8 December 2013

Irish Trees & Their Legends

Irish Trees & Their Legends
(Taken From 'Irish Trees, Myths, Legends & Folklore' By Niall Mac Coitir)

Willow - Saileach
The Willow with it's quick growing nature and love of growing beside water is seen as a symbol of fertility and life; however it is also linked with grief, particularly the Weeping Willow. Willow is also known as Sallow or Sally.

In 16th and 17th centuries it was the custom of jilted lovers to wear a wreath of willow.

It is good luck to take a willow rod with you on a journey and a peeled willow rod flexibly placed around a milk churn will ensure good butter.

Willow planted near the door will keep witches away and in particular a bundle of willow twigs hung on the door will keep away the marsh witch; perhaps also the 'will o the wisp' or 'banshee'?

Willow charcoal can bring back hair on an animal where it has rubbed off, such as on a wound.

Willow is a springtime tree and associated with water, milk and cows.
It is used for basket making and wickerwork, being incredibly pliant.

The Irish Harp is traditionally made of willow and under early Irish law the willow is know as 'Commoner Of The Wood' being in general use for making household implements.

Good story about King Labhraidh Of The Horse's Ears on page 43.


Hawthorn - Sceach Gheal
The Hawthorn, Whitethorn or Maybush is a symbol of Maytime, magical powers and fairies or 'little people'. Especially respected or feared is the single tree or 'lone bush', found both in the fields and hills.

Interfering with a hawthorn bush or tree is associated with bringing rapid sickness or death to that person; their family; or their animals. Often is seems by repairing the damage or replanting the bushes, it is possible to reverse the curse.

Hawthorn is associated with the Ogham letter 'hUath', meaning 'fear'.

Hawthorn is considered the most unlucky of all plants to bring into the home. However if respected hawthorn can have protective powers and planting hawthorn around the house will keep witches away. It is also meant to have powers of fertility. You will often still see a hawthorn bush or two planted around the older farmhouses.

Hawthorn is found growing beside holy wells and often decorated with rags and other offerings.

Under early Irish law hawthorn is known as 'Commoner Of The Wood'. Although the wood is tough it was not used much; perhaps due to fear? The haws can be eaten, but usually only if there was no other food available.

Ash - Fuinseog
Ash is known for being strong and flexible timber; associated with fertility and healing. Thought always to be the first tree hit by lightning there is saying 'avoid an ash; it courts the flash'. Ash is burned to banish the devil and an ash staff protects from evil.

Despite playing a protective role against evil, ash was also used by witches as their favourite wood for making ritual dolls, to stick with pins.


A story from Bere Island, West Cork, tells of two hags or witches having an argument; one on the island; one on the mainland. As they fought they threw ash rods at each other. 

Ash was favoured by warriors for making spears and also used for boat building and making hurleys.

Ash can be used for cures; for cattle, children and childbirth. A newly born baby was often given a spoon of ash sap, to give the baby the strength of the ash and also protect it from witches and goblins.

Ash is associated with holy wells, only surpassed by hawthorn. Ash, like hazel, protects against snakes. Water lodged in the hollows of ash branches or an ash trunk was used as holy water.

Emigrants making ocean crossings from Ireland would sometimes carry ash twigs in their pockets to prevent drowning.

Ash is associated with late spring, when its delicate foliage appears. Under early Irish law ash is known as one of the seven 'Nobles Of The Wood', connected to the warrior queen Maedhbh and Irish sovereignty in general.

Good story about a witch who's soul resides in an ash tree on page 124.


Furze - Aiteann
Furze, Gorse or Whin is seldom out of bloom and with its habit of springing back up quickly after being cut or burnt, it symbolises wealth and fertility of the land.

There is an Irish saying; 'gold under furze, silver under rushes and famine under heather'. In fact furze growing on land increases its value.

Boiling clothes with the yellow blossoms or the green shoots will dye them yellow or green, depending. This was occasional practice at one time.

On May Day a sprig of furze was often placed under the roof or above a door to 'bring in the summer' and was kept there until the following year for good luck.

Furze is known as good fodder for animals, especially the younger, softer shoots. If using the mature prickly branches it is necessary to chop and bruise it. An acre of furze can produce enough winter feed for six horses. It was thought that you would have a steady horse that wouldn't startle if it was kept in a field of furze or gorse.

As a fuel it has a high concentration of oil in its branches and spikes, burning well and giving off nearly as much heat as charcoal.

As furze is in bloom most of the year there is a saying 'when furze is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion'. This led to a sprig of furze being inserted into the bridal bouquet.

Furze wood is used for hurleys and walking sticks. There is also an ancient tradition of furze hedges and growing furze enclosures as shelter and protection for livestock at night. The entrance to these nearly impenetrable enclosures would have been a cut furze bush, dragged across the entrance gap.

I once read somewhere of a band of Irish/Celtic warriors, outmatched and pursued. Deciding to make a last stand; and being on lowland as opposed to rocky mountainside; they cut furze bushes and built a shoulder-high circular enclosure. From within this enclosure they had protection and could fire spears and arrows to hold off their attackers, while they waited for reinforcements...


Furze is associated with autumn and under early Irish law is know as one of the 'Bushes Of The Wood'.

Hazel - Coll
Hazel, often growing near water, is a symbol of wisdom, kingship and mystical knowledge. When travelling at night, a hazel walking stick was carried to keep away evil spirits. Apparentlyy 'no wicked thing can stay when touched by hazel'.

If you wish to become invisible, carry a hazel rod with a green hazel twig inserted into it; while two hazel nuts naturally joined together provide an effective charm against witchcraft.

Hazel rods are often used by diviners looking for underground water or hidden veins of metal. It also protects against snakes and there are stories of Irish emigrants taking hazel rods with them to America and Australia to kill any snakes they might encounter.

Fionn Mac Cumhaill's salmon of knowledge, which gave him his wisdom, had fed on hazel nuts at the 'Well Of Segais', which is at the source of the Shannon River and surrounded by nine hazel trees.

Fionn Mac Cumhaill's shield was also made of hazel and one of the trials to become a legendary Fianna warrior was being put into a hole with a shield and hazel rod; then fending off nine spears cast at the same time.

The English word 'hazel' comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning 'kingship' or 'authority'; while the Irish word for hazel, 'coll', means 'chieftain'. A hazel tree is said to grow over the cave where King Arthur and his knights sleep, and many a sacred site nowadays was originally a hazel wood.


Hazel nuts were prized by druids at one time for their mystical powers.
 
Hazel is associated with autumn and the festival of Samhain, when its nuts are ripe. Under early Irish law hazel is know as a 'Noble Of The Wood'. Hazel nuts have been an important food source since earliest times and its wood is used for furniture, fencing and wickerwork.

Salmon Of Knowledge story on page 77.

Oak - Dair
Oak provides strong, excellent timber and a plentiful supply of acorns - a great food source for some animals. With its stately bearing and long life it is a symbol of strength, kingship and endurance.

The May Day/Bealtaine fires were kindled with oak twigs; while if a man was sentanced to be burnt to death for an evil deed, faggots of green oak were used.

Drawing a circle around yourself on the ground with an oak sapling is said to protect from fairies and pieces of oak wood can be used as protective talismans.

Oak is seen as the supreme tree of the druids and the Celts. They either chose oak groves for their rituals or always performed their rituals in the presence of an oak branch. In Brittany megalithic tombs have been found with a bedding of oak leaves.

Several well known Christian sites in Ireland are associated with oak groves. These were probably chosen for their pre-Christian importance.

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