Tree Lore in Irish Mythology| Guardians of the 5 Provinces

The Guardians of the Five Provinces is a title that was given to five very special trees which were in ancient times considered sacred.

The story goes that a tall stranger, some say a giant ‘as high as a wood’, came to the court of the High King at Tara one day bearing a branch from which grew three fruits, an apple, an acorn, and a hazelnut.

The stranger’s name was Trefuilngid Tre-eochair, meaning ‘of the three sprouts’. From the description, he was clearly a descendant of the Otherworld:

‘As high as a wood was the top of his shoulders, the sky and the sun visible between his legs, by reason of his size and his comeliness. A shining crystal veil about him like unto raiment of precious linen. Sandals upon his feet, and it is not known of what material they were. Golden-yellow hair upon him falling in curls to the level of his thighs.’

He requested of Conan Bec-eclach, a just and brave High King, that all the men of Ireland be assembled, and from them he selected seven of the wisest men of knowledge from each ‘quarter’ of the land, and also seven from Tara.

He taught them all about their history and heritage, and shared with them his knowledge, but during that time, not a drop of wine or morsel of food passed his lips, for he was sustained purely by the fragrance of the fruits of his branch.

When his work was done, he gave the fruits from his branch to Fintan, the White-Haired Ancient One, who extracted seeds and planted them in each quarter of the land, and one in the centre, at Uisneach.

The trees which grew from these seeds became the five sacred trees of Ireland.

The Eo MughnaEo is the old Irish word for the yew tree, yet legend claims the Eo Mughna was actually a mighty oak. It was said to have been a son of the original Tree of Knowledge, which some say resided in the Garden of Eden.

However, I am disinclined to believe this, firstly because the sacred trees were flourishing in Ireland well before Christianity arrived on its shores, and secondly because the rest of Ireland’s lore famously claims the hazel to be the Tree of Knowledge.

Eo Mughna was the only one of the five reputed to have borne the three fruits, apples, acorns and hazelnuts, just like the branch from which the seeds were originally obtained. It was supposedly located at Bealach Mughna, on the plain of Magh Ailbhe, now known as Ballaghmoon in Co Kildare.

The Bile Tortan  – Said to be an Ash, the Tree of Tortu stood at Ard Breccan, near Navan in Co Meath.

The Eo Ruis – The Yew of Rossa was said to have stood at Old Leighlin in Co Carlow.

The Craeb Daithi – The Branching Tree of Daithe was also a great Ash, located at Farbill in Co Westmeath.

The Craeb Uisnig – This sacred tree, another Ash, was to be found at Uisneach. This is interesting, because Uisneach is a hill which stood at the heart of what was once the High King’s territory, known as Mide.

It was considered the very centre point of Ireland, symbolised by the great Ail na Mirean, the stone which unified all the five provinces. Here is where the Goddess Eriu, after whom Ireland is named, is said to be buried, and where the ceremonial Beal-fires of Bealtaine were lit.

At Uisneach, the God of Lightning, Lugh Samildanach was said to have perished and was buried beneath a cairn on the shores of the lough named after him. The Craeb Uisnig was sacred to Lugh, and was known as the ‘Tree of Enchantment’,  as Druid’s wands were often made from ash.  Ash is the tree of rebirth, divination and protection, and is associated with wisdom and spiritual knowledge.

Trees were seen by our ancient ancestors to have possessed these properties due not just to their size, longevity and enduring strength; their roots pierced the underground realms of the Otherworld, where the magical Sidhe resided, whilst their branches reached high into the heavens.

That the roots were thought of as doorways can be seen in the root (pardon the pun!) of the word daire, which means ‘oak’; in Old Irish, it would be daur, which derives from the Sanskrit duir, meaning ‘door’… interesting, huh?

It is also interesting to note that all the clans possessed within their territories, their own sacred tree. It is believed that chieftains would have been inaugurated beneath their sacred tree, thus connecting them to both the powers of below and above.

Thus the trees were seen as powerful, and representative of the success of the King and his tribe; they were the Guardians of their province, and this is what was meant when each tree was said to have ‘sheltered thousands of men’… it was meant symbolically, rather than literally.

To capture and destroy the sacred tree of an enemy, then, was probably viewed as a very significant and dominant act.

The Irish Annals record that in 981AD, the Bile (sacred tree) of Magh Adhair in Co Claire under which the O’Brien chieftains were inaugurated, was torn down and destroyed by Malachy, High King of Ireland. In 1111AD, the Ulidian army cut down the sacred tree of the O’Neils, for which they later had to pay compensation of 3000 cattle, a vast sum in those days.

Curiously, records show that all the five sacred guardian trees fell together at some point within the joint rule of brothers Diarmait and Blathmac, sons of Aed Slaine, who both died in 665AD. The records, however, fail to explain why this happened.

There are stories of events which took place in other parts of Europe which might throw light on this mystery. In the late C4th, Saint Martin, Bishop of Tours, destroyed a pagan temple (unknown location, he was active across Europe) and cut down its sacred tree, which was a pine.

Saint Barbatus of Benevento (he died in 682AD) destroyed a sacred tree inscribed with a carving of a golden serpent, and in 722AD, Saint Boniface felled a sacred oak at Geismar near Frankfurt in Germany.

It is quite likely that something very similar occurred here in Ireland. In fact, I came across a story about Saint Laserian’s Holy Well, which is located at Old Leighlin in Co Carlow. Saint Laserian was also known as Saint Molaise, and it was he who felled the Yew of Rossa and gave its wood to Saint Moling to build his oratory’s roof at St Mullins (in Irish Tigh Moling),  a little village on the banks of the River Barrow in Co Carlow where he founded his monastery.

Further Reading;
Trees in Anglo-Saxon England: Literature, Lore and Landscape By Della Hooke
The Sacred Tree, Ancient and Medieval Manifestations By Carole M Cusack
Trees Beyond the Wood By Ian D. Rotherham, Christine Handley, Mauro Agnoletti, Tomasz Samojlik
The Settling of the Manor of Tara, ancient text
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42 Comments on “Tree Lore in Irish Mythology| Guardians of the 5 Provinces

  1. Pingback: On Wells 5: Their Sacred Trees | Holy Wells of Cork

  2. Pingback: St Moling: wading against the flow | Holy Wells of Cork

  3. im related to both o briens ( breen ) and o neills and my tree is the rowan ( mountain ash ) and i love ents, so thank you for keeping the past alive


    • The Rowan is one of my favourite trees! This year, rowans have not done so well, losing their leaves early, and not producing many berries. Last year, they were fabulous, and absolutely loaded with berries! Funny how the natural fauna of Ireland flourishes in cycles. This year the hawthorn was magnificent, it was reported widely all around Ireland, and we have had the most phenomenal crop of berries… sounds ghastly, but the hedges looked like they had been drenched with blood, the berries are quite dark red, I’ve never seen anything like it!


  4. Pingback: The 5 Fifths of Ireland | aliisaacstoryteller

  5. Wonderful! I have a Japanese Yew tree that is sickly at the moment and am trying to cure it. We have lovely subtropical trees including my favorite Crape Myrtles that are covered in pink blossoms.


  6. The history and mythology of trees is fascinating in all cultures, but what you have revealed here I find real and a living story ~ coming from your viewpoint and writing skill… The Hazel is my favorite, mainly because we have many in my home state of Oregon (produces 99% of the USA hazelnuts/filberts) 🙂


  7. Fascinating – the minute I started reading this I immediately thought – giants and nephilim – so interesting that there was then a connection to the bible. With regards to the dates – I wholeheartedly believe the bible has its dates wrong anyway. I think some of the stories are much older than we realise.

    Nephilim were also infamous for teaching humans everything they know about society, law, building, weapons and…

    ‘And they [the fallen] taught charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made [men] acquainted with plants’ Enoch 7:1 from the Ethiopic, Trans. R H Charles 1912 ( The book of Enoch is a book that was never allowed in the bible…)

    I know this may not be linked, but I do find it fascinating that there are similarities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! I knew you’d like the giant reference… I was just waiting for you to see that! Yes, lots of similarities, and I agree with you about dates, not just in relation to the bible, but many other ancient stories and structures.


  8. Yes, Ali, denizens of the ‘other-world’ are able to garner sustenance from the fragrance of fruit…
    as would we if we could only learn how to live in our ‘subtle bodies’…

    Liked by 1 person

    • *sigh*… if only I could do the same I’d be half the woman I am! Lol! Joking aside, I’ve not come across this concept before. Aspects of this story strike me as being a little out of the ordinary with respect to your typical Irish myth, like it doesnt quite fit.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. What a wonderful tale. I love the folklore of the trees and all stories about them including those of the tree of life or the tree of knowledge etc Every culture and faith seem to give them importance. The mayans of central america also believed that the great tree grew from the bowels of the terrifying underworld and reached into the milky way for souls to travel. They have such a connection to the divine. We must protect them.

    PS I love magical doors to other worlds in trees too! 🙂


    • Thank you! Yes trees were certainly beloved and revered in most ancient cultures. Until material possessions became more important. It was all down hill from there! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This is fascinating. I did expect that each tree was a different species. I love trees for their beauty, shade, fruit, nuts, flowers,and many other reasons, but I never knew there was so much folklore about trees. Truly amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. When we moved to the New Forest in 1969 there were two famous oaks of venerable years and histories: the Knightwood Oak ( and the Eagle Oak ( Within days of arriving Dad took us to the former and spun a tale about Henry VIII and how the many trunks foretold of his many wives. Heaven knows what it has seen. It took ages to find the latter and I didn’t know about its name for years. I glad we protect some ancient trees these days at least. A usual stunningly researched post.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. You still never fail to amaze me with these ancient tales Ali. Tree lore was so important to our ancestors, If only they could talk. Imagine what wisdom they could share. The original trees may be gone, but we still got some rather special places with trees that still pulsate. The old Oak in Powerscourt is one such place. 🙂 Im sure you have found a few on your travels?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Fascinating stuff, Ali, I especially loved the etymology of doire and door…. Amazing how the most important human concepts, such as doors, survive throughout language evolution.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. It would be interesting to know just what kind of backing these ‘Saints’ needed to bring down the sacred trees. It had to be a way of ending the pagan way of life and worship and bring the people to Christianity but it wouldn’t sound good to hear a Saint needed the backing of an army to do it.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Judging by the history we have inherited, I dont think the church had any qualms about using violence to enforce their message. Cutting down the sacred tree must have been a hugely symbolic act, using its wood to build your church even more so. Im sure the people would have tried hard to defend their trees. It would seem tree-huggers are not a modern invention!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. You always have such interesting stuff. I’m surprised they weren’t different kinds of trees, one per province. In a way, this duplication of species in several cases makes the story more believable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know thats what I thought too. But I guess the special spiritual and magical properties of the ash made it a wise choice. Plus its very fast growing. I am surrounded by them here. Along with the willow, theyre quite invasive and thought of almost as a weed! They’re welcome to invade my garden.

      Liked by 1 person

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