Carving a future out of mighty oak trees

I’m fortunate enough to live in close proximity to many oak trees, some gnarled and venerable giants.

Abundantly leafed at this time of year, in the winter months their intricate moss-festooned, branches seem to form some fantastic coral bed in the sky. The mighty oak is an impressive sight at any time of the year.

Ireland’s entry to the 2013 European Tree of the Year Contest was the King Oak that has grown on the Charleville Forest Estate in Tullamore for many hundreds of years.

To climb its lower branches, which touch the ground and stretch for an amazing 50 meters, was once regarded as a sign of great courage.

Many a romance is said to have started under the shelter of this monarch, and it’s generally accepted that King Oak is a descendant of Ireland’s original oak forests. King Oak won third place in the European-wide competition.

Following the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago, Ireland became a country of tundra, then grasslands, before finally becoming cloaked in forest. Woodlands dominated by oak and elm reached their peak at about 7,000 BC. These fertile forests were teeming with animal, bird and plant life.

But by the 19th century, climate change, invasive species and disease had all contributed to the decline of these extensive forests. Human disturbance had the most significant and prolonged impact. Clearance for agricultural land and the harvesting of timber for use as fuel dramatically reduced oak woodlands, as did the increasing demand for oak timber as the ultimate building material for boats and anything else where durability and strength were of paramount importance.

The oak can grow to 40m and has a possible lifespan of over 1,000 years. They are one of the largest and longest living broadleaf trees in Ireland, where there are two species of oak — the pendunculate oak and the sessile species, which is found in this area.

The sessile is the most common of the two and is considered to be the traditional Irish oak. Its beautiful wood patterning has made it popular across Europe.

When he moved to Ireland, Richard Demmy became passionate about oak and the possibilities it offered for constructing beautiful objects. He told me about his company “Irish Oak and Rope.”

*You moved over here from the UK didn’t you Richard?

>> “Yes, about 17 years ago. My wife is Irish, from Cork City; it was a complete turnaround for me. I’d previously worked managing public houses with 20 or more staff to supervise and I just walked away from it. I didn’t know anybody here, I had no references and I had no idea of what I was going to do.”

*So what exactly did you do?

>>“At first I drove trucks between here and Dublin, picking up whatever work I could. It was hard going and I was away from home a lot but we managed. We bought an old cottage in the Mallow area and we started to do it up. That took six or seven years. But then I decided that I couldn’t keep running up and down the road like I was. It was a decent living but I wanted to do something that I loved. And I didn’t want to work for someone else.”

*Did you always have an interest in woodwork?

>>“I have a long-standing love of carpentry and I’ve always made things for family and friends. The idea for the company came about 18 months ago when I’d made a bench I wanted to get engraved, but I couldn’t find anyone to do it. I drew up a business plan and decided that I’d combine the woodwork with my computer interests for the engraving process. I already knew that I wanted to work with oak because of its beauty and durability.”

* Where do you source your material?

>>“From Ballincollig, where they find some beautiful pieces for me. They know what I’m looking for: I make a range of items that are unique durable and personal for weddings, anniversaries and any special event in between.”

* You have quite an extensive catalogue already?

>> “Swings, small medium and double, they have proved to be very popular wedding gifts, bird boxes, benches, night lights, welly bootholders and more. I love the work and I haven’t had one complaint or return. Traditional crafts, quality work are a passion for me. I’d rather make nothing at all than churn things out. To see the pattern coming through on a lovely piece of oak is a real joy.”

*www.irishoakandrope.com


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