Most people have similar thoughts or feelings about trees: they’re nice to look at, they are where birds live, and they tend to be leafy, live in parks and forests or between pavements and roads of suburbia. Maybe when you were a kid you had one in your garden or on your road that you and your friends climbed after school, to have secret meetings, play games and tell stories in.
As we grow up, we learn about the uses we have for trees, that our furniture, paper and all kinds of other items come from them. It turns out that trees have thousands of different uses, from matchsticks right up to Chanel No.5 perfume (the scent of which comes from one particular tree in the Amazon jungle!).
Of course, as well as this we know that trees breathe out oxygen which we need to survive, and breathe in carbon dioxide, which is poisonous. One thing I think we can all agree on is that trees are pretty useful things, and when we begin to look around us, we see that they are kind of everywhere too. I bet that wherever you are now, reading this, you can either see a tree or a product from one of them.
Here in Ireland, the importance of trees to human society has been known since ancient times and we have bucket-loads of folklore, stories, wisdom and songs about trees. We even once had our own language, the basis of which was rooted (see what I did there) in the forests of this island. What follows is a brief guide to this language and an insight into one of the of uses it may have had within our ancient society.
The language which I speak of is called Ogham, pronounced “owe-hmm” or “ohm.” Scholars debate about the origins of this word, however the most commonly accepted answer is that it comes from the Celtic God Ogma who was the god of speech and language. (Although to clarify – strictly speaking, ogham was a script, not a language. The language spoken was Gaelic and ogham was the script used, in the way that we speak English today but use the Latin alphabet for script.)
There is some debate as to the origins, meanings and associations of each of the letters in the Ogham alphabet and where they all come from. Niall Mac Coitir goes into these debates in his wonderfully written book “Ireland’s Trees: Myths, Legends and Folklore,” if you wish to know more on this subject then I highly recommend picking up a copy of Mac Coitir’s work.
Ogham was the first form of writing ever used for the Irish language and probably originated some time between the 2nd and 4th fourth centuries, possibly used up until the 8th century. There are hundreds of examples still to be found in Ireland to this day and in places of historical Irish settlement in Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Cornwall. The Ogham alphabet consists of a series of strokes or notches arranged at right angles along the edge of a stone or piece of wood.
There are twenty letters within the Ogham language and each letter is associated with a different native tree of Ireland. Sometimes the association is very direct – the name of the tree in Irish matches the name of the letter. Other times it is more poetic – the name of that letter translates to a word that would be associated with only one tree in particular.
This may seem odd for our modern minds, but it is important to note the considerable economic, spiritual and symbolic importance of trees in this ancient society. Indeed, in early Ireland, trees were ranked or classified according to their importance and heavy penalties could be imposed upon people found to be damaging them or interfering with them.
The terminology of Ogham is full of references to trees – take the Ogham term for “letter” (fid), which means “tree.” Feda or “trees” (the plural of fid), can also be used exclusively for vowels, while consonants, called táebomnai, means “side of a tree-trunk”. The term for “word” is flesc, which means “twig,” and when we consider that most inscriptions were carved on to wood it is not hard to see how such strong associations came to exist. Another note of importance is that Ogham is read from the bottom up, just like one would climb a tree.
Lastly we see that the Ogham alphabet was arranged according to the seasonal cycle of the trees. This is not surprising when we consider how important nature was to the ancient people of Ireland, not only for their survival, but also as a source of wisdom and guidance as can be seen from the remnants of Celtic philosophy and mythology that are still with us today. In the next section, we will look at this calendar and see how it has a growing relevance and importance to us today, as we begin to reconnect with our environment and roots as members of the natural world.
Before we begin, we must keep one thing in mind about the Celts: they viewed the daily and yearly cycle differently to how we do today. To them, the new day began with the onset of darkness. Similarly for the yearly cycle, the Celtic New Year fell at Samhain, an annual festival held on the 31st October, when we are entering the darkest part of the year. (Samhain is one of four Gaelic festivals marking the changing of the seasons, and it is the origins of modern-day Halloween, as this was seen as the time of year when the doorway between this world and the next was open).
The Celts also followed a lunar cycle, meaning the calendar consists of 13 months as opposed to the Roman 12. So, check out this calendar below and allow yourself to open-up to the living calendar that surrounds us on a daily basis. Without further ado, read on to learn more about the Ogham calendar and the native trees of Ireland.
One of Irelands few native evergreen trees, at this time of year the Yew tree is wearing its red berries. The yew is associated with death and the after life and as such it is most often found in graveyards.
In Killarney National Park – Ireland’s first national park – find an elegant yew tree growing in the centre of the beautiful eerie ruins of Muckross Abbey.
Another evergreen, the Pine is one of the most well known of our trees. The familiar scent of the pine is one that will be found within homes throughout the country this month as traditionally of course it is the pine that we use for our Christmas trees. Despite its name, the Scot’s Pine is indeed a native tree (unlike the Sitka spruce we see in rows along the side of the motorway).
The Birch’s bright bark stands out in stark contrast to the darkness of this month, often-times its white bark mirrors the frost and snow upon the ground. The birch symbolises new life and the awakening of a bright, new sun and the promise of spring upon the horizon.
Meander through Glenveagh National Park in County Donegal to see the native Irish birches. In fact, “Glen Veagh” is Irish for Valley of the Birches!
Now we are on the cusp of spring and looking at the Rowan tree we will see that the buds are beginning to swell, a sure sign that spring is on the way, there may be a few flame-red berries left upon the tree from winter, whence we get the name Luis from, meaning “flame”. In the Irish tradition it is the time of Imbolc, the feast of Brigid, a time of nurturing and protection, and there is no better tree to symbolise protection than the warming, welcoming fire of Rowan.
Also called Mountain Ash, you will spot many examples of these beautiful rowen trees in mostly upland areas.
The Alder is now producing its green and yellow catkins and its purple buds are swelling with sap, ready to burst forward. This is a tree of battle and inside the tree orange-red sap is now rising up, the blood rising before a stern test. Thus, alder represents the battle between light and dark; the momentum is just about to switch once again as we approach the spring equinox.
Mainly found in boggy areas and beside rivers, particularly in the midlands, Ireland Hidden Heartlands.
The flexible, frolicking willow now comes into view as its long, slender branches are breaking into bright, green leaf. The bees are delighted with the willows’ yellow catkins now as an early source of pollen. Growth is well under way now and as we pass into the lighter half of the year with Spring well and truly in town. Easter is celebrated during this time of year.
Willows like wet ground, so you’ll find them along most riverbanks and lakesides. There are some especially beautiful examples in Glendalough, Co. Wicklow.
Take a stroll through any part of the Irish countryside now and it is impossible to miss the bright, white blossoms of the hawthorn tree in full bloom. The darkness of winter is gone now as the land has become whitewashed by the powerful, mysterious and beautiful hawthorn.
A symbol of creativity and fertility, this tree is associated with the Celtic celebration of Bealtaine, which falls on the first day of May when hawthorn bushes are decorated with bits of coloured cloth, streamers and locally growing flowers to welcome the onset of summer.
These trees often have a mystical element to them – they are often associated with fairies and called “fairy trees” as they are believed to be entrances into the fairy world. For that reason, hawthrn fairy trees are regarded with reverence.
Perhaps the most famous example of a hawthorn tree in Ireland is the Haunted Tree on the Old Bog Road that cuts through the rugged boggy terrain of Connemara. Though you’ll also find hawthorns in nearly all the hedges throughout the country.
The ash tree, strong and beautiful and the signifier of fertile ground, comes into bloom at this time of year, full of self-confidence at the time of highest fertility on the land. Three of the five great, historic trees of Ireland were Ash, they stood in the centre of Ireland as guardians and protectors. These trees are also associated with holy-wells or sacred springs, the Ash is the Tree of Life; it may be cut down but springs back up again anew like no other.
Besides many holy wells and in many parks throughout the country, one of the largest is found in Stradbally Hall, Co. Laois
Lord and protector of the forest, king of trees, it now stands proudly covered in mature, green leaves. The oak supports more life than any other tree and is therefore one of the most important trees for biodiversity. Midsummer arrives now and traditionally fires were lit atop hilltops and at sacred places.
If you love old growth forests and plenty of oaks, head to Killarney National Park for some of Irelands last remaining ancient oak forests (as well as waterfalls, herds of red deer, lush woodland, crumbling abbeys and grand houses).
Look closely upon the shiny, green foliage of the Holly at this time of year and see the tiny flowers upon it coming into bloom, these flowers will turn into the red berries of winter. It is the time of harvest, Lughnasa in Ireland, where traditionally great celebrations would take place to mark the harvest with concerts, competitions and contests.
Another haunted tree on the Old Bog Road in Connemara, and of course there is Ireland’s tallest Holly in Glenveagh, Donegal.
The hazelnuts have arrived, all green now, soon they will be brown and ready to be eaten. The land is turning golden as the harvest is under way. The hazel tree is the tree of wisdom and it is said that there were nine hazel trees surrounding the Well of Segais – the source of Irelands great rivers, the Shannon and the Boyne. It was from one of these nine that a hazelnut fell into the water that was then eaten by the salmon of knowledge, the salmon which was then tasted by the legendary warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill.
One place with plenty of hazel trees is Hazelwood on the shores of Lough Gill in County Sligo, a beautiful region made famous from WB Yeats poem of the same name.
All throughout the land now, the golden, red and green apples are ready to be plucked from the tree and eaten. The Autumn equinox falls around this time, which means we enter the darker half of the year. Rejoice in what has been achieved and relish this sweetest of fruit which marks the beginning of the end of the harvest and the yearly cycle.
Tipperary is the place to go for orchards with the apples for the famous cider Bulmer’s. There is also a lovely Apple Farm in Cahir, located in Ireland’s Ancient East.
One of the wisest and most mysterious of trees, this tree is now full of purple-red berries, ready to be harvested to make elderberry wine and syrup. The elder is a healing tree and all sorts of medicine can be made from its fruits to help protect us over winter.
All along the hedgerows of most counties. Why not experience the magic of all of Ireland on a bike tour of the Wild Atlantic Way?