Trees of Ireland from Ancient Days

By Garreth Byrne

Trees provide shelter for humans and farm animals. They sometimes have medicinal uses, for example some varieties of willow provide a chemical used in aspirin tablets, while in the Yunnan Province in south-west China, a substance extracted from willow is used in the manufacture of toothpaste. 

Hazel trees produce nuts consumed by animals and humans. Beech nuts are gathered before winter by squirrels, are devoured by wild birds and are a source of nourishment for wild deer during the barren winter season. Walnuts and other varieties come from tropical rainforests in Brazil and Asia. (NB. Groundnuts or peanuts don’t grow on trees – they form under raised soil beds and being legumes, are often sown in Africa and elsewhere as companion crops to maize because their root nodules make nitrogen available).

Many tree species produce berries and fruit. Humans benefit from the Vitamin C, and birds ingest the seeds and disperse them to other parts of the forest, and by migration across oceans to other lands.

The early Celts depended on the vast primordial forests of Ireland for their food supply. They hunted wild animals – wild deer and pigs were plentiful. They foraged for fruits (wild apples for example) nuts and vegetable plants. Wild honey was plundered, at personal risk, from hives in the tall trees. For warmth and cooking, they cooked wood fuel for fires. The best species were and still are, when seasoned, ash, beech, birch, elm, hawthorn, oak and sycamore. 

An 8th century AD Brehon Law on ‘neighbourhood’ lists 29 tree species and shrubs and divides them into four classes. The categories were Nobles, Commoners, Lower Orders and Bushes or Slave Trees.

The Nobels included: Oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, pine and wild apple trees. 

The Commoners included: Alder, willow, hawthorn, rowan, birch and elm.

Lower Orders included: Blackthorn, elder, spindle, arbutus and juniper among others.

Bushes or Slave Trees included: Bracken, furze, brambles, heather, gooseberry and ivy.

Some species

Ireland has many tree species that thrive in our mild humid climate. Some of them have been with us from time immemorial, while others were introduced by incomers and by migratory birds dispersing seeds. As research into bogland has shown, oak and Scots Pine have been indigenous, but the Scot’s Pine disappeared for some time, until it was reintroduced by human design. Let us consider some of the common native species and the folklore attached to some.

Yew tree: In several religious traditions, the yew is a symbol of eternal life. It is no surprise to find this tree as part of the landscape in cemeteries. It can be trimmed neatly, another reason to have it around. The bark and seeds are poisonous, so it needs to be kept away from livestock. In medieval times, longbow weapons were made from the yew.

Juniper: The berries from this tree flavour gin. The ancient Egyptians extracted oil from this and from the cedar for embalming dead bodies.

Rowan: Called Caorthann in Gaelic, it is sometimes known as mountain ash, but is not in fact as ash tree. Ancient people believed that the rowan protected them against witches and enchantment. Farmers sometimes protected livestock by inserting rowan sticks above the entrances to outhouses. The luminous orange berries are plentiful and much appreciated by birds in late autumn and winter. The sticks of the mature tree served as handles for tools. Spindles for spinning wheels came from rowan. Walking sticks were often made from it. The rowan is hardy and grows on rocky hills.

The holly: We more often encounter this prickly evergreen species as a bush in a hedge. The holly tree can grow tall and strong if allowed. The Druids thought the holly was a sacred plant and a symbol of fertility and eternal life. Ancient Romans associated the holly with Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest. During the winter solstice (21st December) the Romans celebrated the Saturnalian festival. Wreaths of holly were presented as gifts, and pagans brought branches with berries into their homes to ward off evil spirits. Christians later adapted the holly and believed that the red berries represented Christ’s blood spilled on the cross. The holly was highly prized by the ancient Celts. The wood of a mature tree was used for buildings, for horse-drawn chariots and as spear shafts. Today, furniture makers find holly suitable for inlay work. Wild birds devour the pretty red berries.

Alder: This tree flourishes along river banks and beside lakes. It is not pretty, but stabilises land adjoining banks and its roots give off nitrogen, which causes wild flowers and other vegetation to flourish. The alder is sometimes planted in land reclamation schemes. Wood pilings under canal and sea water in Venice are made from alder.

Elder: This seems to grow wild in garden hedges, especially on derelict sites. It produces a wonderful, white musk blossom early in summer which results in a bumper crop of elderberries in August and September. Elderberry wine is a favourite product, but the fruit can also be used for jellies. A non-alcoholic cordial drink can be made from the early summer  flowers. If humans don’t harvest the fruit, the birds will enjoy the glut. 

The blackthorn: Again, this species is largely associated with hedges. Its prickly branches distinguish it from hawthorn (sceach geal). The sloe berries can be harvested after the first frost and have been used for sloe gin, for adding to pies, or to make a sort of wine. The species was traditionally associated with sinister spirits. In medieval times, blackthorn branches were used with other wood as pires to burn witches. The shillelagh hand weapon was associated with feuding combat and featured in the bloody faction fights of the nineteenth century.

Oak: This was highly prized by the Celts, who built homes, weapons and boats from the species. Acorns were fed to swine. When English colonists moved inland across Ireland from Tudor times onwards, they paid special attention to felling the mighty oak. Queen Elizabeth I built much of her fleet from Irish Oak to battle against the Spanish Armada. Today, more happily, bog oak provides material for groups of amateur sculptors, who clean, shape and varnish artistic pieces that they often sell to avid collectors.

* In Leitrim and other counties, a social and ecological concern has arise in recent decades. Commercial companies have brought up tracts of land, sometimes on hillsides, for the planting of Sitka Spruce evergreen forests. In some cases companies have leased farmland and paid farmers to plant and manage the trees until harvesting. This has affected land prices. In addition, it is asserted that the pine trees acidify runoff water that finds its way into farmland and into rivers, affecting grass production and fish numbers. Campaigners against Sitka Spruce are asking government to encourage more planting of deciduous broadleaved species of trees.

Featured image from Dave Bleasdale.