This year, 2018, is a special year for Feasta as it celebrates 20 years since a group of far-sighted individuals got together to found a new organisation – Feasta , the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability.
But why did they choose the word ‘Feasta’ and what is its significance, and what does it really mean?
The word ‘feasta’
The word ‘feasta’ is an Irish language adverb meaning ‘henceforth’ or ‘from now on’. It is very closely associated with a particular lament/poem and song called ‘The Lament for Kilcash’ or Caoineadh Chill Chais. The full text is given in the Appendix below. The word ‘feasta’ is contained in the first line of the lament:
‘Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad, tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár…
…”What will we do without wood, now that the last of the forests are down…”.
Although the poem/lament/song and particularly the first line is quite well known in Ireland, and while it is relatively simple, the significance behind the words is profound, as it touches deeply into Irish history, the tragedy of a lost culture and language, and the symbiosis of the Irish people with trees and nature for thousands of years.
The association with trees is particularly appropriate for Feasta the organisation, as trees have become an inherent part of the solution to our planet’s survival.
The Lament for Cill Chais
The Castle of Cill Chais (Kilcash) was one of the great houses of the Butler family in Co. Tipperary, at the foot of Sliabh na mBan (the Women’s Mountain) until well into the eighteenth century. The lament, written in early 18th century, mourns the death of Margaret Butler, Viscountess Iveagh [“Lady Veagh”] and the loss of the trees on the estate. In the lament she is referred to as the ‘deagh-bhean’ or ‘good lady’ Her (second) husband was Colonel Thomas Butler of Kilcash Castle, a nominal Protestant who connived at her sheltering of Catholic bishops and priests there.
Some sources attribute the poem to Father John Lane, a Parish Priest of Carrick-on-Suir who was educated for the priesthood by Lady Iveagh, and died in 1776. However other sources attribute it to the poet Pádraig Ó Néill.
It was common for the English and Scottish settlers to cut down the forests so that the Irish couldn’t take refuge in them and raid the planters who had taken their land.
The air for Cill Chais appears to be that of Bliadhin ‘sa taca so phós mé (This time twelve months I married), collected by George Petrie in Clare and published in 1855.
There are many recordings of the lament, both instrumental and sung. Examples are given at the end of this article.
The significance of trees in the Irish psyche
Ireland’s mild climate and the influence of the Gulf Stream make for a very suitable habitat for trees. In fact, the island was once covered by great forests, however these were gradually reduced over the centuries, so that by the time of Irish independence in 1922, less than one percent of the land was covered by woodland.
Before the various ‘plantations’ (sic) of English and Scottish settlers in Ireland, trees were the main source of raw materials, for the supply of energy, charcoal, food (such as nuts, fungi, fruit and berries etc.), medicines, weapons, tools etc.
Trees also have a special and deeper significance for Irish culture. A special alphabet called Ogham was created sometime between the second and the fourth centuries. It was the first form of writing in the Irish language, and reflects the special role of trees in everyday life. Its remnants can still be seen on standing stones in their hundreds across the island and in places where the Irish settled (Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Cornwall). The letters were cut as a series of strokes or notches into the edge of the stone. (Most likely trees themselves were used as a medium as well.)
Each group of markings denoted a letter, and each letter had a name. Thus for example, the word for the letter D was Dair (oak) and for B – Beith (birch). Initially there were eight letters corresponding to some of the most common native Irish trees, but other letters were also added.
Research has shown that the order of the letters is based on a seasonally arranged sequence of the trees modified by the classifications of Latin grammar. Ogham is read from the bottom up – as if the reader were climbing a tree!
The very words for an Irish person ‘Gael’, and the Irish language ‘Gaeilge’, are most likely linked to the Ogham alphabet. Niall Mac Coitir in his beautiful book ‘Irish Trees – myths, legends & folklore’ suggests that the Irish enthusiastically borrowed the word ‘gwyddel’ from the Welsh to describe themselves. A plausible explanation is that ‘gwyddel’ means ‘one who has knowledge of trees’, and ‘gwyddeleg’ became the language of scholars, knowledgable of trees. In modern Irish these have become ‘Gael’ and ‘Gaeilge.’
Trees were, and still are included in a large number of placenames and even people’s names too. Of the very many examples of placenames: Cill Dara (Kildare – the Church of the Oak); An tIúr (Newry – the Yew Tree); Ros Beithe (Rossbehy – the wooded promontory of birch). Even individual’s given names and family names in Ireland often have direct links with trees, for example Darragh/Daire ( dair – oak); Cullen (Cuileann -holly; Skehan (sceach – whitethorn); Drennan (Draighneán – blackthorn).
The fall of the woods of Ireland
The context of the first line of Cill Chais must therefore be seen from the perspective of English forces and settlers at the time. Accounts of the military campaigns of the English forces of Queen Elizabeth I at the end of the 16th century make it quite clear that Irish forests were a considerable natural barrier to troop movements as well as a place for concealment and refuge for the Irish armies. In 1585, following the years of the Desmond Rebellion, Sir John Perrot, President of the council of Munster and thus Queen Elizabeth’s representative in the Province, suggested that the woods be cut to “deprive the rebels of their place of succour”. It was about this time, too, that English settlers were planted in Munster on lands confiscated from the natives. These settlers started the clearance of the forests for their own security and prosperity.
Thus the last of the great forests were deliberately burned down by the English military as part of a “scorched earth” campaign under commanders such as Walter Devereux, Richard Bingham and Humphrey Gilbert.
Colonisers made vast sums of money with no regard for sustainability or the country. Jonathan Swift wrote “there is not another example in Europe of such a prodigious quantity of excellent timber cut down in so short a time with so little advantage to the country either in shipping or building .’’
The parallels with the enclosure movement in the UK and elsewhere are striking.
In 1800 only 2% of the land of Ireland was under forest cover and by 1900 it was down to 1%. Fuel shortages during the first World War reduced that figure to below 1%. Furthermore the establishment of the Land Commission in 1881, which required landlords to sell their estates to their tenants meant that many simply “cashed in” their woodlands prior to the sale of their estate. After independence more landlords “cashed in” and the process continued right up to the 1980s.
Since Irish independence in 1922, the Government introduced a policy of re-forestation, which largely favoured conifers, and sitka spruce in particular. The cycle of plant/thin/clearfell/replant and a focus on forestry from a short-term economic perspective, has led to significant opposition by landowners to this type of forestry in recent times. However there has been a recent shift in policy leading to an emphasis on continuous cover and close to nature native broadleaf woodlands.
The yearning in the lament is at least as relevant today as when it was written, given current ecological and social conditions. Feasta is striving to strengthen both ecological and cultural resilience and indeed the fabric of community in Ireland and elsewhere.
The full Lyrics of the Lament
There are many versions of the lyrics in Irish (often by author unknown) and also multiple translations into English. Below is a version which is quite common:
Caoine Cill Cháis
|Lament for Kilcash|
Now what will we do for timber,
This verse translation into English is by Thomas Kinsella
taken from the book An Duanaire 1600 -1900 Poems of the Dispossesed.
There is an English rendering of the song by “Frank O’Connor”
Courtesy of: An Duanaire by Tuama & Kinsella, 1981
Courtesy of Jack & Vivian Hennessey, IrishPage.com, (8.08) September 9, 2011 .
References & Further Information
The Woods of Ireland by Caesar Litton Falkiner
Irish Trees – Myths, Legends & Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir
John Flood of Dublin, who details the story of Kilcash in his book: John Flood & Phil Flood, Kilcash, A History, 1190-1801 (Dublin: Geography Publications, 1999)
Coordinates of Cill Chais: 52°22′9″N 7°31′30″W / 52.36917°N 7.525°W / 52.36917; -7.525
Some Forestry/Woodland resources
Possible themes for further exploration:
– How woodlands were managed pre-colonialism; was there a ‘commons’ approach in Ireland?
– Orwellian language used by colonialists
– The pressures on the Irish government that led to the bad choices it made about forestry in the past
– The role of forestry/agroforestry in creating resilient communities particularly on marginal land – a renaissance?
– Forestry NGOs’ current work on improving forestry in Ireland
– How significant are ‘indigenous’ languages in community resilience?
– Does the worldwide collapse in biodiversity relate to the accelerating numbers of minority languages also disappearing
Featured image: Ogham writing on standing stone, seen on the right-hand side of the picture. Author: Jessica Spengler. Source; https://www.flickr.com/photos/wordridden/456986609/
Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.