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 Mughna – Eo 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.
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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