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Perfect storm reveals East Cork’s ‘subaquatic wonder’ on Youghal beach

From The Irish Examiner.

Ferocious tides and violent storms have literally rolled back the sands of time to disclose evidence of a vast forest floor dating thousands of years beneath a Youghal beach.

In recent weeks, the receding waters at Claycastle have delivered an enthralling glimpse of the ancient terrain before the rolling sea restored sands and secrecy to the subaquatic wonder.

Such unveilings are not uncommon to Ireland’s coastline and historical records have frequently referenced the East Cork town’s submerged forest.

This spring’s exposure, however, has been particularly apparent with the gnarled trunks rising through the Claycastle sand and branch and leaf patterns clearly outlined from underneath.

Local media outlet Youghalonline has spawned tens of thousands of hits when hosting footage of what has been termed the “drowned forest”.

Some viewers posted their own footage, including Cork woman Jessica Burke who visited the area with her 14-year-old daughter Kiera.

Ms Burke likened the experience to “being in the presence of something magical”.


Jessica Burke likened the experience of seeing the remnants of the vast forest floor to ‘being in the presence of something magical’. Picture: Jessica Burke

She describes the wood’s texture as “quite soft”, and says seeing the patterns of twigs and leaves on the sand “gave me goosebumps and a feeling of utter gratitude — it was incredible”.

Youghal derives its name from the Gaelic “Eochaill”, meaning “yew wood” in reference to the area’s historically predominant forestry. Yew wood — strong, flexible and toxic — was favoured by druids for wand making.

It remains unclear if yew trees alone lie beneath Claycastle but history suggests not.

In 1774, The Ancient and Present State of the County and City (Volume 1 Book 2), by Charles Smith refers to the strand having been “entirely divested of all its sand and gravel” by “violent high winds” that exposed “quantities of roots of various trees”, including “fir and hazel”.

On a visit to Youghal in 1903, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland recorded that “an immense submerged forest lies underneath the strand, which extends from ‘Clay Castle’ towards Knocadoon”.

Ferocious tides disclosed evidence of a forest floor dating back thousands of years beneath Claycastle beach. Picture: Jessica Burke

The Irish Historic Towns Atlas/Youghal by chartered engineer David Kelly and professor of archaeology Tadhg O’Keefe, reflects that yew trees may have dominated the higher reaches of Youghal even up to the Middle Ages, but concludes that “earlier evidence of pre-glacial sea levels in the Youghal estuary” would suggest that exposed roots date from “a pre-glacial forest”.

French archaeologist Aurelien Burlot, now living in nearby Killeagh, explains that “the forest actually lies beneath a bog that submerged it in more recent times, archaeologically speaking”.

Indeed, The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, published in 1910 by P W Joyce, refers to “an ancient bog” that was sometimes swept away to expose “roots and other parts of trees”. Joyce suggests the forest “was probably submerged during a slight submergence of the south of Ireland during the Mesolithic period (7,000-4,000 BC)”.

His observation was included in the archaeological impact assessment report conducted for the site of recovery/transfer and sludge drying facility at Youghal in 2004.

Historians also recall curious artifacts including flint tools having occasionally been delivered by the exposed landscape. They included weapons, rings, bracelets and, on at least one occasion, what was described as “a pure gold dress fastener”, from the late Bronze Age (1100-700 BC) that was discovered in 1800.

The object comprised two bell-shaped hollow cups connected by a curved shank measuring about 15cm, though. The purpose of the artefact is unknown, as are its whereabouts, but an illustration is documented in the National Library of Ireland.

Mr Burlot believes further such items probably lie hidden in the bog below the sands. “They may have been buried in the bog for different reasons” he attests, “but particularly for safekeeping or as part of rituals.”

Claycastle beach represents a small section of what may be two miles or more of subaquatic forests stretching to Knockadoon Head.

Nowadays, there is a curious counter-balance at play on the beach. On the one hand, there is “a lot more sand and higher water levels than in past centuries”, as Mr Burlot remarks. On the other, the submergence of wooden groynes means the sand and shingle is more easily displaced.

In keeping with history, nature has again restored its camouflage, until the next ‘perfect storm’ of wind and tide resurrects the past.

Mr Burlot harbours a particular hope for that eventuality: “I don’t know if it has ever been done, but it would be interesting to have some tree stumps scientifically dated to see how much history is down there.”