Sacred Irish Trees
Ireland has had a long and intimate relationship with trees. Re-forestation projects are currently restoring our forests—slowly. But let’s remind ourselves as to why trees are so sacred to Irish people.
Up to six thousand years ago native forests of oak, ash, elm, birch, pine, alder and hazel trees flourished across Ireland’s landscape. By 1900, less than one percent of these woodlands remained. Progress has been made in restoring forest cover, but still, Ireland stands today as one of the least wooded countries in Europe. Our native tree species have been linked with Irish culture and society from the earliest times. Trees were of the greatest importance, not only for the obvious practical reasons but also for spiritual reasons. Imagine what the ancient woods of Ireland must have been like for our ancestors. Every tree had its uses; ash for hurleys, alder for shields, hazel for construction. The most important tree of all was the mighty oak, which was considered chief among the airig fedo or nobles of the forest.
In pre-Christian times, brehons or judges were responsible for the law and some of these laws dealt specifically with trees. The penalty for damaging particular trees was a fine, usually exacted not in money but livestock. For example, if you cut down an oak or a hazel tree, you could be fined two and a half cows while the fine for cutting down an elm or birch tree would be one cow! The different penalties reflected the relative importance of each tree.
When it came to translating spoken Irish into the written word the ancient Irish came up with a system that reflected the special role that trees played in everyday life. It is thought that this alphabet, called Ogham was invented around the fourth century and that it was designed specifically for the Irish language. Where it was invented and by whom is not known. We can still see some examples on carved standing stones in old monastic sites, and in museums. The letters of the Ogham alphabet were all assigned names, which may have started out as examples for teaching purposes. Unlike letters in the English alphabet, these letter names were meaningful words.
Originally eight letters were named after trees – birch, alder, willow, oak, hazel, pine, ash and yew. In the middle ages, scholars read other tree names into the remaining letters, resulting in a tree alphabet. An eighth century description of how Ogham is read again shows how the lore of trees had become mingled with writing: ‘Ogham is climbed (read) as a tree is climbed, treading on the root of the tree first with one’s right hand before one and one’s left hand last’. This indicates that Ogham should be read as it is inscribed on upright stones, from the bottom up.
There was more than just a practical and economic value placed on trees and woodlands. The ancient Irish were a spiritual people who lived in harmony with nature. They saw magic and enchantment all around them and especially in trees. Many species of tree such as yew, hazel, hawthorn, elder and rowan were considered to have magical properties. Very often a single hawthorn can be seen, standing alone guarding a special place. These trees are regarded as fairy thorns, a meeting place for fairies or sídhe.
Hawthorn trees are also associated with holy wells, where hanging strips of cloth or rags sometimes marks their presence. Such trees are known as rag trees. Rowan trees too are associated with the fairy host, while its berries were used as a protection against evil. Individual trees that stood out in the landscape as being remarkable, perhaps for their size or shape, or the place in which they grew, were of particular importance and were known as bile.
Many place names in Ireland incorporate tree names. Of the approximately 62,000 townland names in Ireland, 13,000 mention trees while 1,600 mention some derivation of dair (oak), such as Dare or Derry. With the arrival of Christianity, many trees and groves that were sacred in pagan times were taken over and adapted for Christian worship. This can often be seen today in the presence of ancient yew trees within church grounds or the combination of the word cill or church with tree names i.e Cill Dara or Kildare.
We also know that many of the early Irish saints had favourite trees; St. Kevin had a favourite yew tree at Glendalough while St. Bridget had a special oak in Kildare. After centuries of exploitation, we have lost much of our natural woodlands along with the lore that was so much part of them. Some traditions still persist; lone fairy thorns can still be seen dotted around the landscape, especially around ringforts and raths, whilst occasionally one may come across a rag tree or bush.
Although much of our woodland traditions are gone forever, we can at least strive to restore our native woodlands to their former glory and find a place of relevance for them in the modern world. The native woodlands that remain are important havens for our native flora and fauna as well as being a potential timber resource for the future. They require careful management to protect them from overgrazing and the spread of non-native plants. Once the ancient forests disappeared, the plants and animals that lived in those forests also disappeared. Today, there are only small pockets of native woodland in our landscape – these are relics or reminders of the ancient forests that once covered the country.
Below are some examples of our native trees in which you can gather seeds and replant elsewhere.
Oak – Dair
Once widespread throughout Ireland, centuries of harvesting, with few trees being replaced, means that truly native oak can be hard to find, though there are small woods in most counties. Very often, semi-natural oak woodlands contain a proportion of birch and ash, with hazel, holly and rowan scattered throughout the understorey. Oak has been harvested for its fine timber for centuries and is much prized for its visual qualities and durability. It is commonly used in the making of furniture, for veneers and in the manufacture of casks.
The male flowers of oak are borne on rather inconspicuous catkins, which come out just before the leaves, but the seeds—acorns—are far more obvious. Oak trees do not produce a good crop of acorns every year, so it is worth gathering plenty in a good year. The traditional Irish oak is the sessile oak. It is the main species to be found in Ireland’s most familiar woodlands. Sessile oak is found more commonly on poor acid soils, often in hilly regions. These woodlands can be found in Killarney, Co. Kerry, the Glen of the Downs, Co. Wicklow and Glenveagh, Co. Donegal, to name but a few. They are important ecologically as habitats for hundreds of invertebrate species along with many species of birds and mammals. Sessile means that the acorns have no stalk while those of the pedunculate oak hang from long stalks.
Acorns can be collected while still on the tree if they are ripe. They can be picked when the acorn has turned brown and comes away from the cup fairly easily. When the seed is fully ripe there is usually a big fall of seed. It often happens on the morning following the first frost. In tree nurseries you can often hear the question “has the big fall happened yet?” It is also important to note that with oak (as with hazel and beech) there is a gradual fall of non-viable seed before the “big fall.” Sow straight away if possible as stored seed may lose viability.
Hazel – Coll
Hazel nuts are one of the foods associated with the very earliest human settlements in Ireland of Mesolithic man, who also used hazel as the strong flexible timber for his huts. Hazel bushes may be coppiced i.e. cut right back to a stump, and will re-grow. The slender timber poles that result from coppicing were used in the construction of wattle and daub, and fences. Hazel is also a traditional material in the construction of eel and lobster traps. Hazel grows as an understorey in oak and ash woodlands or as pure hazel woods. Hazel scrub woodland covers extensive areas of limestone, particularly on the Burren plateaus of north Clare and soils derived from limestone in the Glens of Antrim. It is often associated with a rich ground flora of woodland flowers.
Hazel is well known for its yellow ‘lambs tail’ catkins in spring, but the nuts grow from small bud-like structures with a tuft of red – the stigma of the female flowers. Collect the nuts from the wilder areas. The nuts are up to 2 cm long, pale green at first, ripening to pale brown and are borne usually in pairs, each between two overlapping light green bracts or husks. The first seeds shed by the tree are usually non-viable. It is best to collect the nuts directly from the tree when they begin to turn brown. Use a tool of some sort to pull down the branches e.g. a rake or use a specialised extending claw. When they are fully ripe they will fall to the ground (or the tree can be shaken) and the nuts are then collected from the ground. But you need to be quick – it is amazing how fast wildlife will clean the woodland floor of all fallen nuts.
Scots Pine – Péine Albanach
Pollen found in soil samples from bogs indicates that Scots pine was widespread in Ireland thousands of years ago. Human impact and the gradual change to a warmer, wetter climate led to its decline, and it may even have died out completely. Pine stumps have been found in bogs, standing where they grew, 7,000 years ago, before the formation of the peat.
Most of the pines around the countryside now were imported from Scotland and planted over the last 150 years. Efforts have been made to reintroduce this once-native species as in some situations it is fitting that Scots pine be encouraged. It can be grown on marginal land where other species of tree would not survive. It also matures quicker and produces more versatile wood than broadleaf trees. Our native red squirrel prefers the seeds of this tree than any other. It is possible to grow pine from seed – the seeds are small with a single wing and fall easily from between the sections of ripe pine cones. Only collect cones in forests if you are sure they are Scots pine – most commercially grown conifers are not native species.
Willows – Saileach
There are several varieties of willow native to Ireland. All grow in damp soil, have catkins or ‘pussy willows’ that produce seeds, but are most easily grown from cuttings, which root very readily. The most widespread willow species are the goat willow, the rusty or grey willow (both known as sallies), and the eared willow. While these generally grow on damp ground, the goat willow will also colonise rough and disturbed ground in drier areas. The bay-leaved willow, with glossy green leaves, is found beside small rivers and ditches. Osiers, with long fine leaves, do not develop into large trees. They were often grown and managed by cutting right back to the base to encourage long flexible shoots used for baskets.
Now this species may be grown for biomass and provide a renewable energy source. All willows are rich in insects and so provide a good food source for insect eating birds in summer, notably for the willow warbler. Willow establishes easily by windblown seed and can also be propagated by taking cuttings approx. 8 inches long from stems between half an inch and one and a half inches during dormancy, which are simply pushed into the soil to a depth of 4 inches. ■
The above extract was taken from the tree council’s book called “Our Trees – A Guide to Growing Ireland’s Native Trees.” It is published by the People’s Millennium Forest, and you can order it online for €6 (treecouncil.ie).
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