Monday, September 19, 2016

Our European Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

  © 2016    by Victor Sullivan.

If this Ash Tree could talk! 

A fine old tree stands proudly at the east end of our garden, just as it did when my wife and I bought the property in 1970. The large, overgrown garden had been neglected for decades and it was some months before we succeeded in clearing an access path to the farthest end and finally touch the massive trunk of our Ash tree. We had been advised that the tree was the subject of a Preservation Order, a matter of little interest to us as we had no intention of felling it for firewood. 

During summer, the view towards the East from my bedroom window is partly obscured by our Ash tree's dense foliage but in winter, through its bleak, barren, lower branches, the impressive main entrance to Cork City Gaol can be seen. No longer operating as a prison, it is now a popular Tourist attraction, nevertheless it has a gloomy history. The very spot that I can see from my bed is the precise location of numerous public executions in the mid- 1800s. Such  events were a popular source of free entertainment and attracted large crowds of enthusiastic onlookers. Some mothers brought their children to witness the formalities and thus be memorably warned that a similar fate would await them if they were disobedient or misbehaved. Placing bets on how many kicks the hanged victim would make before expiring was a common practice at public executions. 

The date and time of each execution was advertised locally and consequently it was advisable to arrive early in order to be assured of a good position for a clear view of the performance. Not everyone wished to be 'too close' to the Hangman, some preferring a more distant over-view of all the onlookers and the focus of their attention outside the prison's main door.

Such an enthusiast was a small man of considerable athletic dexterity and grim determination, Doney. Doney loved the public Executions. He boasted that he had never missed one. He claimed to have established viewing rights from what he considered to be the best viewing position, high in his Ash tree to the south-west of the Cork City Gaol. It was then the only substantial tree in the area that was close to the front of the prison. 
Doney's tree was the much younger embodiment of what is now our respected Ash tree. 

The 'Respectable residents' who lived in the area near the Prison raised an official objection to the City Authorities complaining, not about the executions in public, but about the low class of people attracted by such spectacles. Their complaint was eventually taken seriously and in 1865 the last public execution took place outside the main door of the Cork City Gaol, presumably keenly observed by Doney from 'our' ash tree. Thereafter, executions were carried out inside the high walls of the prison, hidden from view. The 'Respectable residents' of Sunday's Well were no longer bothered by unsavory crowds of gapers and our Ash tree was never again required by Doney. 

© 2016    Victor Sullivan.  

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