Ella McSweeney: Tomnafinnoge is a mere sliver of what was Wicklow’s Amazon forest

The battle to save it began in the 1970s. What transpired could be scripted as a blockbuster mystery film

We drop down by the side of the road into Tomnafinnoge Wood, my dog and I, along the wet valley floor of the river Derry. The grey stillness of January is behind us; these are the brighter days of winter’s epilogue.

The fact is, this 67-hectare (165-acre) Wicklow gem shouldn’t still be here. The battle to save it started in the 1970s with two local men, Johnny Couchman and Paddy O’Toole, and what transpired could be scripted as a blockbuster mystery film starring historical royalty, heads of government, rock musicians and people deciding to do risky things in the middle of the night.

Tomnafinnoge is primarily mature sessile oak, with acorns attached directly to the twigs. The bark, which acts as a blanket to insulate trees from freezing during winter, is home to liverworts, mosses and crusts of lichen, which form colourful scabs.

I’m walking in the last remaining genetic link to the vast 36,420-hectare (90,000-acre) Watson-Wentworth-Fitzwilliam Coolattin estate near Shillelagh, which fell into the hands of the Earl of Fitzwilliam in 1782 following the death of his uncle. Tomnafinnoge is a mere sliver of what was, by any account, Wicklow’s Amazon forest.


For centuries, these oaks and hazels were coppiced to supply renewable wood for the woodcutters, cleavers, barkers, tanners, ditchers, hedgers and squarers who worked here. A coppiced tree – where the main trunk is harvested, leaving the stems to sprout anew from the stump – can produce fresh wood for hundreds of years.

It took locals 20 years after Haughey’s commitment to secure the fate of Tomnafinnoge, which the State finally bought for the people

I spot globs of gelatinous frogspawn, which gather like mounds of costume jewellery in the watery spaces bordered by last autumn’s fallen oak leaves. These rufous leaves lie multilayered as if forming a queue towards their descent into the undergrowth, aided by earthworms, millipedes and the billions of soil microbes that will transform them into forest soil, ready to feed new life.

In 1977, Lady Fitzwilliam put Coolattin Estate, including 243 hectares (600 acres) of ancient oaks, up for sale. The Irish Government declined to buy it, and Johnny Couchman pleaded with her not to sell the woods with the house. He said there was nothing of the scale like it in Ireland, with three-quarters of the land wooded. But it was sold, and one by one, the oaks were clear-felled under licence, their logs exported for veneering. Thousands of old trees, some more than 300 years old, gone.

By the early 1980s, all that was left was the 67-hectare (165-acre) “Coillte Tom na Feannóige”, the wood of the hooded crow. But an application to cut it down was in process, and Couchman and O’Toole knew that this was their last chance. They invited the then newly anointed taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, to visit. Appalled by what he witnessed during a helicopter ride over the felled woods, he gave them the undertaking to do all he could to stop the destruction.

On my visit, the quietness is opened up by a jay, which lives up to its Irish name, “scréachóg choille”, screecher of the woods. Wrens, with their stubby upturned tails, flit around. In the 1970s, nightjar and corncrake would have been heard, but they’re long gone. There’s consolation in the arrival of new life; in 2009, the signature drumming sound of the great spotted woodpecker was first recorded here, and they’ve prospered.

Flashes of auburn high up in the crown of an oak catch my attention: it’s two red squirrels bouncing between branches like arboreal monkeys. In 2012, a young doctoral researcher working in the wood, Emma Sheehy, reported the first evidence of pine martens eating invasive grey squirrels. Having them on the menu eases the pressure on our native reds.

It took locals 20 years after Haughey’s commitment to secure the fate of Tomnafinnoge, which the State finally bought for the people. The epic fight was lively, involving youngsters protesting alongside U2′s The Edge and a creative collective called Artists for Oak. O’Toole and a group of 40 campaigners decided to break into then privately owned wood at 4am to surreptitiously remove 3,000 tags from the oaks, with one goal: to frustrate the felling process. It worked.

The river Derry runs parallel to the path as it travels to join the Slaney, and it’s my tranquil companion in this damp haven. Deeper in the woods, I see piles of logs blanketed with a dense covering of green moss, so vibrant it appears fluorescent. Behind are rhododendron, that flamboyant invasive scourge. According to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the prospects of sessile oak woodlands in Ireland are pretty grim.

The vernal morning sun lights up the wood. As I walk, I think about the recent controversial news of Coillte’s financial deal with UK asset management company Gresham House to buy 50,585 hectares (125,000 acres) for forestry, in a move deemed essential for Ireland to reach its climate action goals, and how the Irish State licensed the death of so many thousands of ancient, magnificent trees here just a few decades ago.

Ella McSweeney is a journalist and broadcaster