Tree Lore in Ireland
It’s difficult to imagine today, but Ireland was once an island of forests. Pre-Christian Ireland had no temples for worship, but they did have plenty of trees so they specified certain trees as holy and worshiped under them. Some tribes had a specific tree associated with them, and homes were erected around one of these trees. Trees were so important to the ancient Irish people that they even made laws pertaining to them. The Brehon Laws classify the trees into four classes, spelling out the penalties for felling each type unlawfully.
- Chieftans: oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, pine, and apple.
- Peasant trees: alder, willow, hawthorn, rowan, birch, and elm.
- Shrub trees: blackthorn, elder, juniper, and reed, which was included because of its usefulness.
- Brambles: dog-rose, bramble, fern, and spindle.
They aren’t all trees, but they were classified as such.
The Tree of Life
The Celtic symbolism of the Tree of Life signifies the connection between the earth and the sky. It reminds us that we are connected both to heaven and earth. (I’m sure there are other symbolisms as is the case with all Celtic symbols, which are open to interpretation.)
One such interpretation comes from St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise.
From my book, Celtic Wisdom:
“Once, when he visited St. Enda on Aran, he had a vision of a great tree growing in the middle of Ireland with branches spreading to all four corners of the land. Enda believed that this meant that Ciaran would be that tree of great influence, and he was, in a matter of speaking, by founding Clonmacnoise.”
Trees were very important in ancient Ireland, so it’s no wonder this symbolic vision involved a tree. Ancient Christian monasteries were usually surrounded by a sacred grove of yews, and this may have been left over from pagan times when the oak and the yew were considered the most sacred of trees. Some of the yews still growing in Ireland and Britain might actually predate the coming of Christianity.
I like to think my own love of trees comes from my heritage. Trees are constant reminders of the cycle of life.
Cindy Thomson is the author of Celtic Wisdom and Brigid of Ireland. She enjoys exploring Irish history, especially the Early Christian period. She has written numerous articles on Irish genealogy. Visit her blog Celtic Voices and her web site where you can sign up for her monthly newsletter.