Sacred trees of Ireland | The Yew http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

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, (Plmerstown, 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?

Yew Billis

64 thoughts on “Sacred Trees of Ireland | The Yew

  1. This post makes sure does invoke my imagination! I am picturing a druid wearing a cloak, picking a tree branch to be used as a magical staff!

    By the way, the town that I live in is also named after a tree.
    Binjai, is a fruit tree, of the mango family. Its fruits contain toxin, but if well-processed can be eaten. 😀

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  2. I guess I missed this one, Ali. Oh you can’t imagine how devoted I’m to fairies and irish legends… but I guess I already told you about that. Soon it will be on sale the English translation of the Annwyn Secret… and there is a great beautiful yew, too…
    Could you please tell me the “font” name you used for the title?
    Have a lovely week :-)claudine

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  3. What a great and well-researched post Ali. I now feel like a yew expert. The vid at Castle Crom helped it all come to life. I suppose we’re lucky to still have a few of these lovely old trees in Britain and Ireland after landowners had finished clearing the land for farming.

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    1. I actually think landowners have been quite respectful of trees in Ireland. We still have all our hedges, and I was driving up around Loughcrew the other day and spotted a lone hawthorn tree in the middle of a field that had boulders piled around it’s Base, just to make sure the far.er didn’t actually harm it while ploughing. Also, I’ve noticed there are lots of little pockets of land left wild on farmers land. I think we have to give them some credit. I think in UK we have lost much of our folklore so people are far more removed from it. Also there’s more pressure on productivity from the land, because it is such a crowded country. Thanks Roy, I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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      1. Is it right to say that these occasional hawthorns and copses are traditionally ‘fairy’ haunts Ali, that farmers & landowners won’t touch? And you’re right, the UK still has some beautiful spots but with little connection to the past other than where there are tourists to be charged an entrance fee 🙂

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        1. Its hard not to be cynical about that, isnt it? The other side of that is that so many ancient sites remain in private hands with those who do not have the funds or inclination to maintain them, so they are allowed to disintergrate and pass out of memory. Its a double edged sword. 😕

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          1. Yes I suppose there must be an element of disinterest, or lack of motivation, which allows sites to remain undisturbed. I’m not a bit cynical though, having written a novel based in a townland with an active fairy rath 🙂

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  4. Ali I always greatly enjoy your posts. I love this one about the history of the yew tree. they are amazing trees, i never realized they could live so long. thanks for the post ali, I also live in Virginia, (U.S.A.)

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    1. Thank you Shirley! So nice to hear that. They really are amazing trees, I have always loved trees but never knew much about them. I am trying to teach myself to identify at least our native trees, and finding so much mythology attached to them, I can’t help but write about them. 😊

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  5. What a wonderful post this is Ali, and so interesting, I had no idea of the history behind the majestic and glorious Yew tree. I love all trees, so the more I learn about them, the better! The tree just down from your house is truly majestic, so beautiful. I didn’t realise just how toxic they are though. Oh I hope you do find out about it, wouldn’t that be amazing if this is indeed the sacred tree from which your townland bears its name? 🙂 xx

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    1. Thanks Sherri, it would indeed! The townlands we’re created about 400 years ago I think, so it is quite possible that long lived tree alive then cod still be standing. Although it’s also possible that the name is derived from a much older one going back into pagan times. I shall have to research a bit and see what I can find. 😊

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  6. I love trees! I couldn’t live in a desert without the greenery of trees. There is something special about a yew. It brings back memories of childhood Christmas’ when we had live trees.

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  7. Yew always reminds me of Christmas, and I’m sure I have read somewhere that people would bring yew branches into their homes to celebrate the first days of Winter because the branches were evergreen. Of course we also display the pine cones at Christmas time by painting them silver or gold or, as I prefer, just plain. I love the smell they give off as well.

    Great article Ali. Never thought I’d find a tree so very interesting.

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    1. Cheers Hugh! Glad you liked it! Just seen your Truth app pt4 drop into my email… Can’t wait to read it, but gonna wait till kids settled and dinner is done… and glass of wine is in hand! 😁

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  8. Every churchyard I went into as a kid, and we visited loads (yawn!) had a yew. I’m sure I was told it was to make bows or something but they were always ancient and great to climb if you could get away with it. Great article and it doesn’t surprise me how much it appears in myths and legends. They are so strangely secret, like single tree forests

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  9. Lovely post, Ali! In the little town where we lived in the north of France there were yew trees everywhere. Every garden had one and the little park had at least six of them. There was a huge one with massive branches below the town ramparts that the kids used to play in. They referred to it as ‘the magic tree’. Did they know something they weren’t letting on?

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      1. Our garden was overhung by two yew trees and I brrought a seedling with me when we moved. In ten years it’s grown about two inches. I tell myself we’ll know when we find the place where we want to settle because the yew tree will start to grow.

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  10. ok, so you know what this says to me?….

    ‘n 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.’

    This says to me, that it probably isn’t of this Earth… as in came from another planet. Just saying. If it came from the other world and was fought over and seen as noble? Screams it.

    Did you know that apparently sheep aren’t from this world either….

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  11. This: “They are very tactile.” Yes! I remember running my fingers across the needles and berries of yew trees when I was a child. Lovely trees, I wish we could grow them here.

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  12. Love this post! I tried to repost on my Facebook but it didn’t work. Taxol, huh? Why do these trees make it? Is it the soil? Must be in the seed and mostly alone, that’s so interesting. Maybe it evolved by being by itself and became so strong with poison. And hallow, too! Wow.
    I can’t wait to visit your country; I’ll have to be there for awhile, like a month or so!

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    1. Oh don’t you have them over there? I just assumed they’d be everywhere. I should get a picture of the leaves, it always helps with identification. I know very little about trees, but I’m trying to learn. I have always loved trees.

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  13. Wonderful post, Ali – and you know how I feel about trees 🙂 There was an ancient yew tree in the graveyard at my grandfather’s church (there still is, I suppose). I always found the pink/yellow waxy berries fascinating when I was a child, though I must have been warned away as I remember being told the tree was poisonous. The age they live to gives them a majesty, does it not?

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    1. Thanks Helen! Yes, I know you love trees! One of the amazing things I learned about the yew is that even though just about all parts of it are very poisonous, the flesh of the berry isn’t! That’s why birds are unharmed by it, as they eat the berry but can’t bite or chew the seed, so it passes harmlessly through their system. Still, it’s not something I’d risk trying… My son recently learned how to pick and eat nettle leaves without getting stung; not sure I’d want to try that, either!

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      1. Yikes, he’s very brave. I know nettles have all kinds of good uses but they do have a sting, don’t they 🙂 And that’s very interesting about the flesh of the yew berry, I hadn’t realised it wasn’t poisonous. Though, like you, don’t think I’ll be eating one any time soon xx

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