Trees in Ireland have always been rich in history and mythology. Trees have featured prominently in Irish culture and society from the times of the ancient Celts who believed that trees had mystical powers that could aid them in times of hardship.
The Celts worshipped trees and considered them to be sacred and pivotal to the functioning of their society.
There are many reasons why the Celts cherished trees and performed various rituals in their honour. They believed that trees served as symbols of human life and could impart certain qualities and gifts to those who venerated them.
They also believed that trees served as the abodes of magical creatures, nature spirits and even demons. The Celts thought these supernatural entities had to be regularly appeased or else they may do the Celts great harm.
As well as this, there was the very strong belief that the Gods used trees to communicate to the Celts. It was said that trees acted as a kind of link between this world and the next.
Finally, there was the very real truth that trees had many medicinal properties and could help cure maladies and ailments if properly utilised. This would have only strengthened the Celt’s belief that trees were magical, almighty beings worthy of deep reverence.
Ogham - The Tree Alphabet
Trees were of such significance to the Celts that they used them as the basis for their language and alphabet.
The Ogham Alphabet was an early medieval alphabet used to write the oldest form of the Irish language, beginning sometime in the 4th century.
Also known as the Tree Alphabet, Ogham was read from right to left and from the bottom up.
Each letter in the Ogham Alphabet was named after a tree. The original eight letters of the alphabet were named after birch, willow, alder, pine, yew, hazel, ash and oak trees. This gives us a clear indication that these trees were of particular importance to the Celts. In time, the remaining twelve letters of the alphabet were all named after trees, hence the title of the Tree Alphabet.
Ancient inscriptions of the Ogham Alphabet are still found on stone monuments scattered throughout Ireland, all these centuries later. The majority of these surviving inscriptions are located in southern Munster and are comprised of simple names and nothing more.
For example, a typical Ogham inscription would merely state: “Conor, son of Eoin’’. The Ogham Alphabet is perhaps the best illustration of just how central trees were to ancient Irish society.
Ancient Irish Trees in Celtic Mythology
The ancient Celts believed that trees were symbols of life and that each type of tree had its own individual meaning and purpose. The Celts maintained that certain trees had certain powers and that they could bestow those powers onto their worshippers.
The following is a list of some native Irish trees which featured prominently in Celtic society and the specific capabilities they were believed to possess.
The Oak Tree
The Oak tree is known as the King of the Forest. It is known for its strength and endurance and is one of the longest living trees, capable of living for many centuries. The ancient celts believed Oak trees represented wisdom, power and strength and would often use its wood for building and construction.
Oak trees were most sacred to the Druids, with the word Druid coming from the Celtic word for oak, “Duir’’.
The Hazel Tree
The Hazel tree played an important role in ancient Ireland where it was regarded as the Tree of Knowledge. It was widely believed that its nuts could grant immeasurable wisdom and boundless knowledge once consumed.
Hazel trees were also an invaluable source of seasonal food as they produced an abundance of fruit and nuts. It was thought that hazelnuts could ward off illnesses, if kept in a person’s pockets.
The Rowan Tree
The Rowan tree symbolised courage and protection in Celtic mythology and was seen as the Tree of Life.
The Celts believed that the Rowan tree stopped the dead from rising and that its bright red berries could protect them from evil forces.
A Rowan branch placed in a bed was said to keep the devil and witches at bay, while wearing a sprig of Rowan could offer protection from spells and charms.
Rowan trees were often planted next to houses, in order to protect them.
The Hawthorn Tree
The Hawthorn tree was considered by the Celts to be particularly magical and supernatural. The subject of much superstition, it was widely believed that Hawthorns were the homes of fairies, which is why they are often referred to as Fairy trees.
It was thought to be extremely bad luck to cut down a Hawthorn tree, remove its branches or interfere with it in any way, lest you disturb its mystical inhabitants.
Even in the times after the ancient Celts, roads were often diverted to avoid cutting down a Hawthorn tree, so strong was the superstition.
However, if treated right, the Hawthorn could bring great fortune to its owner or those who lived nearby.
The Crab Apple Tree
The Crab Apple tree was believed to represent fertility, youthfulness and birth in Celtic mythology. The Celts believed the apple was a symbol of rebirth and would often bury apples in graves as food for the dead.
Crab Apples are the only Apple tree native to Ireland and their fruit was made into wine, cider and flavoured mead.
The Crab Apple was also associated with love and marriage. It was said that if you threw the pips of a crab apple into a fire while saying the name of your love, the love was true if the pips exploded.
The wood of the Crab apple was also burned by the Celts during fertility rites and rituals.
The Birch Tree
The Birch tree is another tree with strong fertility connections. In Celtic mythology, it was a tree of new beginnings and was seen as a symbol of renewal, protection and purification.
It was heavily featured in the Celtic festival of Beltane, the festival of new beginnings, which was held at the very start of summer.
Brooms and baby cradles were made from Birch branches, as it was believed the protective and purifying qualities of the Birch tree would banish evil spirits. Its leaves were also often brewed in tea to treat infections.
The Significance of Planting a Tree
Though people are now far less inclined to believe in the magical properties of trees, they continue to hold great meaning in modern society. Trees are still seen as symbols of life, rebirth and healing. In recent times, they are also seen as symbols of hope.
Planting trees is one of the greatest assets that we have in the fight against climate change and healing the planet. They produce a myriad of invaluable benefits to the environment and their natural ability to cleanse and purify air is now more important than ever.
Trees have always evoked a sense of calmness and peace, but also a sense of unshakeable strength.
This is why planting a tree in honour of a loved one is such a meaningful and powerful tribute.
Gifting a tree, whether it be in memory of someone or in celebration of an occasion, is a heart-warming, long-lasting act of compassion. A memorial tree can provide us with solace and serenity in the face of loss.
In light of all this, the ancient Celtic belief that trees can protect and help us during times of adversity has proven to be true in more ways than one.
To find out more visit the Irish Trees website.
Enter Our Giveaway For a Commemorative Irish Tree Planting
To help generate interest in Ireland's trees, www.irishtrees.ie are offering all our Irish American Mom readers the chance to win an 'Irish Family Tree' every month.