One oak that seems to have its chance of survival severely curtailed is still triumphantly with us and is worth a tiny detour off the Armagh to Loughgall road. The small settlement of Salter’s Grange is marked by a hilltop Church of Ireland church with a soaring spire (probably on the site of an older church) with its attendant conifers.
Downhill from the church on the Armagh side stands a roadside oak – never a good place for a tree, with half the roots covered in impermeable tarmac.
Approach from one side, and this appears to be a normal healthy oak. From the other, its nature as a survivor is revealed all too clearly – the trunk is completely hollow and open to the outside world.
There is a great opening in the trunk, at least 10’ high and 3’ across. The inside has been burnt, the hollow extending up into the base of the main branches. The only wood left is a shell of live wood under the bark.
A family of jackdaws nest within the tree, and are clearly possessive of it. Just to one side, a badger track across the road leads into fields. Around the base, cow parsley waves its delicate flower-heads, speckled wood butterflies flit among grasses: one roadside tree, a whole ecosystem.
After the tree had been recognised, growing peacefully in its rural roadside setting, more of its grim history was unearthed.
The tree had been known for many years as “The Bloody Oak”. It stands at the junction of the Bloody Loaning (lane) which leads to a ford on the Callan river, a tributary of the Blackwater. Here on 14th August 1598 Marshall Bagenal, in charge of the English forces based at Newry, was marching to the relief of a hard-pressed English garrison at Portmore (Blackwatertown). His force was completely overwhelmed and he was slain with 2,000 of his men at the battle of the Yellow Ford.
The Bloody Loanen was so called because it was filled by bodies of dead and injured soldiers – fugitives were hunted down and killed in the shadow of the oak, a mature tree even then. The dead branch of the tree is held to have died either because of bullets embedded in it at that time – and contemporary bullets are reported to have been removed from that part of the tree – or because it died ‘in protest’ having been used for hanging. The branch, recorded as being dead from root to tip for at least a hundred years, pointed west along the Bloody Loanen.
It is hard to picture such death and cruelty in what is now a quiet rural lane, but the tree certainly has an air of suffering. Perhaps it was burned in retribution for the part it unwittingly played in such a savage battle.
Against the odds, it survives and flourishes.