Our oldest traditions carry with them respect and appreciation for trees. Ireland to its first human dwellers was a deeply forested place. And trees are still deeply significant to the mythology and culture expression of the Irish psyche.
Our national sport is played with hunks of ash tree and the proficiency with a Hurley is how Cúchullain got his name and fame – And trees follow his story, the willow for example with its Irish name Saille, a word meaning a sudden outburst of action, expression or emotion, expresses Cúchullain’s temperament but also in mythology symbolised the Morrigan whom trained Cúchullain and eventually made him legend at his final battle.
Carrying a willow leaf is known as a charm to protect against jealousy, a folk lore perhaps traceable back to Cúchullain and his Wife Emer and the inspiration for The Only Jealousy of Emer a story by Augusta Gregory later a play with same title by William butler Yeats.
Fionn mac Cumhaill or Mac Coll or Mac Cool– whatever way you spell it, it means the son of the hazel. We know him through the tale of the salmon of knowledge but that story begins “Over Connla’s well there hung the nine hazels of poetic arts, their nuts shed to feed the salmon swimming in the pool below…”. It was the nuts that held the wisdom. Still used in some parts for charms and spells and for dowsing. Think of Yeats again – “I went out to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head..” from the tale of wandering Aengeus.
One tradition was to keep a hazel nut in the pocket to ward off rheumatism and lumbago – in fact one in the mouth might just do that with its richness in healthy oils and vitamins. The gatherer was always the brother of the hunter and the medicinal ever the sister to the edible.
The red branch knights get their name from the alder tree from which they made spears and shields – its sap, at cuts and breaks in the wood, turns red. Alder is the tree that represents the month of March (the Warfare month) in the old Irish calendar – the ogham tree calendar – were 13 trees represented thirteen months – back when we count the months by lunar and menstrual cycles – a nod too to the warrior capacity of all women.
So trees informed how we Irish marked the months, how we made written language by symbols and strikes representing trees and tree letters, how we told our stories and how we celebrated events with different branches used to dress the home at Beltane, Lúnasa and Samhain- traditions carried over to this day with Mayday, Easter, Halloween and Christmas decorations brought in from the natural world.
Trees were so important that we developed a system of a hierarchy of trees: This system is older than but first noted after the start of recorded history in Ireland, it became known as the laws of the neighbourhood (Bretha comaithchchesa) and was put to paper as a protective law against the wilful damage of trees and shrubs, but in it we can see that it followed an ancient division of trees (four sets of seven) the nobles – airigfedo; the commoners- aithigfedo; the lower divisions – fodlafedo and the bushes of the woods – losafedo. It reveals the reverence in which our ancestors held the trees and plants around them – those trees and plants that gave us food, shelter, building materials, fuel and fuel to our imaginations.