Wicklow People

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Proud day after long campaign

An epic 20-year saga drew to a close last Friday with the official opening of Tomnafinnogue Oak Wood near Shillelagh.

Tomnafinnogue is the last remaining wood of the famous Coolattin Woods which were clear felled during the '70s and '80s.

The battle to save Tomnafinnogue Wood involved such luminaries as Charlie Haughy and the Edge of U2 as well as a dedicated group of local people who fought for years to protect what they saw as an integral part of Irish heritage.

Problems for Coolattin Woods began in the early 1970s following the death of Lady Fitzwilliam. Her daughter, Lady Juliette, decided to sell Coolattin Estate which comprised prime agricultural land and the mansion house. The house and its grounds are now part of Coolattin Golf Club.

The Fine Gael/Labour coalition government of the day was offered the land but declined to buy it so the estate went on the open market. It was purchased by the Cork business partnership of Brendan Cadogan and Pat Tatton.

A founder member of the Coolattin Woods Action Group, Paddy O'Toole, says it became apparent that the main interest of the buyers was to asset strip the estate. One by one the great oak woodlands, comprising 650 acres in total, were being clear felled. The prime oak logs were exported to Germany for veneering.

The action group was formed in the late '70s under the chairmanship of Johnny Couchman. 'Despite many public meetings and representations to the then government, the clear felling continued,' Paddy O'Toole recalls.

In the early '80s the company which bought Coolattin Estate went into receivership and Bridgefarm Limited took over. Felling licences were issued and the clear felling continued.

By the time Charlie Haughy came into power in 1987, the great oak woodlands of Mill Wood, Quails Wood, Shuttles Wood, Drimingal Wood, Ballykelly Wood and Brow Wood were all completely cleared and, according to Mr O'Toole, had been partly and sometimes poorly replaced with oak saplings. Only Tomnafinnogue remained.

Tomnafinnogue was lucky because it could be clearly seen from the Tinahely to Shillelagh road and the company was leaving the most prominent woodland until last, he feels.

The pleas of Coolattin Woods Action Group were falling on deaf ears. 'It was a useless exercise,' comments Paddy. He pointed out that local TD, Liam Kavanagh, was Minister for Forestry at the time and said that what was happening at Coolattin was in accordance with good silvicultural practice.

He and Johnny Couchman made a video highlighting the destruction of the woods and their significance to the national heritage and sent it to all political leaders at the time.

When now retired Wicklow People reporter, Mark Kennedy, asked Mr Haughy about his views on Coolattin at a press conference in Aughrim prior to the election, he said he had seen the video and was horrified by what was happening. He vowed to do what he could if he became Taoiseach.

Four weeks after becoming Taoiseach he came to Shillelagh and met the group. He was accompanied by the Forestry Minister, Michael Smith and Tainiste John Wilson along with local TD, Paudge Brennan.

The owner of the wood refused him entry and he flew over it by helicopter before instructing his officials to do everything in their power to save the last woodland.

For three or four years after this, efforts were made to ensure that the owners of the land were more diligent in replacing the woodlands that had been clear felled. Very stringent conditions were placed on future felling by Wicklow County Council.

Preservation orders had been applied to some of the woods but compensation would have had to have been paid to the owners in order to prevent felling. The council either had to grant the felling licences or pay the compensation or pay the compensation and there was no money for compensation. The felling of trees continued but the process had been slowed down.

In 1992 the campaign stepped up again after a number of years in the doldrums. The group couldn't save the rest of the woods so they concentrated on Tomnafinnogue.

They needed help to make the campaign inspiring and Anne McCabe, the producer of current affairs programme, Today Tonight, did a piece about what was happening in Coolattin.

She organised a group called Artists for Oak which helped bring the campaign back to prominence. Artists included The Edge, Liam O Maonlai of the Hothouse Flowers, sculptor and poet Jerome Stephens, Sienna Campbell and Don Conroy among others.

The Tree Society of Ireland under the leadership of Thomas Packenham, Liam Flannagan and Kathy Gilfennan, got involved. They later played a significant role in fundraising to buy Tomnafinnogue Wood. Kathy Gilfennan negotiated with Padraig O Higin, a senior official in the Department of An Taoiseach at the time, for the rest of the funding to buy the wood.

Despite the public fundraising, the possibility remained that Bridgefarm would start felling trees in Tomnafinnogue. Another group called Friends of Tomnafinnogue Wood went in early one morning and removed all the identifying tags which marked the trees to be felled. This made it impossible for the company to fell the trees in compliance with the licence.

Shortly after that, an agreement was reached between Wicklow County Council and the Department of the Environment to purchase the wood at a price of £400,000 of which £42,000 was collected through the fundraising efforts of Coolattin Wood Action Group and the Irish Tree Society.

Over the last few years, Eamonn Doran and Sean Casey of the National Park and Wildlife Service have overseen the restoration of the woods, developing car parks and walking routes.

Friday's official opening represents the final episode in a story which has run for almost 30 years and it was an emotional day for Paddy.

'It's a tremendous achievement,' he comments. 'It's an invaluable part of our tree heritage and an invaluable amenity which is being used by locals and tourists alike.'

He walks in the wood three times a week in the summer and says it is 'good for the soul and good for the body'.