Photos by Caroline Brady

When award-winning tree sculptor Tommy Craggs was commissioned by Dublin City Council to transform an ailing Monterey cypress into a sculpture, he had no idea what he was in for.

The tree, located at the north-east corner of St Anne’s Park, was to be transformed into a piece of art that reflected both the creatures of the park and the biodiversity of nearby Bull Island.

“I got a shock,” Craggs says. He’d never sculpted anything of this size. “I felt like going home.”

It’s a good thing he didn’t, because what he’s created in the three weeks (112 hours) he’s been working on it, is nothing short of a masterpiece.

With deft precision, Craggs has carved a rich tapestry of woodland creatures and birds into the tree, which towers over the coast road and looks over the flat marshland of Bull Island.

The details in the fur and feathers of the animals – which include sparrow hawks, hooded crows, herons, owls peeking out from holes, hares, badgers and bears – seem all the more masterful because the work was done not with chisels but with a chainsaw.

At the very top, ten metres up, almost lording it over the other creatures, is a magnificent swan.

Craggs has no overall vision of how the tree will look when he sets out. Working with just the theme of the park and the nature reserve of Bull Island, he only knows what animal or bird he’ll create when he removes the bark and sees what shape is there in the wood.

Craggs, who hails from a town just outside Newcastle, England, worked in forestry before making the move into sculpture nine years ago.

He says he’s won the England Open Chainsaw Carving Championship twice, including in 2011, Japan’s carving championship last year, and has been runner-up in numerous other competitions in places like Canada and Germany.

While chatting to Craggs up on the scaffolding surrounding the tree as he finishes up for the day on Monday evening, it’s obvious his sculpture is a big hit.

People walking along the fringe of the park stop and gaze up. People stopped in traffic do the same. A woman on a bike crosses the coast road to have a better look. “It’s amazing,” she calls up.

Earlier that day, when I first arrived, a little girl was waiting outside the railings of the site while Craggs was up on the scaffolding, taking pictures of his work on her phone.

He gets a lot of beeps and toots from cars passing by, he says.

Locals had original complained when the tree, a popular landmark of Saint Anne’s, was clipped of its top branches and leaves, Craggs says.

Mick Harford, district parks officer at Dublin City Council, told RTÉ News that the tree had showed signs of stress in the last few years and, for health and safety reasons, it had to be taken down.

But rather than getting rid of it entirely, the council made a plan to make a feature of what was left. Craggs went one better: he has replaced one landmark with another.

He wrapped up phase one of the project yesterday, but will be back in the spring to finish up.

Damien Murphy is Dublin Inquirer's Northside city reporter.

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