The Yew tree, one of Ireland’s native evergreens, enjoys a high status in Irish mythology. In Old Irish, it’s name is Ibar, but in modern Irish it is known as an Iúr.
The yew is a long-lived tree; it is thought it can survive to the ripe old age of 9500 years, although it is hard to accurately date due to the unique way in which it grows. Branches reach earthward to touch the ground, forming new stems which entwine around the main central trunk, which is often hollow, eventually becoming inseparable from it.
I visited the yews at Loughcrew Gardens this weekend. Loughcrew was the birthplace and home of St Oliver Plunkett, Ireland’s most recent saint. These magnificent specimens were planted in the 1660s.
Yews have soft dark needles, twisted gnarly trunks and flaky bark. They are very tactile. The male trees produce cones, the females produce red berries, each one containing only one seed.
Interestingly, the leaves, bark, wood and seeds are highly poisonous, and yet the very substance, taxol, which makes them so toxic has also been found to have beneficial effects in treating cancer. Taxol inhibits cell growth and division, but it would take ten 200 year-old trees with trunks ten inches in diameter, to produce enough taxol sufficient for a single dose.
The yew was revered by our ancient ancestors for its longevity, and because it remained green and vibrant, thriving in the harshness of winter when all other trees succumbed.
In those times, it was more plentiful and grew in mixed woodland. The deep shade beneath its dense needles and branches combined with the toxins secreted through its roots ensured not much grew within its vicinity. These natural open spaces were perfect locations for conducting pagan ritual and ceremonies. Thus the yew was seen as a ‘holy’ or sacred tree, and in time was adopted by the Christians, who built their churches and abbeys around them. We still see yew trees growing in churchyards today.
The yew tree fell out of favour as cattle and livestock became more important as an indication of wealth and status. Only a tiny amount of poison from a yew was enough to kill a cow or horse, and so many of the trees were eventually destroyed.
The three oldest trees in Ireland happen to be yews. The yews of Crom Castle, Co Fermanagh are said to be over 800 years old.
At Maynooth College, there is a yew which is said to be between 700 -800 years old, and the yew at Muckross Friary in Killarney is 670 years old.
The oldest yew tree in Ireland, (Palmerstown, Dublin), was thought to be over a thousand years old when it finally fell during storms back in the 1880s. Dublin boasts another famous yew tree; it is located at the Old Glebe, Newcastle, and is named The Dean’s Tree after the writer Jonathon Swift (1667-1745), who would sit penning his works beneath it.
In Irish mythology, the yew was one of five sacred trees brought into Ireland from the Otherworld when the land was divided into its five provinces. It was protected under Brehon Law as one of the seven Chieftain trees.
The Druids chose yew from which to make their wands, or staffs. Being so long-lived, and yet also so toxic, it was seen as having powerful magical properties, a tree associated not just with death, but also longevity and rebirth.
Poets also used staves of yew as memory aids when learning long incantations and poems. It is said that these rods were very long with eight sides, each one inscribed with ogham characters.
In a version of The Wooing of Etain, the Druid, Dalladh, divines that Etain is at the court of King Midir by making two rods of yew wood and inscribing them with ogham spells.
In the beautiful and tragic love story of Baile and Aillinn, a yew tree grows from Baile’s grave which bears the likeness of his face in its bark. You can read Jane Dougherty’s haunting version of this story for free in the book that she and I wrote together, Grá mo Chroí, Love Stories from Irish Myth.
Here is a series of Twitter poems (#gramochchroi) I wrote back in May in honour of the legend:
“He lies beneath a weight of stones
in the shadow of love and loss,
and from the hill a yew tree grew
now aged and covered in moss.
Sacred apple, fruit of womb,
falls from the branch like tears
while silent in his cold dark tomb,
her lover sleeps away the years.
Yew boughs twined together,
Lovers’ limbs interlace;
Twisted, tattooed with ogham.
In the bark, an image of a face.
From that tree a branch was took,
his story for to tell.
Of life and love and death and loss
and the woman who loved him well.”
There is a strange story about a yew tree in the Historical Cycle of mythology. An old yew tree, said to have been wrought by Sidhe magic, stood in a place called Ess Magh. Three brothers, Mac Conn, Cian and Eogan, fell under its spell and greatly desired to own it. They took their dispute to King Aillil, who awarded it to Eogan. Consumed with jealousy and anger, Mac Conn fought two battles with Aillil over his poor judgement.
Many brave warriors were killed, including Mac Conn himself, and all of Aillil’s seven sons. Mac Conn’s daughter, Sadbh, was poisoned by the yew tree’s toxins. What became of Cian and Eogan is not told. I guess the moral of this story is not to mess with the Sidhe and their property, nor to underestimate their magic.
It should be noted that the name Eogan actually means ‘born of the yew’, so it’s not surprising Aillil gave the yew to him. The yew has given its name to many places in Ireland. Co Mayo, for example, comes from the Irish Magh Eo, meaning ‘Plain of the Yew’. The village near where I live is called Virginia, but in Irish its name is Achadh an Iúr, which means ‘Field/ Meadow of the Yew’.
Incidentally, the townland I live in is called Billis, which in Irish is na Bilí, meaning ‘sacred tree’. Just down the road from my house is the hugest yew tree with the broadest trunk I have ever seen. It stands on private land, so I knocked on the owner’s door, hoping to find out a little of its history, but no-one was home. Could it possibly be the sacred tree Billis is named after?