Emerald Isle

The Guardian Trees of Ireland

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

Ancient and mysterious trees of Ireland

Ancient are the hills and mountains of Ireland, and ancient are her trees, something that the old people who lived here knew well. To them a tree was a mystical thing with its roots reaching down into the underworld of the sidhe mounds, and its branches lifting up high into the heavens towards the sun, moon and stars. Well over ten thousand places in Ireland today have a tree in their names, such as Moycullen, the plain of the holly, and Newry, the yew at the hard of the strand.

Trees were seen as crossroads and doorways to the spirit world, and not a king was crowned nor a chieftain granted authority unless it was beneath the leaves of their clan tree, from whose branches was cut a rod, the slat na righe, to show their authority. As the tree or bile flourished, so did the people of the land, and so a clan tree was said to shelter thousands of men.

Fionn MacCumhaill's name means “son of the hazel”, for hazel nuts were believed to represent knowledge, and you could count the number of them a salmon had eaten by counting the spots on his back.

But the kings of all of the trees of Ireland were the five guardian trees, protectors of the five provinces. As it was told, a mighty giant came to the court of High King Conan Bececlach, known for his wisdom and even-handed justice, bearing with him a strange staff of many fruits, including the apple, the acorn and the hazelnut.

As tall as a tree himself he was, with golden locks flowing to his knees, clad in a shimmering white robe, and the sun and sky could be seen between his legs, so mighty was he.

Well his name was Trefuilngid Treochair, and it was plain to see he was not of this world!

He called together all the people of Ireland, and chose the seven wisest from each quarter, and seven more from Tara, the King's province. Many strange sciences and arts he taught them, and secrets from times long past, whose mysteries slumber now beneath the ocean waves, or in the crevices of the deepest caves, forgotten by even the oldest and wisest of owls.

After that, he gave the fruits from his staff to Fintan, the white-haired eldest, who put his druidic craft to good use, taking the seeds from the fruit and planting one in each corner of Ireland, and one more in Tara, that was called Temair, at Uisneach.

These trees became the five guardians of Ireland, and long and long they stood.

Eó Mugna was one of the sons of the tree of knowledge, which stood in the garden of Eden. His name meant yew but in fact he was an oak of immense size and girth. This tree sprang from the staff itself, and bore apples, acorns and hazelnuts. The tree stood at  Bealach Mughna, on the plain of Magh Ailbhe, which today we call Ballaghmoon, Co Kildare.

Bile Tortan was a tall and straight ash, and it grew at Ard Breccan in Navan, while Eó Ruis stood at  Leighlin, County Carlow, and Craeb Daithí, another ash, spread its many branches at Farbill, County Westmeath.

The central tree at Tara was Craeb Uisnig or Uisneach, and it grew on a hill at the heart of Mide, the King's country. This place was thought to be the very centre of Ireland, where all five provinces touched, and it cast its shadow over Ail na Mirean, the Stone of Divisions.

How these trees fell is not known, but it is said to have happened during the joint reign of the brothers Diarmait and Blathmac, sons of Áed Sláine, who both died in in the middle of the seventh century.

Of course Ireland in those times was far from a peaceful place, I am sorry to say, and since the power and wellbeing of a king and his people was connected to their sacred tree, other tribes and clans would sometimes attack and uproot the trees! And by this they demonstrated their power and mastery over their enemies.

In the twelfth century, the cherished red birch of the Ui Fiachra Aidhne of Galway was destroyed, while in the eleventh century the ancient annals tell us that the O'Loughlins, who had sworn fealty to the infamous O'Neills, invaded Ulster and hewed their tree, Craebh-Tulcha, from its roots.

Twelve years later the Ulidian Ulstermen had their vengeance, raiding O'Neill lands and cutting down the entire sacred grove of Tulach Óc, where the O'Neill kings were crowned. Not that the O'Neills took that sitting down, for they reaped a harvest of three thousand cattle from the raiders not long after, a steep prince to pay indeed back in those days. In the tenth century, the tree of Magh Adhair in Clare, where the O'Briens held sway, was destroyed by the High King himself!

Not alone in their veneration of trees were the Gaels, for the Norse reavers who troubled this green land also held their dark ceremonies under the boughs of consecrated groves. These were the dreaded blóts, where human and animal sacrifices were hung in worship of their heathen gods.

It was for this reason that the High King of Ireland, Brian Bóruma, who drove the Vikings out once and for all, sent a group of his men to Caill Tomair after he had defeated Sitric Silkbeard the Viking slaver lord. Caill Tomair, meaning “Thor's wood”, was a sacred place to the Vikings, and it was there they had worked the blóts.

Needless to say, there wasn't much of it left standing after Brian Ború's men were through with it!

So important were trees to the people of Ireland that the Brehon laws, some of the earliest and most sophisticated laws in Europe, had many rules devoted to them. Even the felling of a chieftain tree was considered the same as killing a chieftain!

The laws of the poets divided trees into four kinds, the airig fedo, nobles of the wood, the aithig fedo or commoners, the fodla fedo, the lower divisions and the losa fedo, or bushes.

The book Bretha Comaithchesa, which means “neighbourhood judgements” from the eighth century or thereabouts, tells us of the different penalties applied for damaging the branches or bark of tree from each rank, and for cutting one down. It was usually the case that dire or punishments were levied as livestock, so if you cut down a noble tree, that would cost you two and half good cows, while for a commoner, it was one cow, and so it went.

Even the alphabet, when the people of Ireland began writing, was deeply connected to their reverence for trees. This was the Ogham, where each letter had a name and a riddle which led back to the meaning of the letter, and many of these letters meant different kinds of trees. Very fond of riddles they were, perhaps considering them the best way to keep knowledge from unprepared minds.

It was said that the ancient Sidhe Ogma sun-face, or the Ogham lord, raised four pillars of equal length, and upon them he wrote the signs of the Ogham. His followers or those who sought his favour would have a slender golden chain attached from the tip of their tongue to their ears, to symbolise his eloquence and honeyed mastery of language.

As is recorded in Auraicept na n-Éces, a 7th-century work of Irish grammar, written by a scholar named Longarad, words in Ogham are to be read from right to left and from the bottom to the top.

This is their number: there are five groups of Ogham and each group has five letters, and each of them has from one to five scores, and their orientations distinguish them. Their orientations are: right of the stemline, left of the stemline, around the stemline, through the stemline, across the stemline. Ogham is climbed as a tree is climbed, i.e. treading on the root of the tree first with one’s right hand before and one’s left hand last. After that it is across it and against it and through it and around it.

Ogham itself is a mysterious and complex script, and it would take a poet of old three years to learn each variety, fifty each year. By this means were secrets passed around and hidden lore kept hidden. Some were written in circles, others in rectangles, some on crosses or wavy lines, and warriors would have their own Ogham.

These are the twenty eight trees and bushes mentioned in Brehon law:

The Airig Fedo, or Lords of the Wood

The Aithig Fhedo, Commoners of the Wood

The Fodla Fedo or the Lower Inhabitants of the Wood

And lastly, the Losa Fedo, the Bushes of the Wood.

In one of the earliest tongues of Ireland, the oak was known as daru or derwa, and it has been used to build the foundations of crannógs, the lake dwelling places of the ancient Irish, as well as their toghers, trackways and paths across bogs and uncertain ground. Oak gall was used for the making of black dye.

Hazel nuts and hazel wood were both of great importance to the old people. The name-story for Tara tells that it was a hazel wood known as Fordruim. If you wanted to join the Fianna warrior bands, you had to protect yourself against many attacks using only a hazel rod and shield. It was forbidden to burn hazel, since it was the poet's wood, and some said it was a fairy tree.

Hazel nuts were called the nuts of wisdom, and seven hazel trees grew at the wellspring of the seven chief rivers of Ireland. Nine more grew over Connla's well and the well of Segais, and it was by eating a salmon who had partaken of their nuts that Fionn gained his legendary knowledge.

From yew or apple was the wand of the druid made, and nine of the rooms in the place of Cráebruad had nine rooms lined with red yew for the pleasure of Conchobar Mac Neasa.

The ash was greatly respected, as it made long, straight, unbreaking shafts for spears and staves, and people would often refuse to cut down an ash tree in case their own homes might be burned by the sidhe! More than half of the sacred guardian trees of Ireland were ash, and they are sometimes planting in places of particular importance.

The apple tree was meant to hold the keys to immortality, and the fairy island of Emain Ablach was known as the land of the apples, and it was meant to be a favoured food of the fairies. Cúchulainn once followed a rolling apple to freedom.

The rowan stopped the dead from rising, puts wings under a dog, and stopped fire from taking hold of a home. Its protective qualities meant ti was planted next to churches and homes throughout the country.

The alder was credited with many healing powers since its white wood turns red when cut.

The hawthorn, the May bush or white thorn bus, the sacred scéach, was known to be a fairy meeting tree, and should you find one standing alone, it would not be a good idea to cut it down! You can sometimes tell when you're looking at a fairy tree rather than a normal tree because it is narrow and divides into three bushes from the one trunk, and the branches might look like human limbs. Often as well you may spot a fairy path because it will go from one hawthorn to the next!

On the map below can be found the place where Craeb Uisnig, the central guardian tree of Ireland, once grew.

More Tales from the Historical Cycle

If you'd like to leave a tip, just click here!

Archaeological information is licensed for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence from the National Monuments Service - Archaeological Survey of Ireland.

Note that this license DOES NOT EXTEND to folkloric, mythological and related information on the site. That data remains under full private copyright protection