Reclaiming Our Tree Heritage

First published in Crann, Ireland's Tree Magazine, Winter 2009

Many foreigners come to Ireland expecting a green and pleasant isle full of welcoming faces, stone walls, trees in abundance and sheep everywhere, of course the reality is far from the marketed image of rural Ireland. I am sure that many visitors are shocked to see how materialistic we have become - what with every other person driving a huge SUV and families living in palatial houses that have more bathrooms than people to occupy them.

It was not always this way, as anyone who remembers life prior to the nineties will know, however going much further back, Ireland was a very different place again. In ancient Ireland it was said that a squirrel (red that is) could travel from one end of the country to the other without ever having to touch the ground. Of course, over the course of time (like the rest of Europe), the situation changed to make way for agriculture and more people. In Ireland the ship building ambitions of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I made an enormous dent in the nation’s tree cover, further exacerbated by population rises and increasing sheep farming that decreased the natural replacement from new seedlings. At the beginning of this century a mere 1% of Ireland was forested, fortunately this has improved to over 9% in recent years but we are still a long way behind the rest of Europe, in fact so far as our modern attitude to trees is concerned we could be viewed as Philistines by our more progressive neighbours.

So what happened? We all know that Ireland was once a country where trees were held as sacred. It is well known that the Druids revered trees and that well into the Christian era there were harsh punishments for abuse of trees. In the eighth century legal tract Bretha Comaithchesa four classes of trees were defined – nobles, commoners and lower divisions of the wood and finally bushes. Each class had its value based on the quality and quantity of wood or another attribute such as its food or resin yield. The fine or eric for destroying a noble tree without good reason was the value of 2.5 milk cows, which at the time was a considerable sum of money.

Trees appeared greatly in Irish folklore and in herbal medicine, originating in the pre-Christian era, much of the lore relating to trees continued to be known and passed down until relatively recent times. The significance of trees is highlighted by the appearance of trees in Irish place names to the day, perhaps the best known example being Kildare or Cill Dara meaning ‘church of the oak’. Trees also played a part in early Irish poetry, a prime example being Sweeney’s Lay which is attributed to the 7th century King Suibhne Geilt (Mad Sweeney) who was cursed by St. Ronan. The opening verse is shown below:

A dhair dhosach dhuilledhach
At ard os cionn crainn
A cholláin, a chraobhacháin,
A chomhra cnó cuill.

Thou oak, bushy, leafy
Thou art high beyond trees.
O hazlet, little branching one,
O fragrance of hazel nuts.

In addition, the Gaelic alphabet, known as Ogham, is widely regarded as a tree alphabet. Although only half the letter names are actually trees names the letters collectively were known as feda and singularly as fid, which respectively means ‘wood’ or ‘tree’. Consonants were called táebomnai which means ‘the side of a tree-trunk’, and the individual lines of each letter were called flesc, meaning ‘twig’. So when taken in the context of the words describing the alphabet and the information from the medieval Ogham Tract and Scholar’s Primer it is easy to see that this alphabet is clearly linked with the native trees of Ireland.

The Ogham alphabet had twenty letters, split into four groups of five, a supplementary group of a further five being added at a later date, this being for the purpose of rendering Greek and Roman words into Irish. The letters were cut or carved onto a vertical line from the bottom upwards, many examples of which can be seen on standing stones around Ireland, particularly in Cork, as well as in Scotland and Wales. Early Irish literature states that Ogham writings were carved onto pieces of wood and Julius Caesar claimed that the Druids of Gaul wrote in Ogham, also on wooden staves. Of course, wood being prone to decomposition, there are no known examples of Ogham on wood, which has led many to assume it was only used for stone boundary markers etc, however I suspect that it was widely used on a day-to-day basis until the Romanised alphabet was adopted in the early Christian period. It’s interesting to observe that the full Roman alphabet of 26 letters with the modern letter shapes was not adopted until the 1960s; prior to this the alphabet had only twenty letters and letter shapes that were uniquely Irish. It is still possible to see this alphabet today, in use on the occasional old blue and white road name sign that has somehow not been updated.

The lore relating to the trees of the Ogham alphabet confirms the important status of trees in the earlier Irish psyche: Hazel, Oak, Yew, Rowan and Hawthorn being particularly useful or revered in past times. Even today we see echoes of past importance, illustrated by the lone hawthorn tree in a field that a superstitious old farmer refuses to cut down. This was considered a fairy tree and also unlucky: bringing it into the house was to invite death into your home. This might seem a strange superstition but when one considers that the smell of the blossoms is very similar to that of a few day old corpse one can begin to understand where this tradition arose from!

The Oak is well known to be a significant tree, it was used to kindle the Bealtine fires here and also in Scotland. The ancient Tuatha Dé Danann god Dagda possessed a magical harp made of oak, which demonstrates its cultural as well as economic importance far back in history. The oak is also linked with many place names and also with Irish saints such as Colmcille and Brigid.

The hazel is widely known to be linked with wisdom in Irish folklore, and many of us today are familiar with the story of the Salmon of Knowledge who fed on nuts from the nine hazels surrounding the well of Segais at the source of the Boyne river. There are many more examples easily found and it doesn’t take very much digging to see that trees were a vital part of Irish culture until the dawn of the modern era.

Somehow, in our headlong rush to be modern citizens of the world, we have jettisoned much of former cultural importance, as well as making a giant building site of large sections of the country. Perhaps now that the Celtic Tiger is well and truly dead it is time to take stock of our impoverished cultural situation as well as the poor state of our wallets.

As people who are interested in trees and their re-emergence in this country, perhaps it is time for us to put a greater value on trees – not just as economic and ecological benefits – but as a living and breathing part of Irish heritage and culture. The native trees are every bit as culturally important historically as the GAA or Irish dancing and traditional music, I think that this should not be allowed to be forgotten. In fact the body of beautiful folklore and tradition surrounding our trees could well be used educationally as a means of helping us to fall in love with trees all over again, so that they once more become a vibrant part of the Irish landscape and culture.