Roots that run deep in our culture

Donal Hickey on the role of trees in Irish history.

EVER wondered why people say “touch wood” to ward off bad luck? The answer is that the Celts worshipped trees, and believed they could turn away evil spirits by touching the wood of the tree (just one example of how wood in all its manifestations is so much part of our lives).

Apart from its beauty, not to mention its practical, everyday uses, wood is ingrained in our culture. Think of all the songs, tunes, and poems that have wood as their theme. The haunting ballad, Avondale, is a tribute to our tree-clad parklands.

National Tree Week started yesterday and runs until Saturday. Its theme, Our Trees — Our Culture, celebrates the important role trees have played in Ireland throughout history. More than 500,000 trees have been planted as part of National Tree Week in the last 25 years. This year, the event is sponsored by O2 and Coillte, which is supplying 15,000 trees for planting. The trees are being distributed to schools and community groups by every local authority in the country.

In ancient times, Ireland had massive expanses of woodland. The country was almost covered with trees, such that it has been said a squirrel could travel from Cork to Killarney without once touching the ground. Today, the oak and yew woods in Killarney are the largest remaining examples of the ancient, native forests.

Our Celtic ancestors worshiped trees. They had sacred groves and single trees, some of which have survived to this day at holy wells. The earliest form of writing in Ireland was Ogham, a tree alphabet which can be found carved on standing stones. This had 20 letters, each corresponding to one of our native species. The protection of trees also formed a core part of our ancient legal system, the Brehon Laws.

Trees also feature in place names: of the 62,000 place names on the island of Ireland, 1,200 are associated with oak, with Derry, Kildare, and Adare coming to mind. Surnames in Irish, such as Cullen, or Cullinane, come from Cuillen (holly), Darragh or McDarragh from Dair (oak), and Quill from Coill (wood).

Is there anything more resonant of our sporting life than the clash of the ash on a summer’s evening. The ash is inextricably linked with hurling and 500,000 hurleys are made from it each year.

Trees in cities, gardens, parks and woodlands also make our increasingly urban life more bearable. There was more regard for trees in ancient Ireland than there is today. Oak and hazel were associated with knowledge, and the ash and rowan with protection.

Fairy trees and raths can still evoke respect, often because of fear of bad luck, as we saw not so long ago when the route of a major new roadway, near Ennis, Co Clare, was rerouted as not to interfere with a fairy tree.

In an age when people are becoming environmentally-conscious, there is more awareness of the importance of conserving trees and woodlands. Just look at the rows that have resulted from tree-felling operations, including the removal of old lime trees at Killarney Golf Club.

During the Celtic Tiger, a huge amount of trees and woods were destroyed to make way for roads, houses and shopping centres. There’s ongoing work to save other trees. A new deer-fencing system, being erected in selected areas of Killarney National Park, is aimed at saving and regenerating the famous oak woods.

The woods are under serious threat from rhododendron (rhodo) infestation. But the deer-fencing system is intended to keep deer out of woodland areas that have already been cleared of the rhodo, and thereby allow young oak and ash trees to grow on the woodland floor.

The fencing, described as environmentally-friendly, is already working successfully in countries such as Hungary and Poland. One hundred hectares of woodland, divided into 10 plots, are being fenced off and the work is being carried out in the Derrycunnihy, Ullauns and Gortroe areas of Killarney National Park, where some of the most important oak woods are located.

Launching National Tree Week, Helena McGorman, president, Tree Council of Ireland, said the theme was chosen in celebration of the often-forgotten role that trees play in creating who we are.

“Furthermore, today the importance of trees in protecting our environment and repairing some of the damage that has been done to the earth is even more relevant. The aim of National Tree Week is to highlight the role trees play in cleaning the air, preventing the build-up of greenhouse gases, providing renewable energy and providing a source for building and furniture,” she said.

More than 130 events are being held around the country during the week. For details, visit: www.treecouncil.ie.

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