No one on this island knows Ireland’s trees better than Aubrey Fennell and his long-awaited Heritage Trees of Ireland makes a fascinating and inspiring read. With photography by Carsten Krieger and Kevin Hutchinson, an enthusiastic foreword is provided by that other great ambassador for remarkable Irish trees, Thomas Pakenham, who sums it up when he states that Fennell ‘is perfect for the romantic role of tree hunter’.
And so he is, having spent 15 years travelling the length and breadth of Ireland writing, measuring and recording our great and historic trees. These he has found in a wide range of habitats, ranging from great demesnes to historic gardens, ancient churchyards, on lakeshores and by holy wells. Arranged by various ‘themes’, such as Great Oaks, Ancient Yews, Sacred Trees, Exotics and American Giants, this book highlights and locates, often for the very first time, many of Ireland’s mightiest, most historic or curious trees. Many of the trees featured are on private land and not easily accessible to the public and so this book offers a rare glimpse of little-known arboreal giants. One of these, a 10-metre-tall Canary Island palm (Phoenix canariensis), was planted by the eccentric Victorian bachelor, William Gumbleton in his once-famous Cobh garden.
Many of the trees highlighted by Fennell are noted for their heights, others for their great girth, though not all are selected just for scale. Take for example, the gnarled, wind-beaten hawthorn on the bog road from Roundstone to Clifden, where it is known locally as the ‘Haunted Bush’ – read for yourself the grizzly tale of its associations with a vicious and blood-thirsty highway man! Hawthorn is an important tree in Irish folklore and there are wonderful photographs of some of these ‘sacred trees’ and ‘rag trees’ like St Kieran’s Bush, a rag tree by the remains of an Augustinian Priory in Co Offaly or, very evocatively, the Fairy Tree, a solitary hawthorn on the Hill of Tara, the ancient spiritual capital of Ireland.
This is simply a wonderful work, the ultimate book on Ireland’s most remarkable trees in all their awe-inspiring variety, and their associations with Ireland’s turbulent social and political history. The text is beautifully written (I found it hard to put the book down) and Aubrey Fennell writes passionately and with authority on a subject he clearly loves.
Seamus O’Brien is Head Gardener at the National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh, Kilbride, Co Wicklow.