Exasperated and confused by the worrying sectarian confrontations on the streets of Belfast in 1971, a leader writer of the Belfast' Telegraph suggested at the time that Irish History should no longer be taught in schools. No doubt, he had in mind large chunks of didactic yet impassioned Irish History - based on feuds and wars, dominated by heroes bereft of feelings, foibles and even families. Realising that we have been passed on a somewhat richer heritage and by-passing the inference that schools alone pass on the secrets of our island's past, I knuckled down to my first involvement with Irish History teaching when guiding a team of eight boys who were assembling a project for a Trees and Man project competition.
The competition for Primary and Secondary Schools was announced in May 1971 and was designed to fit neatly into the 1971-72 school year. Schools participating were encouraged to correlate as many subjects as possible within the project. The competition was a "winner" from the outset. Well organised and planned by officials of the Ulster Countryside Committee and the Ministry of Development, the competition gave the schools a practical outlet for valuable knowledge gained in the preceding Conservation Year. The advance warning of the project was prudent since teachers nowadays have to plan the work of a school-year in good time.
The area chosen for the study was really the catchment area of the school, the town of Lurgan and the area between the town and the southern shore of Lough Neagh. Since some of this land was already part of Craigavon and the remainder under the planning control of the Craigavon Commission, the title at the outset was chosen to be "Trees and Man in the Lurgan and Craigavon Region". The study of man's dependence and usage of trees was the aim of the project.
A large pan of the real research was carried on outside the classroom and school library. Visits to factories, furniture manufacturers, sawmill and individuals were arranged by the teacher prior to the boys' visits. The pupils, with the Headmaster's permission, went on these visits unaccompanied and the outings proved to be a greater stimulus towards learning than would praise for the teacher or a first prize in the competition. The environmental group, in an attempt to provide original material rather than copied statistics, organised observational visits to all the town's housing estates, to many pre-war streets and to the two large parks in the town and, on the basis of this survey, compiled a fairly accurate survey of tree life in the Lurgan area.
The pupils responsible for the Historical aspect of the project studied the Environmentalist's Report and maps and began to research the area's tree population using The Map of Ireland by Baptista Boazio, 1599, A.D.; Map of County Armagh by John Rocque 1760 A.D.; and early Ordnance Survey maps and memoirs.
The historical aspect of trees in the Lurgan and Craigavon area is fairly well documented. Mr. W. Crawford of the Public Record Office has written many informative articles on Brownlow's replanting of his Manor. Copies of Brownlow's leases to his tenants, stipulating the type and number of trees to be planted, may be examined in Armagh Museum. Details of pollen analysis relevant to the area were kindly given by Dr. A. G. Smith of the Queen's University. The area abounds with place names linked directly to the project, e.g. Derrycor - The Oakwood of the herons; Lough Gullion - The Holly Lake. Dean Mooney's "Placenames of Seagoe explained" was an invaluable asset for this work. Just a few days before the closing date of the competition, a local man with a deep interest in both local history and local affairs discovered a very old and torn booklet which contained an extract from the Seagoe Parish Vestry Register of 1708, referring to a Vestry decision to implement an Act of Parliament dated 1698 (Act 10, William 3, C. 12, 1698). The Act promulgated the planting and preserving of trees and woods. Realising that this document would help and augment the school entry, this kind man brought the booklet to the school and asked permission to discuss the document with the boys.
Some interesting historical material was collected on three afternoons spent in the country area between Lurgan and the Lough Neagh shore. An elderly man from the Montiaghs described in detail the cutting of the bog fir using the heavy fir hatchet with a head weighing almost ten pounds. He talked to the boys about male and female fir implying that the fir-cutters could differentiate between the firs according to their grain and softness. The school minibus was used on these occasions and was ideal for transporting a group too large for a private car and for housing the "finds", pieces of grey and black bog oak, petrified wood and often small living trees taken from the moss. Many pebbles and stones typical of the area were collected and were identified by Dr. John Preston of The Queen's University who also added detailed notes of the formation of Lough Neagh.
The project was assembled and presented on a table with a large backing board constructed by the project team. Since the Historical and Industrial groups had built many models relevant to the project in their normal woodwork class, shelves were added to the backing board. One really interesting item on display was a beautiful sample of steam-bent ash which the Sirrom Furniture Manufacturers use in the making of bedside chairs. The ash is found locally and the steam bending is carried on in the Lurgan factory.
The most important information gathered during the year was presented in three folders entitled Historical, Industrial and Environmental. Each folder comprised twenty pages of 22" x 15" good quality paper housed in a soberly decorated cardboard cover. Each page was a unit and contained some written information supported by maps, photographs and diagrams. Prize-giving came at the end of a remarkably interesting and educational day of lectures at the Ulster Museum. Pupils, teachers, local council officials, school inspectors and forestry managers were treated to seven lectures by men to whom trees matter in a very big way. Most lectures were supported by excellent colour slides and the wealth of knowledge imparted throughout the day left one with the impression that man's dependence on trees is only beginning, not ending. As if to emphasise this, all award-winning schools were presented on behalf of the Ministry' of Agriculture with a young Sequoia tree which could live for upwards of two thousand years. Might we visualise an Irish History lesson in school in 3974 A.D.
The project was displayed at the Information Centre, Oxford Island, in January 1974