December’s folklore column for the North Clare Local.
Last month we saw how trees were a central part of ancient belief across the world. Ireland was no different.
The Celts were one of the most important peoples in terms of shaping Irish folklore. Even the word druid, which refers to the priests of the Celtic pagan religion, comes from the word ‘oak’. Today the Welsh for oak is ‘derwen’, the Scots Gaelic ‘darach’; the Irish is ‘dair’. The name Derry, or Doire, comes from oak (hence the oak-leafs on the GAA jerseys). Kildare (Cill Dara) means ‘the church of the oak’.
Oak trees were extremely important to the Celts. This ranged across the Celtic world; in Galicia, druidic councils were held in oak groves. In Ireland too, it’s believed the oaks of Kildare held special significance, even after the spread of Christianisation. We can see this with St Brigid’s choice of Kildare as a sacred place.
Along with ash and hawthorn, oak completed the trinity of sacred trees in the Celtic tradition. It’s easy to see why oaks became so revered. They are big, imposing trees; their wood is highly durable and useful; and they can live for centuries. To a person of years gone by, a tree which stood throughout their lifetime would have been a thing of wonder indeed.
Today ash is more associated with the manufacture of hurleys, but in times past it was a sacred tree; and it was considered unlucky to fell it. It was central in divination among the Celts. In the Isle of Bute, in Scotland, people would actually eat ash leaves in order to dream of their future spouse. In other Celtic locales, such as the Isle of Man and Brittany, ash was believed to ward off witches and fairies.
Ash was seen, too, as a cure-all for disease, from hernias to acne. There is some truth in this. Its bark is astringent, and in an era of poor hygiene and disease control, it doubtlessly killed off a few bugs.
If ash warded off fairies, hawthorn was a different prospect. It is very much the odd one out of the trio. Ash can grow up to over 100 feet tall, and oak up 130 feet. Hawthorns on the other hand, only grow to a maximum of 50 feet, and tend to warp and bend as they grow, unlike the proud and strong oak.
Hawthorn was commonly associated with the fairies, and often held to be their favourite tree. A hawthorn tree standing alone in the middle of a field was considered to be a fairy tree. This meant it was a tree singled out for the fairies’ special attention and to cut it would draw extreme bad luck. This tradition has not completely died out. Anyone driving around rural Ireland will spot lone trees in the centre of fields; many North Clare Local readers will recall how construction of the M18 was held up for a time due to the route cutting through a fairy tree.
The importance of these trees did not mean it was open-season on the other trees in Ireland. Hazelnuts were considered an important food and the hazel itself was considered to ward off rheumatism. Hazelwood was sacred to poets. Rowans should always be planted near a house to ward off evil and prevent the dead from rising. Perhaps zombie flicks should feature rowans more often.
Elders were believed to be evil. If you burned elder on a fire you would see the face of the devil in the flames. It was seen to be too fragile for boat-building and it was not recommended for the construction of cribs as it offered no protection from the fairies. (In Germany though, the poor elder got a better deal, as it offered protection against witches).
Alders were sacred and used for divination. When they were cut, their bark turned red, making them seem almost as if they were bleeding. As it thrives in boggy, marshy land and is relatively water-resistant, alder was often used in the building of houses. Yews, now often associated with graveyards, were seen as sacred; as long-lived evergreens, they were symbolic of eternity.
In pre-Norman Ireland, trees were so important that they were even legislated for. The very progressive Brehon laws had specific rules about cutting trees, and anyone who cut a tree illegally was fined. Such was the importance of trees that the Ogham alphabet was actually based on tree names. Although originally only eight tree names featured in the system, later medieval additions created an entirely tree based alphabet. For example, N, or Nuinn, was named after the ancient Irish word for ash.