I love trees. I have always loved them. Not in the tree-hugging sense, but as in respect, awe, admiration. Seeing trees being cut almost hurts, and certainly makes me feel incredibly sad. In Irish mythology, tree lore features in many of the old stories and legends. Not only that, but the secret ancient code of Ogham is based on trees and alternatively called the Tree Alphabet.
It is said that out of Ireland’s 16,000 townlands, 13,000 of them are named after trees. I don’t know how true this is, but certainly the town near where I live, Virginia, is known as Achadh an Iúir in Irish, which means ‘field/ meadow of the yew’; Kildare comes from the Irish Cill Dara, meaning ‘church of the oak’, whereas Billis, the townland where I actually live, na Bilí in Irish, refers to a large, isolated sacred tree.
The ancient Irish held trees in great esteem. Not only did they provide fruits, nuts, berries, flowers, leaves, bark and roots, all of which could be harvested for nutritional and medicinal purposes, but they symbolised longevity, virility, and immoveable strength. Their roots penetrated the magical lands of the Underworld, or Otherworld, whilst their branches stretched into the starry deeps of the sky, thus connecting both realms with the physical, surface world in which we live.
Brehon Law, which as we know was certainly very forward thinking for its time, protected living trees and levied hefty fines on those found to be unlawfully chopping them down. It classified trees into four categories, each containing a list of seven trees;
- Chieftain trees, such as the oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, scots pine and wild apple.
- Peasant trees, such as the hawthorn, alder, willow, rowan, birch, elm and wild cherry.
- Shrubs, such as blackthorn, juniper, whitebeam, aspen, spindle-tree, strawberry tree and eldar.
- Bushes, such as bracken, gorse, blackberry, heather, bog myrtle, broom and dog rose.
The punishment for illegally felling a chieftain tree was three cows. In ancient times, cattle were a measure of wealth, and used in place of currency. To cut down a peasant tree would result in a fine of only one cow.
Just as there were five provinces, with five roads leading to them from Tara, there were also five great trees of Ireland. They were Bile Uisnigh, the ancient tree at Uisneach; Bile Tortan at Ardbreccan in County Meath; Craobh Daithi in County Westmeath; Eo Rossa, a yew at Old Leighlin in County Carlow; and Eo Mugna, an oak at the mouth of the Shannon, Co. Meath.
There is a lot of information regarding tree lore on the internet, so I’m not going to regurgitate much more for you here. But I am going to tell you some of the myths and legends associated with some of Ireland’s trees, starting with the apple. Watch out for more coming soon.
The Apple Tree is a chieftain tree, and its Irish name is Aball. Confusingly, in the Ogham tree alphabet, it is represented by the character known as cert, or quert.
The first story which springs to mind is the Tragedy of Bailé and Aillin. Bailé was Prince of Ulster, and he was riding south to meet his beloved betrothed, Aillin. He and his entourage met a strange old man who told them that the Princess Aillin was dead. Overcome with grief, he falls down dead. As his people begin to mourn and prepare his funeral mound, the stranger turns south and travels to the court of Aillin, where he informs her that her lover is dead. She is also overcome with grief and dies.
Out of her grave, an apple tree grows with the likeness of her face preserved in the bark. From Bailé’s grave, a yew tree grows, with his likeness imprinted in it. They lean towards each other over the miles, consumed with love and longing.
After seven years, the trees are cut down by poets, and all the tales of romance for each land carved into the wood, which had been made into tablets. These were then carried to Tara and placed in the High King’s hand. As he examined them, they leapt together, and became so fiercely entwined that no one could separate them.
If you would like to read this story in all the beauty and glory of the language it deserves, you can now download a free copy of Grá mo Chroí from Smashwords, which contains Jane Dougherty‘s beautiful and lyrical retelling.
The Tragic Death of Cú Rí mac Daire (note: daire means ‘oak’) is another fascinating story of Irish myth. Cú Rí was an ally of Cuchullain, and a great magician. Dividing the spoils of war after a battle, Cú Rí claimed the lady Blathnait as his bride, but Cuchullain, being a bit of a ladies man, wanted to keep her for himself. The magician carried her off to his fortress on top of the mountain at Caherconree, in Co Kerry.
Blathnait was blindly in love with Cuchullain, however, so she contrived for the old magician to send his men out quarrying for stone to improve the defensibility of the fort against the young warriors arrival.
Whilst they were away, and her husband lay sleeping, she hid his weapons, and poured milk into the river to send a signal to the waiting Cuchullain at the bottom of the mountain that all had gone to plan. The warrior then stormed the fort and claimed his love.
However, the end of the magician himself is not clear. Whilst one version of the story says he was killed by Cuchullain, another claims his soul entered an apple which was thrown into the river. There it was eaten by a mighty salmon, which only rose to the surface once every seven years. When Blathnait discovers Cú Rí’s escape, she informs Cuchullain, who catches the salmon and kills it. Talk about vindictive!
There is a story which goes that Connla stood on the Hill of Uisneach with his father Conn of the Hundred Battles, when a beautiful maiden approached him. She told him of her love for him, and begged him to return with her to Magh Mel, the Plain of Pleasure in Manannán’s land, for she was one of the Sidhe.
Conn managed to save his son from her clutches by getting his Druid to chant spells, but before she disappeared, she threw an apple to Connla, which he caught. From that day on, the young man spoke to no one, nor ate anything but from the apple, which each day was magically renewed and sustained him week after week.
After a month had gone by, the beautiful maiden approached the young man once more, speaking of her love, and entreating him to accompany her in a crystal curragh to the magical lands beyond the ninth wave. Connla was torn by his loyalty for his father and his clan, but also by his love for this young woman.
Sadly his father gave his permission, and together the young couple sailed away and were never seen again.