Trees & Ireland
Reenadinna Yew Wood, Killarney National Park, Ireland
photo by Nigel Cox
Trees in Irish History
Traditionally, living trees have played a central role in the practical daily and spiritual lives of the Irish people. They served as landmarks and bastions of family and clan identity, and their importance can be measured by great number tree-based place-names in Ireland - out of 16,000 town lands in Ireland, 13,000 are named after trees. Sacred trees were planted at holy wells, and churches were created at the site of sacred trees and groves. Cultural ceremonies and celebrations were often performed at a tree. When clans were at war, often they would target the enemy’s Monument Tree rather than their fortress or dwellings as the subject of an attack. Living trees have also provided an educational setting, from the groves of the ancient Celts, renowned throughout Europe, to the hedgerow schools of more recent times. Ogham, the native Irish alphabet was founded on tree associations. Irish myth, story, and music abounds with references to particular trees, and demonstrating the degree to which they were understood and valued by the people.
Living trees served as the foundation for a multi-layered ecosystem which provided an abundance of food crops and medicinal products made from fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, flowers, stem, bark, and roots. They also provided food and habitat for animals, who were in turn used for food and clothing. Coppiced and sustainably managed woodland supplied a renewable source of wood tools and building materials. Indeed, the importance of trees in the lives of the Irish people can be gleaned by observing Brehon Law, Ireland’s native legal system, and the degree to which it protected living trees and discouraged unlawful felling. In essence, native woodlands provided the backdrop to and foundation for the development of Irish civilisation.
Brehon Law, the native legal system of Ireland, functioned until the 17th century. It was incredibly forward-thinking for its time, eschewing corporal punishment for fines and other forms of restitution. It provided extensive protection for trees, classified in four groups: Nobles of the Wood, Commoners of the Wood, Lower Divisions of the Wood, and Bushes of the Wood. In some cases the penalty for unlawfully felling a chieftain tree could be the same as the penalty for killing a human chief. see Classification of Native Trees.
Consider this extract from an early legal poem:
|36.||Esnill bes dithernam||A danger from which there is no escape|
|37.||dire fidnemid nair.||is the penalty for felling the sacred tree.|
|38.||Ni bie fidnemid||Thou shalt not cut a sacred tree|
|39.||fiachaib secht n-airech,||and escape with the fines for the seven noble trees|
|40.||ara teora bu||on account of the fine of three cows|
|41.||inna bunbeim bis.||that is fixed for cutting its stem. …|
|56.||Annsom de||Most oppressive of it all|
|57.||dire secht n-aithlech||is the penalty of the seven commoners of the forest|
|58.||asa mbi bo:||for each of which there is a cow as payment:|
|59.||bunbeim beithe,||the stem cutting of the birch,|
|60.||baegal fernae,||the peril of the alder,|
|61.||fube sailech;||the undermining of the willow.|
|62.||sluind airriu aithgein||Declare restitution for them.|
However, exempt from penalty were these:
|46.||cairi fulocht benar,||a single cauldron's cooking-wood that is cut,|
|47.||bas chnoe foisce||a handful of ripe nuts|
|48.||frisna laim i saith soi.||to which one stretches not his hand in satiety.|
This list of 28 trees and shrubs, drawn from the 8th-century legal tract Bretha Comaithchesa, classifies them in four groups of seven.1 Due to its date, some of the old Irish names for trees differ from modern versions; translations have been guessed when there was no definite correlation. Different variations exist; in some cases, Blackthorn is listed as a Cheiftan.
- Daur - Oak
- Coll - Hazel
- Cuilenn - Holly
- Ibar - Yew
- Uinnius - Ash
- Ochtach - Scots Pine
- Aball - Wild Apple
- Fern - Alder
- Sail - Willow
- Scé - Hawthorn (Whitethorn)
- Cáerthann - Rowan (Mountain Ash)
- Beithe - Birch
- Lem - Elm
- Idath - Wild Cherry
- Draigen - Blackthorn
- Trom - Elder (Bore Tree)
- Féorus - Spindle-Tree
- Crithach - Aspen
- Crann Fir - Juniper
- Findcholl - Whitebeam
- Caithne - Arbitus (Strawberry Tree)
- Raith - Bracken
- Rait - Bog-Myrtle
- Aiten - Gorse (Furze)
- Dris - Bramble (Blackberry)
- Fróech - Heather
- Gilcach - Broom
- Spín - Wild Rose (Dog Rose)
Traditional Uses for Trees
A woodland was one of the most important parts of a landscape, giving sustenance, shelter, and sanctuary to a community. Trees and shrubs provided food in the form of fruits (apples, cherries, blackberries, sloes, rowan-berry jam), nuts and seeds (hazelnuts, pickled ash keys, ground acorn meal), leaves (hawthorn, bramble), flowers (hawthorn, gorse) and sweet birch sap. Acorns and other seeds also provided fodder for herd animals such as pigs, while rowan leaves were used as winter fodder for cattle. Hawthorn, blackthorn, and holly provided hedging for stock, and woodlands were a habitat for deer and other wild animals which were hunted and trapped. Trees such as hawthorn, alder, elder, and willow provided medicine and sanitation from their flowers, berries, and bark.
The wood from trees was also very valuable, both for building tools and structures and for lighting hearth fires. Alder wood resists rot in water and was used as the foundation for building bridges, crannógs, bog roads, and houses. Ash wood made furniture, tool handles, coach axles, building timber, and hurley sticks. Hawthorn gave wood for carving and its roots gave wood to make boxes. Yew wood made bows, holly yielded spears and blackthorn furnished cudgels. Birch gave wood for cradles, gates, and branches for besom brooms. Hazel and willow were coppiced and their rods were used to weave baskets and framework. Reeds provided the thatching for roofs, as well as flooring and bedding for animals. Due to the need for a sustainable source of tree-products, the penalties for unlawful felling (which included unlawful felling of major limbs), and a respect for the life of nature, living trees were rarely felled, and their wood and other products were gathered at a renewable rate.
Ogham Stone from church at Ardmore, Co Waterford
photo by mike65ie
The Ogham system of writing was developed in Ireland in the 4th century. The letters were carved in wood and into the edges of standing stones, and were read from the bottom-up, the way a tree grows. Each letter referenced a native tree - for instance, the first letter was pronounced as a soft ‘B’ and referenced Beith, the birch tree. Each letter in the Ogham alphabet can also be signalled by a hand-sign and serves as a memory key for other facets of wisdom and lore.
Here is the list of original 14 Ogham letters and their corresponding sounds and tree names in Irish and English:
Trees and Irish Folklore
'Spring Queen' by Eddi 07
Trees abound in Irish folk tales, legends, and myths. Various legends speak of a sacred well surrounded by nine hazel trees of wisdom and inspiration. Others speak of an Otherworld called Eamhain Abhlach (‘the Region of Apples’), an island of trees bearing exquisite golden apples where dwelled the sea god Mannanán Mac Lir; this is the Irish equivalent of the Welsh ‘Afalon’, or the Avalon of Arthurian legend. Other mythical heroes were associated with trees: Fionn Mac Cumhaill with hazel and Cúchulainn with holly.
Sacred Trees of Ireland
Historically, there were five great trees of Ireland: Bile Uisnigh, the ancient tree at Uisneach; Bile Tortan at Ardbreccan in County Meath; Craobh Daithi in County Westmeath; Eo Rossa, a yew at Old Leighlin in County Carlow; and Eo Mugna, an oak at the mouth of the Shannon, Co. Meath. Some of these trees were reputed to be large enough to shelter a thousand men. Trees such as oak and yew were associated with kingship.
Many other individual trees were considered sacred (the Irish word bíle means ‘sacred tree’). Sacred trees and groves were considered as sanctuaries, and were often the location of celebrations. The ancient Irish built no temples. Instead, they treated nature as a temple. Trees were the oldest living things and were treated as sources of great wisdom. Fairy Thorns and Rag Trees were considered to be frequently visited by beings of the Otherworld. Mass Bushes served as the location for sermons and Monument Trees as the location for weddings, royal inagurations, seasonal festivals, and other social events. Even today, there is a reverence for Fairy Trees; highway construction workers have diverted the course of their road so as to leave a single hawthorn standing.
see also Sacred Groves
This extract from the 12th century poem Sweeney’s Lay shows a sense of beauty and reverence for trees from the Irish perspective:
photo by CaptPiper
A dhair dhosach dhuilledhach,
At ard os cionn crainn.
A cholláin, a chraobhacháin,
A chomhra cnó cuill.
A abhall, abhlachóg,
Tren rotchraithenn cách,
A chaerthain, a chaeirecháin,
Is alainn do bhláth.
A bheithi blaith bennachtach,
A bhorrfadaigh bhinn.
Alainn gagh craobh cengailteach,
I mullach do chinn.
Thou oak, bushy, leafy,
Thou art high beyond trees,
O hazlet, little branching one,
O fragrance of hazel nuts.
O apple tree, little apple tree,
Much art thou shaken,
O quicken, little berried one,
Delightful is thy bloom.
O birch, smooth and blessed,
Thou melodious, proud one,
Delightful each entwining branch,
In the top of thy crown.
- trans. Niall MacCoitir, from Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore
Also, trees feature prominently in Irish folk belief and customs, serving many functions in daily life. For instance, a peeled willow rod was commonly wrapped around a milk churn, to ‘keep the profit in the milk’ - in other words, to ensure that it did not spoil. Far from being naïve superstition, however, its effectiveness was confirmed generations later upon the discovery that willow contains salicylic acid, the active ingredient in Asprin, which prevents bacterial infection.
Branches and twigs from specific trees were also used for protection, fertility, divination and dowsing.
1 Kelly, Fergus. The Old Irish tree-list. Celtica 11, 1976 pp. 107-124↑