Yeats and Forestry

I found this interesting report from the Forest Service Department of Agriculture that catalogues the precipitous loss of Ireland’s forest coverage over the last few centuries. The loss can be blamed in part on English colonization and the establishment of large plantations in the middle of the sixteenth century. Large-scale exportation of timber to be used as fuel and raw materials in English industrial centers since the early seventeenth century also played a role. Finally, the quadrupling of the Irish population from 1700 to 1840 undoubtedly put a strain on resources.
I believe statistics such as these must have had a profound impact on Yeats’s psyche during his middle and transitional periods. Primeval forests and the mysticism associated with them are vital to those who wish to dredge up an image of an ideal Celtic past. Perhaps the final straw was the Land Act of 1881, which allowed middle class Irish to parcel up the estates held by the aristocracy for centuries. Before passing over the title deeds, many pragmatic aristocrats clear-cut their gardens and forests for quick profits. Those trees that survived the initial sweep were scalped and sold by their new middle class owners. This means that, all over the country, orchards like Augusta Gregory’s Seven Woods were quickly disappearing. The report cites that in 1908, the Departmental Committee on Irish Forestry estimated that only 1.5% of the land mass of Ireland was covered with substantial forest. These few acres were what the landed gentry managed to hold onto after the Land Act. This loss must undoubtedly be what Yeats refers to as “Tara uprooted” in “In the Seven Woods” (line 6). It is interesting that his departure from Romantic ideals somewhat coincides with the loss of forests in Ireland. He shifts toward the political as the mythical is taken away from him.

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