenerating population of giant sequoias on our shared planet.

I was particularly delighted to learn that Birr’s giant redwoods will grow alongside smaller trees which are native to Ireland, such as spindle, oak, sorbus, hazel, as well as holly trees, of which we see a small group further down this path, and yew – of which, unusually, Lord Rosse tells me, this Castle’s main staircase is made. Native woodlands, that is, those trees which recolonised the land mass in the postglacial era, approximately 9,600 years ago, are, as you know, the backbone of our biodiversity. They represent, today, our best chance in the battle against climate change, having adapted very sensitively, over many centuries, or indeed millennia, to their changing environment and developed very deep and rich relationships with the surrounding fungi, insects, birds, plants – and, of course, people.

Taken in a broad sense, biodiversity indeed encompasses, not just plant and animal life, but the rich tapestry of cultures, histories, spiritual beliefs and traditions that give humanity its texture. Trees have roots that stretch back to our earliest symbolic imaginations; they have been symbols of physical and spiritual nourishment, sustenance, growth, transformation, liberation, union and fertility throughout the ancient human world.

The redwood is a sacred tree for several native American Indians tribes, reminding us of our own similar tradition of sacred trees. In the old Ireland, trees were held in high respect, not just due to their size, longevity and majesty, but also because their roots, seen as doorways, pierced the underground realms of the otherworld, while their branches reached high into the heavens. The O’Carroll oak, which stands in the middle of this park, surrounded by a meadow of wild flowers which has not been ploughed in the last 400 years is testament to the rich forest culture that was that of our ancestors.

The Bile, the old Gaelic word for “sacred tree”, was the silent witness to the inauguration of Irish chieftains, ensuring the king’s allegiance to the fertility of the land and the prosperity of its people. According to a variety of mythological sources, there were five sacred trees considered the guardians of the five provinces of ancient Ireland. Those trees were brought to the court of the High King at Tara by a tall stranger bearing a branch from which grew three fruits: an apple, an acorn and a hazelnut. The stranger reportedly taught the men of Ireland their history, shared with them his knowledge, and then gave the fruits from his branch to Fintan, who extracted seeds and planted one in each quarter of the land, and the fifth one at its centre, at Uisneach.

All the clans possessed their own sacred tree within their territories, and to destroy that tree was viewed as a terribly significant act. The Irish Annals thus record that in 981AD, the Bile of Magh Adhair in Tulla, Co. Clare, under which the O’Brien chieftains used to be inaugurated, was destroyed by High King Máel Sechnaill. In 1111AD, the Ulidian army reputedly cut down the sacred tree of the O’Neills, for which the vast compensation of 3,000 cattle later had to be paid.

The new Brehon laws, which were disseminated from Uisneach, the sacred centre of ancient Ireland, not far from here, did, as is well documented, include a system of fines and penalties for the wilful destruction of trees. Some species were afforded greater importance and status than others. The well-known Old Irish tree list, for example, classified trees into four categories for protection: the “Nobles of the wood” (Airig Fedo), the “Commoners of the wood” (Aithig Fedo), the “Lower Divisions of the wood (Fodla Fedo) and the “Bushes of the wood” (Losa Fedo).

There is also, of course, a strong connection between the ancient Irish alphabet Ogham and Irish tree folklore. Each letter of that alphabet, consisting in a series of markings cut into the edge of standing stones, was assigned a name, often associated with a native tree. For example, the letter ‘B’ was derived from beith (birch), and D from dair (oak). While there were originally only eight letters named after trees – birch, alder, willow, oak, hazel, ash, yew and perhaps pine - other tree names were added to the remaining letters in the Middle Ages, resulting in a full tree alphabet.

Many centuries later, after multiple waves of invasions and centuries of repeated clear-felling, the remnants of Ireland’s native wild woods cover but a fraction of our national territory – a territory which is sadly one of the least forested in Europe. Wouldn’t we, as gardeners, as farmers, as communities – and as a society – be all the wiser to tap into the rich source of ancient wisdom we have at our disposal? Wouldn’t we, dear friends, be well inspired to draw from that sustainable life resource by excellence that healthy forests and woodlands are?

This is why I am so delighted – dear friends – to be here today to plant this tree, and to have this occasion to thank all of you for all that you do, in your many different way, so that trees can once again prosper on this island and nurture a vibrant natural and human eco-system.

Go bhfása fathaigh chrónghiúise Dhiméin Chaisleán Bhiorra go rathúil, agus go maire said go suaimhneach leis na crainn uilig eile a fhásann faoi rath sa pháirc álainn seo, go ceann na gcéadta bliain    

[May the redwood giants of the Birr Castle Demesne grow, and prosper, and live in harmony, for many centuries, with all the other trees and plants that thrive in this beautiful park, and for the wonder of the many generations who will visit them.]