Irish Trees in Mythology and Folklore
Irish Trees in mythology and folklore are often celebrated for the numerous benefits they provide for the environment. However, the Celts cherished trees long before their environmental values were discovered, which can be seen through their mythology and folklore.
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The Irish’s love for trees is reflected across the country as over 10,000 places in Ireland contain a tree in their name. This includes the county of Derry, whose named evolved from the Gaelic name for a place of Oak trees.
It is believed that our fascination and admiration for Irish trees stemmed largely from the fact that they serve as symbols for pure human life, as they too are living beings that fight to live and grow.
In Ireland in particular, their deep respect for trees can be seen throughout history. One of the earliest examples that showcase the Celt’s appreciation for trees is the Ogham alphabet, which was used to write the early Irish language.
Every letter of the Ogham alphabet is associated with a tree that begins with the sound that the letter depicts. Out of the Ogham alphabet grew the Celtic Tree Calendar which consists of 13 months, each of which is symbolized by a tree and its ogham letter. The roots of the calendar lie within ancient Celtic folklore.
Irish folklore and mythology is saturated with tributes to trees. According to Celtic mythology a tree, in particular a hazel tree, was the first creation on Earth.
The first Irish hazel tree, which grew upon the Well of Wisdom, was said to have held all the knowledge of the universe within its branches. When a salmon in the Well of Wisdom ate the nuts that fell from the hazel tree, it obtained all the knowledge of the universe that the tree bore, becoming the Salmon of Knowledge.
The legend goes that the first man to eat this salmon would then have all the knowledge passed on to them. The man to do so was Fionn MacCumhaill, who later used this knowledge to become the leader of Fianna, a band of famed warriors in Irish mythology.
The story continues with Fionn’s son, Oisín, who went on to marry Niamh, the daughter of the King of Tír na nÓg. Oisín traveled with Niamh back to Tír na nÓg, a Celtic Otherworld known as the Land of the Young, where the trees stay green and the people never age.
After 300 years, Oisín traveled back to Ireland where he immediately aged into a withered all man when he touched the ground and filled with sadness upon hearing the news that his father, Fionn, and all of Fianna had died. Oisín spent the last of his days telling tales of his father and Fianna as well as Niamh and Tír na nÓg, which continue to live on to this day.
Yet the Irish folklore tales regarding trees do not end there. Due to their extraordinary structure, with their roots spreading underground and their branches reaching high in the sky, ancient Celts perceived trees as doorways to the underworld and heavens.
They also believed Irish trees were home to the spirits of their ancestors. As such, trees in ancient Ireland were believed to be protectors.
Five Irish trees in particular were known as the “Guardian Trees of Ireland”, which sheltered each of the five provinces. Celtic folklore describes the “Guardian Trees of Ireland” as follows: Eó Mugna (Oak tree), Bile Tortan (Ash tree), Eó Ruis (Yew tree), Craeb Daithí (Ash tree), Craeb Uisnig (Ash tree).
Legend says these trees grew from seeds given by a descendant of the otherworld.
The Celts further showcased their respect for trees by tributing a specific symbol to individual tree species. In Celtic history, Oak, Ash and Hawthorn trees were the most sacred trees.
Oak trees embodied truth, courage, and wisdom. The Oak tree is also featured in the Celtic Tree of Life symbol. Irish Ash trees were cherished for their strength and healing power.
Hawthorn trees were believed to be representative of love and protection.
Perhaps due to their prominence in Irish history, which brands Hawthorn trees as a tree to be respected, Celtic folklore tells of how these trees are also the subject of a variety of superstitions. One of the most famous examples of such is the “Irish Fairy Tree”.
Believed to be sacred to the fairies, and possibly even serve as a gateway between worlds, lone hawthorn trees that stand in the middle of a field are never cut down.
These trees are thought to bring good luck to the landowner and terrible misfortune upon whomever damages it.
This superstition is so widely shared that it is not uncommon to drive around Ireland and see fields of farmland with Irish fairy trees right in the middle, as many farmers fear to cut them down and instead choose to work around them.
While many “Irish fairy trees” exist, the most well-known is located on the Hill of Tara.
People often travel to these trees in order to tie ribbons around them, representing their wishes or prayers, and many leave gifts behind as a sign of gratitude for a wish that was granted.
The rich history of trees in cultures around the world, particularly Irish mythology and folklore, tied with the environmental benefits they provide make the planting of an Irish tree the perfect gift for any occasion.
The planting of an Irish tree to memorialize a loved one is growing increasingly popular around the world.
Article written by Charlotte Morten
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