Tracing the roots of Irish folklore

DURING the summer, the discovery of what some people believed was a sacred tree, in a church grounds in Rathkeale, Co Limerick, led to sensational headlines that set off a religious frenzy.

But, we should not have been too surprised, for trees have been thought to have magical and spiritual qualities since time immemorial.

The shorn stump of a pine tree in Rathkeale was like a shape of a cloaked woman, compared by some to the Virgin Mary. Devotees flocked to the site and successfully petitioned the church authorities not to fell the tree.

A handful of people continue to pray nightly at the tree, which has scores of rosary beads wrapped around it.

This is probably one of the best times of the year to closely study trees as they shed their green, russet and golden mantles and look magnificent even in their skeletal state. Is it any wonder people conjure up strange images. From ancient times, people have singled out trees for special veneration, part of the old Celtic tradition. All around the country, there are fairy trees, Mass bushes and sacred trees which were reputed to be channels of communication with the divine, through which saints, poets and scholars were said to have gained insights into the world beyond.

Because people believed trees to have miraculous powers, trees became associated with the saints and features at places of pilgrimage. There sprung up a tradition of graveyard trees and a reverence for fairy trees, especially.

Christine Zuchhelli, who studied Irish folklore at UCD, travelled around the country in search of legends and folklore which are to be found within the covers of her recently-published book, Trees of Inspiration.

The worship of trees occurs in cultures all over the world, was part of spiritual life in pre-industrial societies and has survived down to modern times, she says. The practical importance of trees as providers of wood also led to their fundamental role in folklore.

In recent times, the Latoon whitethorn tree, near Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare, became the best known in the country. According to folklorist Eddie Lenihan, the tree marked a spot where the fairies of Munster would gather before, and after, going to fight the fairies of Connacht.

When the new Ennis bypass road was being built, about a decade ago, it became clear to Eddie that the Latoon tree was about to be destroyed to make away for traffic. He protested strongly and warned of bad luck which would inevitably follow the destruction of the tree.

As a result, Clare County Council and the National Roads Authority agreed to spare the tree and change the route of the road, says Ms Zuchelli.

Lone bushes are still regarded with a mixture of awe and respect and, out of fear, many people will not interfere with fairy trees: they won’t even touch dead branches, or twigs, lying on the ground beside them, she adds.

But, back to the real world. In one of the largest projects of its kind to take place in this country, over 550 hectares of priority woodland habitat have been restored by Coillte through the removal of exotic species and creation of conditions to allow natural regeneration of native trees.

Three of the sites have been designated as demonstration sites with signage and easy access for people to come and visit and understand the work which has been done. They are at Clonbur, on the Galway/Mayo border, at Hazelwood, in Co Sligo, and Cahir Park, in Co Tipperary.

The results of the four-year native woodland restoration project were recently presented at an international conference in Mayo.

Coillte is continuing with work on restoring some of Ireland’s most important woodland habitats. It manages over 15% of the 445,000 hectares under its control for nature conservation. Nine woodland sites are part of the priority woodland project and are regenerating naturally.

Also, Bóthar, together with Coillte, has launched the Mighty Oak Tree initiative. People are being asked to give the gift of trees to struggling families in the developing world this year.

In return, Coillte, will supply a native oak tree for each donor, to be planted at Strokestown Park House and Famine Museum, Co Roscommon. This initiative will form part of Bóthar’s gift catalogue and their Christmas campaign.

Trees of Inspiration – Sacred Trees and Bushes of Ireland by Christine Zucchelli (Collins Press) €24.95.

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