Friday, March 11, 2005

Trees and us

This last week was, in Ireland, National Tree Week. For A Kilcullen Diary, I went along to record the planting of a holly tree in the national school, sponsored by the Heritage Group. The job was done by local Parks Service ranger Roy Thompson.

Prior to the planting, he gave a talk on trees to the pupils, and came away very pleased with how 'clued in' they were about the subject.

Their questions were many and varied. To watch and listen, it was an uplifting experience. Not just because the kids were interested, or because they were very aware, but also because there are people like Roy Thompson, and teachers like those in Scoil Bhride, who are committed to satisfying young appetites for knowledge.

But one question, which on the surface might seem just funny, triggered a new thought.

'Have you ever fallen out of a tree?' one kid asked.

'Sure,' Roy answered. 'Have you?'

The answer was apparently in the negative. I recall Roy asking a general question of his own then.

'Have any of you fallen out of a tree?'

And it seemed that no one had. Or that any of them had even climbed trees much, if at all.

That has prompted me to think about when I was their age. Which in itself must be a sign of older age ...

But, when I was a kid, we had relationships with trees.

We climbed them. We shook them to get the apples down. We used them as navigation points in the several woods we played in around Kilcullen.

We had a Big Tree here, where Conroy Park is now. It was a landmark in the town, and also for those leaving and arriving in town on their way to and from Dublin.

I'll come back to that one. But we had an old orchard in the back of our house, one which had probably been planted long before our family acquired the property.

The trees were rough and gnarled, maybe about eight of them, and they produced little apples of varying qualities and sourness.

But they were all climbable. And as kids growing up we each had our favourite climb. At certain times of the year in playing in those trees, we had our individual 'homes' in those trees. Depending on the games we played, we even defended 'our' trees against each other. And again, at certain seasons, each tree provided ammunition to help in that defence.

Well, the apples really weren't edible ...

In the 'outer world', all Kilcullen boys played regularly in the various woods around the town.

Blacker's Wood in Castlemartin — now home to Sir Anthony O'Reilly — was one of the more important ones.

Several generations earlier it had been an almost formal garden for the aristocracy living in Castlemartin, its 'Laurel Walk' famous enough to be engraved on official maps of the area.

For those same people too, the woodland edge at the River Liffey had a boathouse for pleasure boating and fishing on the waterway.

But by my time the Blacker family who owned the estate had fallen on hard times and the wood was no longer the carefully-tended area where the gentry had walked in relative comfort and probably without fear of their boots getting muddy.

Which was great for us. We had gangs, of course. We played cowboys and indians. We built camps, stacking fronds of laurel against suitable trees. We had trails through the wood, which we used and defended, depending on what was the game of the day.

There were trees that were landmarks, there were trees that were cover, and there were trees that we climbed to watch for our rivals from.

And there were fallen trees that were very important. Both to get into the wood from the adjacent field, forming bridges across Pinkeen stream, as well as doing the same duty in the wood itself across the various runs of water that divided the then-neglected and relatively wild woodland.

All of us, at different times, fell out of or off of many of those same trees that were part of the fabric of our wilderness playground.

None of us, in my memory, were ever seriously hurt in any of those incidents. Scratches and blood-stained handkerchiefs were sometimes taken home, but generally meant little in the overall sense of satisfaction in a day well played.

In summer holidays we could be missing for most of the day, and our parents never worried. They didn't need to.

We had our trees ...

... and wherever we might be missing at, they were always comfortable in the fact that we were probably out in the wilds around Kilcullen. Out of their hair. And enjoying ourselves.

There were other trees. Like those that hung out over the bottom of what is now today known as the Valley park, but was then a scrubby-bush wilderness owned by the Molloy family.

On the upper stretches, we also had trails, steep and difficult in places where we had to hang on tight to those same bushes to avoid slipping down to the lower levels, especially after rain.

Those bowed trees out over the water were where we watched the flow of the daily 'flood' from the dam at Poulaphuca rise, sometimes sitting in summer with shoeless feet dangling to gauge the level of the rising water as feet and then knees were covered.

We also set fishing lines from some of those boughs, to catch eels overnight. Then, and now probably, illegal. But nobody bothered about it much, and we mostly always threw the eels back. In this country, what else would you do ...?

There were also trees in New Abbey wood that were their own landmarks if you wanted to walk the route to Carnalway.

But maybe more important in my memory are those chestnuts that still mark the last part of the walk to the old New Abbey graveyard.

At important times of the year, they provided us with 'conkers' for the annual ritual of competing to have a real hero chestnut.

(You don't know 'conkers'? Whoops ... take a chestnut, make a hole through it with a skewer, or nail if that was too much for the kitchen tool situation, and then put a piece of string through and knot it underneath. The contest is alternate bashing of each other's suspended chestnut until one breaks apart. Every one you break adds a value number to the victorious one.)

I don't believe I've felt the need to explain this. And, in the pub where I'm writing this, I've just talked to a former and much younger Dub-turned-Kilcullenite who did play conkers in his home area while growing up, but he doesn't know if it's common any more.

Still, he reminded me of the ways of becoming a champion. Heating the conker would do it. Smoking it in a chimney was much more sophisticated. Didn't always work, though — an 'overcooked' conker would eventually be too brittle to last repeated assault.

But it was all part of our relationship with the tree.

Back to the 'Big Tree'. When it was cut down by Kildare County Council in the early 70s, I wrote a piece in The Bridge which castigated the act. It was one of the first pieces that was later to bring me to a full-time career in journalism.

As it happened, the contractor who did the job and subsequently sawed it into bits had substantial costs in replacing the teeth of his machine.

It turned out that the Big Tree had been used for several centuries as a notice board for Kilcullen, and there were so many nails inside it that it caused serious damage to his equipment.

I got a few of the 'rounds' of the tree, which supplied me with winter firing for a couple of years. My chopping with a big axe wasn't too badly affected by the nails ...

So, for National Tree Week, these are some of my memories. But I have to wonder, is there a computer game around these days that, virtually even, will allow a child to fall out of a tree?

Because, however way, we all should have the experience.

©2005 Brian Byrne.


Roy Thompson said...

Yeah, I was thinking the very same thing myself today. We had big beech trees on the farm, big beeches that had been pollarded - so they had huge girths with hollow trunks and enormous boughs rising up from the trunk six feet up, though back then it seemed alot higher, so guess what....
yup - they made brilliant forts! One was called "FORT DAM" (short for DAIMLER) after the old stale gloss paint garnered to paint the piece of broken floorboard used to make the sign we nailed onto our fort above the entrance to the hollow trunk.
Halcion days indeed.
God love today's kids - they know so much about trees and they appreciate their conservation value, but do they know how to enjoy them....
I truly hope they do.

Mariseo said...

Nice to know I struck a chord too ...


Anonymous said...

I've fallen out a off one or two trees as a young fella, a couple of memorable times were, hanging upside down from a branch by my knees and falling straight down landing on my head where I was promptly driven to Naas hospital for an x-ray. Another time, sitting in the top of a large Sycamore tree just outside the back garden of my parents house, losing my seat, and bouncing off nearly every branch on the way down before landing in a heap on the ground behind the tall beach hedge of the garden. That time nobody saw me fall, so I got away without a visit to the emergency room.

One tree in particular I loved climbing was another tall scraggly Sycamore a the end of the garden. I used to climb straight to the top, where I could rock the crown of the tree and sway in the wind, precarious yes, but there was a great view over the rooftops of St Bridget's Avenue, and Conroy park, and in the distance I could see Old Kilcullen tower silhouetted against the skyline. I've often thought of climbing that tree when I'm home just to have a quick look again, but it's hard to get to these days because there's portacabin in the way!!!