Sunday book review – Saving Eden by Kevin Corcoran

I hadn’t heard of The Gearagh until I received this book. I can be forgiven for that, perhaps, because it is in Ireland and essentially this superb site for wildlife was destroyed a few years before I was born, in the 1950s. This book describes what we lost and how we lost it. The Gearagh was western Europe’s last primeval river forest and as well as hosting rich wildlife its human communities depended on the forest to a large extent. Now I know of it, I mourn its loss.

It is said, that people passing by this riverine forest would stop in amazement, day and night, at the bird song that flowed out from its trees. I wonder whether they did? That’s the trouble with the species and places we have lost, you can’t go back to check how amazing they were and if you don’t have memories stored in your own brain then it all seems a bit like tall stories and hearsay. But maybe, quite likely, it wasn’t.

This is a fine book. I enjoyed meeting the author’s grandmother and her tales of the Gearagh prophecies, the culmination of one of which we encounter in the first chapter. The legend of Dorcha and Annu and their grappling for our view on how to live on Earth these days is a very strong second chapter. And then we’re off into the natural vegetation of Ireland, the history of land use change, the reasons for forest loss and the ultimate fate of this special site. The Gearagh was lost as it was flooded when two hydro-electric dams were built to supply Cork with electricity.

It’s difficult writing about nature that doesn’t exist anymore, imagine writing about a species that has been extinct for 100 years, but here the author makes it work. I now know about the lost marvel of The Gearagh and I feel sad that I cannot visit it myself. Kevin Corcoran does well to put the loss of The Gearagh into a wider context and goes some way to sketching out how we should live to minimise more losses in the future.

The current (April 2022) issue of British Wildife has an article by the author of this book with a summary of the issues covered here.

The cover? I’m not sure about the cover, and, in particular, that Otter doesn’t look quite Otterish enough for me. The illustrations by the author are very attractive, and adorn the book, but that detail from that illustration wouldn’t have been my choice of cover. I’d give it 6/10.

Saving Eden: the Gearagh and Irish nature by Kevin Corcoran is published by the Gearagh Press.

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10 Replies to “Sunday book review – Saving Eden by Kevin Corcoran”

  1. This is a strange review because, as Kevin Corcoran tells us, the Gearagh wasn’t destroyed. Some of it was lost as a result of damming the River Lee, but a significant part of it survived and natural regeneration has helped to ensure that it now occupies around 60% of its original area. I can vouch for its survival because I visited it a few years ago. It’s almost impossible to get into it which may be a good thing because the ground conditions make it a dangerous place.

    1. When I read ‘Gearagh’ it rang a bell, I was sure I’d heard of it in David Bellamy’s extraordinary ‘Bellamy’s Ireland’ which focussed on that country’s peatlands. Well I’ve just checked my treasured copy and indeed although as you say some was destroyed some wasn’t and there’s been significant regeneration – although I wonder if that’s yet as complex and rich as what was destroyed. The reason it was mentioned in Bellamy’s book turns your stomach. In 1984 he received a letter from a young conservationist called Timothy Hickey who alerted DB to the fact that the local council thought the surviving Gearagh looked scruffy so wanted to turn it into a large recreational lake – a form of ‘thinking’ that’s destroyed many wildlife sites in the past and is still holding back the development of new wildlife habitats in urban areas especially.

      Timothy was horrified by this and so put together detailed records of all the wildlife that lived there and presented this to the local councillors. As Timothy says their reaction to him was that he was a silly school kid who didn’t know what he was talking about. He didn’t give up, but wrote up even more detailed info and plans for the site to become an educational/study area. He realised if he could obtain some third party recognition for his work that would give it added credibility so he entered an Irish Young Scientist of the year competition with it. He won. That seemed to do the trick and finally he and the Gearagh got some support and the ludicrous plan for the recreational lake didn’t go ahead and clearly part of the Gearagh still survives.

      This always stuck in my mind as one of the most remarkable and uplifting stories of what an individual can achieve with reason, passion and determination. That gives the story of the Gearagh the slimmest of connections with my own. In 1991 I hitch hiked from Scotland to Eastern Europe to revisit Hungary where I’d participated in an International Conservation tour the year before. I happened to meet a very beautiful and enchanting Irish girl on her own environmental trip and trying to impress her I brought up this story. She had indeed heard of Timothy Hickey and the Gearagh, which didn’t surprise in the least, but unfortunately was far more impressed with him than yours truly.

    2. I agree – it’s a bit odd. Kevin Corcoran has an article in the the latest British Wildlife magazine that paints a more rosy picture of the recovery of the forest. Clearly, great damage was inflicted by an ill-thought-out hydroelectric scheme and the clear-felling of two-thirds of the forest, but the author describes the forest as ‘rising like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes…’ He even refers to it as ‘becoming a cause of notable celebration.’
      Perhaps the apparent contradiction stems from Corcoran’s article tending to blur the extent of the recovery that has so far taken place with what could occur in future, given the right conservation actions. Towards the end of the article, he talks about ‘creating an opportune moment for the restoration of the Gearagh, as the forest begins to make a comeback…’ and ‘the forest could be restored without any initial cost…’
      Perhaps Mark, like me, was left confused over just how much recovery has actually happened and how much is hope for the future.

      1. Alan – thanks Alan, but I wasn’t really confused as I didn’t read the British Wildlife article until I had reviewed the book (largely because it only arrived a few days before publication). The book takes a much less upbeat stance than the article – I was reviewing the book. See my comment to Stephen below.

    3. Yes, my understanding from the British Wildlife article was that the Gearagh survived the damming of the river and remains a remarkable place for wildlife. Corcoran highlights a number of threats still hanging over it but his final paragraph (in BW) is fairly optimistic for the future of Gearagh.

    4. Stephen – thanks for your review of my review of the book, but I’m guessing that you haven’t read the book but have read the British Wildlife article.

      If you do have the book in your hand, as I do, and have read it, as I have, then on the back cover you’ll find the words ‘This destruction is shockingly evident in The Gearagh … Western Europe’s last primeval river forest, which was submerged beneath the flood waters’ and ‘He reveals how the blind pursuit of progress wiped out The Gearagh’. In the first chapter a band of locals watch the floodwaters rise and the author writes about the ‘loss of our beloved homeland, The Gearagh river forest’ and ‘What had recently been a vibrant green forest, by day’s end is an expansive water storage reservoir’ and ‘… the forest that for centuries had provided sanctuary and sustenance … now completely obliterated’. There are many more such references amd a few to the ‘tattered fragments of the parts that still survive’. Jumping on many pages there are headings such as ‘Would the Gearaght be destroyed today?’ and ‘Any lessons learnt from the destruction of the Gearaght?’.

      It seems that the author, when writing his book, regarded the felling of a huge number of trees of a riverine forest, and then the damming of the river so that it backed up to form a reservoir, as the destruction of a pristine river forest system and as a huge loss.

      You get the picture? The book is about the destruction of a gem, the article is more upbeat. I was reviewing the book. It’s a good book – I recommend it.

  2. Assuming Corcoran’s more upbeat attitude in the BW article is not misplaced we can be glad that nature has seemingly fought back in the Gearagh at least to some extent. The initial inundation of the area by the hydroelectric scheme was undoubtedly an act of great ecological vandalism and the book (which I have not read yet) poses the question ‘would the Gearagh be destroyed today?’ It would be nice to think not but it is hard to be confident of that.

    On a worldwide scale the answer is clearly no – Mr Bolsonaro is gleefully presiding over the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest for example and he is hardly alone in his contempt for nature. Closer to home we have in the UK, a government that talks the talk regarding protecting biodiversity but whose actions do not live up to this talk. It places a huge reliance on the unproven concept of ‘net gain’ with respect to planning and has proved to be implacably in favour of development over nature in key conflicts between the two, such as the case of HS2. I don’t know enough about Irish government attitudes to have a feeling on how confident we should be that it would nowadays be a reliable guardian of the Gearagh or similar places but examples from elsewhere do not make me optimistic.

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