WOODLANDS (Medieval Ireland)

In medieval Ireland, woodlands were a significant source of raw materials, fuel, and livelihood. They were often seen as a significant part of the landscape, bounded with fences and walls and protected by law and custom. There is a range of archaeological, historical, and paleoecological evidence that can be used to reconstruct the character of woodlands in this medieval landscape. Palynological studies, macrofossil plant studies, and beetle analyses all can indicate the rangeand relative quantities of tree species. The archaeological, technological and dendrochronological analyses of wooden structures (houses, waterfronts, mills) and artifacts (wooden bowls, spoons, tools, and equipment) is also revealing on species selection, age and growth patterns, trunk and branch morphology, and woodcrafts. Historical sources, particularly for the latter part of the Middle Ages, also reveal the presence, extent, ownership, and use of named woodlands in the landscape.

In the early medieval period (a.d. 400-1100), woodland was already a distinct, valued zone in a generally open agricultural landscape. Pollen analysis indicates that woodlands that had regenerated during the Iron Age were now being cleared for agricultural purposes from at least the fifth century a.d. (and particularly in the ninth century a.d.), but undoubtedly discrete areas were maintained. Early Irish laws, saints’ Lives, and wood-specialist studies on archaeological structures suggest at least some measure of woodland management, with large quantities of immature hazel, ash, and willow underwood required for the building of post-and-wattle houses such as those uncovered at Deer Park Farms ringfort, County Antrim. Oak timber was especially valued for building churches, horizontal mills, and bridges. The houses of Hiberno-Norse and Anglo-Norman Dublin, Waterford, and Cork were also constructed of vast amounts of hazel and ash underwood. Artifact studies suggest that the other woodland products to be used there included oak, ash, alder, willow, and yew wood for lathe-turned bowls, buckets, and other domestic equipment. Environmental analyses of urban deposits reveal the use of woodland mosses for latrine purposes; apples, hazelnuts, sloes, elderberries, cherries, and plums were probably gathered from woodlands around the towns for food.

In the manorial economy of Anglo-Norman Ireland, woodland was seen as a valuable source of income, as rights within woodlands encompassed a wide range of activities, including the harvesting of underwood and timber, deer and boar hunting, cattle pasturage, and the foddering of pigs. Anglo-Norman documents, such as the Pipe Roll of Cloyne, indicate that a distinction was made between timber woods (silva), woodlands for underwood (boscus), and scrubby woodlands used for fuel (bruaria). By the fourteenth century, analysis of land use in manors around Dublin suggests that about 8 percent of land was held in woodland. It isalso likely that the native Irish were involved in trading woodland products into the town. It is also possible that there were different cultural perceptions and understanding of Irish woodlands, they perhaps being seen by Anglo-Norman colonists as the fearful retreats of the Gaelic Irish lordships. There may also have been periods of woodland regeneration, particularly after the Gaelic revival and the Black Death. It is also evident that extensive areas of medieval woodlands remained intact up until the sixteenth century, particularly in the southwest and west of the island. However, major woodland clearances in the seventeenth century, related to new agricultural practices and for iron working, led to the destruction of much woodland cover.

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