Ireland’s oldest tree branches back into history
It's lived through the Plantation of Ulster, the 1798 Rebellion and the loss of the Titanic.
And the oldest tree in Ireland is also a bit of a city slicker after making its home in Belvoir Forest in the heart of south Belfast.
Of course, when this oak was just a seedling in 1642 it was all countryside as far as the eye could see, apart from a small settlement in the marshy ford where the River Lagan met the River Farset.
The discovery that Belvoir Forest harbours some of the oldest documented oaks in Ireland was one of the landmark achievements of the long-running Forest of Belfast initiative which is due to be wound up towards the end of this year.
Eighteen years after the initiative was founded, Dr Ben Simon has taken voluntary redundancy and will oversee the final few projects before the Forest of Belfast bows out. He says the committee has agreed that the Forest of Belfast has now done all it can, especially as other organisations are now doing much of the same work.
The Forest of Belfast has seen the city landscape transformed into a greener, brighter place since the dark days of the Troubles, with 200,000 trees planted across parks, playing fields, streets, schools and factories and along roads and river verges.
“Nobody talked about biodiversity when I set up the job — now everybody is talking about it,” Dr Simon says.
“Tree planting has really transformed the look of the city and it’s been great to see all that energy going into tree planting. I drive along streets and see trees still flourishing and saying I planted that one and that one. It’s very rewarding. I hope the community groups we worked with feel they were making Belfast a more attractive place for people to live.
“As part of our work we did research. We discovered, during a survey of veteran trees at Belvoir, that it included some of the oldest trees identified anywhere in Ireland. The oldest dated back to 1642.
“These are native oaks that live right next to Belfast and they were the oldest trees anywhere in Ireland.”
Dr Simon says people started talking about improving the environment in Belfast in the 1970s, and by the 1980s, ground-breaking organisations, such as Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland and Ulster Wildlife Trust, started creating greener spaces.
“The environmental movement had started up and we were about grabbing hold of that momentum and trying to co-ordinate the tree planting efforts across Belfast,” he said.
“At one time, street trees were the responsibility of the Belfast Corporation, which was in charge of the whole of Belfast — hospitals, school, roads, bins and so on, but after the Troubles started everything changed and a lot of the functions were taken over by other organisations.
“Street trees got totally forgotten about as you had Roads Service engineers who built bridges and laid tarmac and worried about the traffic flow but didn’t have any expertise or interest in trees.”
But that grassroots approach had tiny community groups across the city planting trees and caring for them as they matured, and the face of Belfast is completely different now as a result.
“If you do your shopping around the city centre, there are trees pretty much everywhere in the city centre now — also on the Shore Road, Antrim Road, Grosvenor Road, Falls Road and Shankill Road — all those major arterial routes,” Dr Simon said.
“They really do link up the parks and open spaces and create green corridors which is fantastic, particular at this time of year when the leaves all start to come out.
“They transform the city — it’s a fantastic job and it’s great whenever you get local communities involved.
“There’s a sense of ownership and people realise the trees belong to them and want to keep them and look after them into the future.”
The organisation’s formula of working with small community groups to improve local areas has been overtaken by a decline in the number of community groups, he said— one of the reasons why Forest of Belfast is folding.
“The action on the ground is decreasing but maybe that’s part of the process of creating a new future for Northern Ireland.”
What has happened in its lifetime
368 years ago: Tree seedling appears, one year after the 1641 Rebellion is quelled
219 years ago: Society of United Irishmen is formed
212 years ago: 1798 Rebellion took place
149 years ago: Harland & Wolff shipyard founded
122 years ago: Belfast granted city status by Queen Victoria
104 years ago: Belfast City Hall completed
101 years ago: RMS Titanic’s keel laid
96 years ago: Outbreak of First World War
78 years ago: Parliament Building at Stormont built
68 years ago: 200 German Luftwaffe bombers attack the city in the Belfast Blitz
41 years ago: The Troubles erupt with sectarian rioting in Belfast
12 years ago: Good Friday Agreement