Sawyerswood, Brackney Wood, Blackwood, Rathconnell Wood, the last remains of the vast woods which in medieval times and earlier cloaked the Irish countryside, or are they a more recent addition to the Irish landscape? Undoubtedly they are ancient woods, but how old we do not know. Perhaps they were planted with the help of bounties paid by the Dublin Society towards the end of the 18th century. In 1783 over 65,000 trees were propagated in Ireland under the Dublin Society Scheme, and seven years later the number of trees propagated with the assistance of bounties increased to over 3,750,000. The bounties offered for tree planting were paid out of funds made available by the Irish Parliament. This scheme unfortunately was discontinued following the passing of the Act of Union.
Kildare County Council which was set up following the enactment of the Local Government Act of 1898 was one of the first Local Authorities in Ireland to take up the question of afforestation. In 1906 the Council then, as now, based in the county capital of Naas sought to compliment the State forestry efforts by adopting a county based afforestation programme which was intended to be funded by the Council itself. The County Council tried to secure two sites regarded as suitable for experimental tree planting at Brackney [known locally as Brackna], just three miles outside Athy on the Stradbally road and at Kingswood Bog Common, a place which I have not been able to locate. The latter commons consisted of almost 600 acres but because of claims in relation to ancient grazing rights made by local farmers the County Council were not able to pursue their plans for tree planting in that area. This left Brackney then covered in scrub and extending to about 100 acres which was owned by Lord Gough. He was willing to vest the property in the County Council but nevertheless protracted negotiation took place before the deal was finalised in 1907. The County Council, despite having indicated that it would fund the scheme itself, then approached the Department for financial assistance towards the cost of the afforestation scheme and succeeded in securing a grant of £500, subject however to the County Council providing a similar sum from its own resources. The Council agreed to proceed on that basis and a rate of half a penny in the pound over the entire county was struck which brought in a total of £677=3=2. The County Committee of Agriculture gave a grant of £75 towards the Scheme, and Lord Gough made a contribution of £235 which was the price which the County Council had agreed to pay for the land. Thus a tree planting fund of £1,487=3=2 was available to the County Council.
Kildare County Council had at its disposal the expertise of a forestry expert, Mr. A.C. Forbes who worked for the Department and on his advice it was decided to clear and plant ten acres of the ground in Brackney every year so that in ten years time the entire 100 acres would be under wood. The cost of clearing the scrub land and planting it with trees was estimated to cost £100 each year with little or no expense arising thereafter. A mixture of European Larch, Beech, Austrian and Corsican Pines, Douglas and Silver firs were planted in December 1907, but by June of the following year Mr. Forbes had to report that while the trees were on the whole doing well, upwards of two thirds of the European Larch had died.
The success of the scheme led to the Duke of Leinster giving as a free gift to the County Council, Corballis Hill near Ballitore for the purpose of afforestation and a further 30 acres were acquired for planning at Pollardstown. Kildare County Council having led the way in county based afforestation programmes handed over responsibility for the scheme to the County Committee of Agriculture. Brackney Wood as we know it today clearly owes its continued existence as a forest to the County Council Scheme which started 95 years ago. Even before the County Council acquired the 100 acre site it was known as Brackney Wood, a fact which is confirmed by a perusal of the earliest Ordnance Survey maps for the county. Quite clearly the scrub land which was revitalised under the County Council Tree Planting Scheme of 1907 was only then being restored to its former wooded state which had endured for centuries previously.
Some weeks ago I got a phone call from Professor Fox of University College Cork who was making enquiries about Canon Richard Bagot, one time Rector of Fontstown. The Reverend Canon, whose father and grandfather in their day also had the living of Fontstown Parish, was a pioneer of dairy reform in 19th century Ireland. In fact he established the first creamery in Ireland in Hospital, Co. Limerick and published a handbook on creameries and a further book entitled “Easy Lessons in Dairying”. Cannon Bagot who died in 1894 at the relatively young age of 65 years is one of the great men of another generation whose contribution to Irish life is now almost forgotten. Some of you may remember his daughters, Elizabeth and Olivia, two elderly spinsters who lived at Shamrock Lodge on the Kildare Road into the 1950’s. I hope to write of Cannon Richard Bagot and the Bagot family in a future article but in the meantime today’s National newspapers bring news of another local person who has created a piece of history insofar as Athy is concerned.
Clare O’Flaherty who was born in Athy to Jim O’Flaherty and Carmel Glespen, formerly of Duke Street, has just been named as the new Irish Ambassador to Finland. She is the first Athy-born person to achieve such an important post within the Department of Foreign Affairs. Our congratulations go to Clare, whose sister Colette is a senior member of the National Library staff in Dublin and whose parents Jim and Carmel are living in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. Jim will be remembered as an official in the local Post Office for many years and a founder member of the Credit Union office in Athy before leaving to become Post Master in Greystones in the late 1960’s.