A Tipperary man who ventured on to private woodlands in Tuam without permission chopping down up to 22 ancient and priceless ash trees to make hurleys was found guilty by a jury yesterday.
During the trial which began at Galway Circuit Criminal Court on Tuesday the jury of five men and seven women heard that John Keane had entered on to the property of Libertas founder, Declan Ganley, cutting down eight ash trees and removing the stumps and that this occurred just two days after similar destruction was caused to 14 ash trees on property belonging to a neighbour.
Keane (33 ) of New Houses, Faugheen, Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, denied the two counts of theft in that he dishonestly appropriated the property of Thomas McHugh on June 10, 2009, at Moyne Park, Tuam, by severing from the land 14 lengths of ash tree and dishonestly appropriating the property of Declan Ganley on June 12, 2009, by severing from the land eight lengths of ash tree.
In giving evidence yesterday Keane continually vowed that he would not enter into anyone’s property to cut down trees without first receiving permission and that this had been granted by Ganley’s groundsman Kieran Quinn on the morning of June 10. During the trial it was also maintained that he had mistakenly strayed on to McHugh’s section of the vast woodland as he believed it was also owned by Mr Ganley.
Keane further explained that his family had been in the sawmill business for 25 years and that he regularly travelled around Ireland checking for ash trees in various estates and farms to make hurleys. Keane explained that on June 10 he spotted a “big wood”, proceeded up to the front door of Mr Ganley’s house, and was directed to the courtyard to speak to the receptionist who gave him Mr Quinn’s number. When Mr Quinn arrived Keane said they had a chat after which he received permission to enter the wood and cut the trees.
“I offered a few bob and hurleys for his children. He gave us permission and I got directions... We cut down the trees, loaded up the van, and went home. On the way I phoned Mr Quinn to say I would be back on Friday and I asked if it was OK and he said yes. I have phone records. I wouldn’t drive the whole way back if I had no permission.
“On the Friday we drove up, opened the gate, and drove into the field next to Mr Ganley’s house. Next minute I saw two or three men coming over and the guards flying up through the field... No way would I go into the woods without permission,” said Keane. Regarding the incident on Mr McHugh’s property Keane explained that he presumed “there was the one owner for the whole lot”. Under cross examination by State barrister Conor Fahy, Keane said that the stumps were taken to his saw mill in Tipperary to turn into slabs before being sold on to a hurley makers for a €800 payment.
When the trial began the jury was told that on both days the trees were cut down and the bottoms were removed and taken away in a Transit van, which was seen leaving by Mr McHugh who contacted the gardai. On June 12 McHugh received information that the same van had been spotted at the property of Mr Ganley. Garda Matt Marley explained the trees were cut very close to the ground and that the butt, measuring up to five feet, was taken away while the remainder of the trees were left where they fell. He explained that it is the butt of the tree that is used to make hurleys, and an estimated 20 to 30 hurleys could be manufactured from each stump.
Giving evidence Mr Ganley, who owns 60 acres of land which includes six to eight acres of ancient Irish woodland, said: “There was a lot of destruction caused, whole canopys were taken down... No permission was given by me or any of my employees. It would be known how much care is taken to maintain the woods. We have had a tree planting scheme for 15 years to bring the woodland back. I have had experts survey the trees. This is some of the oldest woodland in this part of the country, possibly over 500 years old,” he said. Mr Quinn also denied that permission was ever given to Keane to cut trees and said that he had asked Keane politely to leave pointing out the gate through which to exit.
After just 45 minutes of deliberation the jury returned a verdict of guilty on both counts and Keane was then remanded on continuing bail to May 25 for sentencing. Keane was also disqualified from driving between now and the sentencing hearing, and ordered to stay away from Galway unless for legal matters only