Trees and forestry played both practical and spiritual roles in the lives of Irish people throughout the centuries.
Today Ireland is home to some beautiful woods and forestry, but the number of trees pales in comparison to the vast numbers of living trees on the island before the 17th century.
Emerald Heritage, a conservation business I previously reviewed, sent me this beautiful Irish tree planting image. I was struck by this little piece of information in their recent press release.
“Ireland was once a forest culture, but following the development of agriculture practices, since the 1600’s, the proportion of Irish woodland has now reached an all time low. Unfortunately, Ireland has been almost completely deforested with merely 1% of native woodland left.”
My interest was peaked. I simply had to investigate this topic further. And so, I started thinking about what Ireland’s landscape at the time of St. Patrick. I soon discovered it was an island covered in trees ……
History Of Trees In Ireland:
The last Ice Age completely denuded Ireland of all trees and plant life, but thankfully the glaciers melted nearly 15,000 years ago.
The island warmed up over the next 4000 years making it suitable for pioneering plants to colonize its plains and mountains. Spreading by way of land bridges from Britain, herbs, shrubs and low lying grasses sprouted.
Dwarf tree species like birch and hazel arrived next, before stately oaks and elms.
Arrival Of Our Ancestors:
By the time our forebears arrived 9000 years ago, Ireland was blanketed in trees. Initially these hunter gatherers had little impact on the beautiful oak woods and pine forests.
However, according to the Irish Department of Agriculture the forests started to slowly disappear around 6,000 years ago. The growth of blanket bogs combined with forest clearance by early Neolithic farmers may have promoted deforestation.
By the time St. Patrick arrived in the 5th century the density of native trees was dwindling. In the early centuries of the first millennium some tree species such as elm had drastically declined, probably related to disease.
It wasn’t until the 1600’s that a wholesale clearing of land occurred with a series of Plantations. Ship building flourished and the increasing population created a demand for fresh timber. Our forests and woods were sacrificed in the name of progress.
Trees As Landmarks:
Many place names in Ireland are derived from the names of trees. Derry or Doire is named after an oak grove, and Kildare or Cill-dara is the Church of the Oak.
Sacred trees were planted to mark the locations of holy wells and churches.
Oak trees surrounded and were used to build crannógs, artificial islands built in lakes or marshes.
The druids often performed cultural ceremonies at the base of a tree or in a woodland copse.
I wonder if St. Patrick and other early Irish Christians recognized the importance of trees to the native Celts of Ireland. Perhaps this is why they built so many churches and named many holy places after trees.
Trees were sacred to the ancient Celts. Many grew and tended a Monument Tree close to their home.
Warring clans often attached each others Monument Trees, rather than their fortresses. I suppose it was a case of attacking a man’s pride, because the ancient Celts revered and worshipped these trees.
Brehon Law ruled the land of Ireland in pre-Christian times. Brehons (judges) laid down and enforced the law.
Irish Brehon law may well be the oldest known example of a sophisticated legal system in all of Europe.
And believe it or not, these Brehons demonstrated a “green” conservationist’s outlook on life. Today they might be called tree huggers, because it looks like they revered trees.
Under Brehon laws certain trees and shrubs were protected. Woe betide anyone who unlawfully cut a branch, or damaged a bark of one of these trees.
Strict penalties were imposed because of the importance of these trees to the community. The brehons were way ahead of their time.
Tree groves were often used as educational settings in the time of the druids and ancient Celts.
In more recent times, when education of Catholics was outlawed by the English, hedge school masters taught Irish children in the open air, shaded and protected by trees. Hence the name hedgerow or hedge schools.
The ancient Irish alphabet is a series of lines, originally cut into wood or standing stones. The names of Ogham letters are associated with trees.
Eight of the original ogham letters were named after trees -birch, alder, willow, oak, hazel, pine, ash and yew.
This list of trees highlights the species that were of most importance in early Irish society.
Trees In Irish Myth And Legend:
Irish myths and legends abound with references to trees. Certain species were particularly well understood and valued by the people.
Eo Mugna was one of five legendary trees of Ireland. Eo Mugna was an oak which bore apples, acorns and hazelnuts. Ancient Irish legends claim it to be a son of the Tree of Knowledge, found in the Garden of Eden. It supposedly bit the dust and fell sometime before 600 AD.
Ash is a native Irish tree and has a special place in Irish folklore. It is the wood of preference for making hurling sticks, the game being fondly referred to as “the clash of the ash”.
Three of the five legendary trees of ancient Ireland were ash trees: Bile Tortan, Craeb Daithi and Bile Uisneg. Bile Tortan in County Meath was supposedly visited by St. Patrick himself, who established a church nearby.
Nine Hazels of Wisdom grew at the source of the River Boyne. In ancient Ireland the Tree of Knowledge was believed to be a hazel tree. Under the Brehon laws of the neighborhood hazel was granted the highest rank, considered to be a ‘nobel of the wood’.
Howth Castle, just north of Dublin city and home of the St. Lawrence family, is home to a large oak tree. Wooden uprights support the branches, because it has been said that when the tree falls the family’s line will come to an end.
Hawthorn trees have long been considered the property of the faries. A lone hawthorn tree is never cut for fear of the faeries.
Legend claims a lone hawthorn is the site where the fairies meet and dance. Many roads wind around these fairy trees, because in the past it was deemed far safer to divert a road than to cut down a magical tree.
A Quick Note and Legal Disclaimer: If you choose to utilize the discount code listed below I will earn a commission for your land purchase. If you have any questions you can contact me or leave a comment, and I’ll do my very best to reply.
Emerald Heritage is working to conserve a Irish woodlands, by selling small plots of land to people world wide who wish to own their very own piece of Ireland.
In September 2015 they are organizing a 5-day gathering of land owners from around the world and inviting them to come find their plot and plant a native Irish tree.
A wonderful itinerary has been planned including visits to the Titanic museum, the Game of Thrones film locations, the Giant’s Causeway and the Bushmills Distillery to name but a few.
All the details are outlined on their web page dedicated to their Irish Gathering.
Don’t forget to use the code Irish American Mom for a discount on any land purchases with Emerald Heritage.
The Native Woodland Trust provides a wonderful illustrated list of Ireland’s native trees.
The Living Tree Educational Foundation explores the significance of trees in Irish culture.
Forestry Focus is chock full of information, analysis, history and legends about Irish trees, woodlands and forestry.
And there you have it, a quick review of the history of Irish trees. But to tell you the truth we’ve only scratched the surface or the bark of this topic.
I have gleaned plenty of ideas for future posts as I put this little story together. How about Irish sayings about trees, Irish superstitions, cures and old wives’ tales …… But as I often say, that’s a story for another day.
Slán agus beannacht leat!
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom