West Cork grandmother convicted of stealing wood is a 'conscientious protector with a chainsaw in one hand and a burning log in the other'

West Cork grandmother convicted of stealing wood is a 'conscientious protector with a chainsaw in one hand and a burning log in the other'
Sionad Jones, outside the courthouse.Picture: Jim Coughlan

The 61-year-old grandmother convicted of stealing wood from a Coillte forest to burn at home was described by the sentencing judge as “a conscientious protector with a chainsaw in one hand a burning log in the other.” 

Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin said that a lot had been heard during the trial about the defendant saving the world. 

“We heard about mother earth. We heard about the bees and bunnies. This lady goes out with a chainsaw in one hand and a burning log in the other. Where is the mother earth in that? 

"How does that save the world?” 

The jury found Sionad Jones guilty of the charge of stealing wood.

The judge said he would adjourn sentencing until October 30 to see how her undertaking to stop stealing Coillte wood would go in the meantime. 

The judge required her to give that undertaking.

“She put her beliefs to the jury and they were rejected. If she does not give it over (stealing wood) she will end up in jail. I am not a platform for idle political engagement,” he said.

Asked if she understood the undertaking, Ms Jones said, “I am not to do that again without the permission of Coillte. I understand. I take that seriously.” 

The judge made it clear: “You are not to cut wood, you are not to take it, you are not to burn wood from today.” 

Sionad Jones said, ‘Yes.’ 

The judge noted from Garda Fintan Coffey that she had previous convictions related to cannabis including a two-year suspended sentence in 2012 for cultivating it – at the same site where she cut down Coillte trees – and having it for sale or supply. 

Judge Ó Donnabháin said the defendant had given an undertaking to have no more to do with cannabis eight years ago and the information from gardaí was that she had complied with the undertaking.

Ms Jones, 61, of Maughnaclea, Kealkil, Bantry, County Cork, pleaded not guilty to charges of causing criminal damage to spruce trees belonging to Coillte and dishonestly appropriating wood. 

The charges specified that 250 trees were felled and 250 more were ringbarked.

Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin said to the jury, “As a result of legal discussion, the contents of which need not concern you, it is my function to find the accused not guilty on the first count. 

"You will have to determine the second count – the theft count. I did what I did because of law. Do not speculate about it.” 

Brendan Kelly, barrister for the prosecution, said to the jury, “A person is guilty of theft if he or she deprives the owner of it. 

"You will remember Sionad Jones said to Garda Coffey she had taken Coillte wood, that she used it, she knew it was against the law. 

"She accepted this in evidence. Garda Coffey said she had a substantial pile of wood she was burning. Donal Murphy (from Coillte) told you she was cutting Coillte wood and had no permission to do this.

“It is overwhelming from the point of view of the DPP. 

"It is her view she had a right to do it for environmental reasons. That is tantamount to saying that a neighbour does not like your trees, they are not environmentally friendly and that they have a right to cut them and take them away and burn them. 

"That is in effect what she is asking. There is no basis for it.” 

Peter O’Flynn, defence barrister, referred to the question of dishonesty in her alleged theft of wood and he said the law provided for a person having a claim of right in good faith.

“Sionad Jones has been described as eccentric, colourful, passionate but I really don’t think dishonesty is a word you could apply to Sionad Jones. 

"She believed she was leaving the forest in a better condition, replacing the trees with better trees. Coillte were aware of her activities. 

Sionad Jones, outside the courthouse.
Sionad Jones, outside the courthouse.

"She had been seen earlier doing what she was doing and there was never an attempt by Coillte to stop that. She was not doing it furtively. 

"She was doing it openly. She admitted to the guards she was doing it for 30 years. She believed the law entitled her to do it.” 

Judge Ó Donnabháin said to the jury before they deliberated, “She claims an ancient law of foraging. As a matter of law, there is no ancient law that allows her to do what she did. 

"There is no entitlement for a person living in the valley to take the wood without permission of the owner.

“She said she was doing it for many years and no one told her to stop. 

"If I take something from a shop on Monday and no one stops me, am I allowed to take something again on Friday. I think not.” 

The 61-year-old woman from Wales described herself as a grandmother and said she had been living in West Cork for 32 years. 

She said that when she arrived in Maughnaclea it was a beautiful valley where she foraged with her child for nuts, berries, firewood, turf, mushrooms and so forth. 

She described a richly biodiverse landscape that included orchids, bilberries, insects, birds, lizards and frogs.

She became distressed when Coillte planted what she described as a hundred acres of an American tree, Sitka Spruce, which she said grew to create a dark forest floor which killed off the biodiverse environment.

Sionad Jones, outside the courthouse.Picture: Jim Coughlan
Sionad Jones, outside the courthouse.Picture: Jim Coughlan

“I was shocked, I was outraged, I was appalled. I started cutting a few spruce trees to let light into the bilberry bushes. 

"First I was cutting to keep biodiversity alive. As the clearing got bigger we needed broadleaf trees. I was inspired to plant trees. The valley in which I live was denuded,” Sionad Jones testified.

“It is not just for me. I am concerned about the environment we are leaving for future generations, for the tress, for the insects, for the birds, for the flowers. 

"I am a conscientious protector. I am not a criminal. I am acting to protect the ecology and for the broadleaf trees of Ireland to have a place to live,” she said.

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