Taking stock of our heritage trees

IT has been said that the life cycle of trees is comparable to that of human beings.

Both begin with a tiny seed, take nourishment from the natural world around them, slowly grow to maturity, reproduce and eventually die from disease or old age.

Little wonder then that people have, from time immemorial, been fascinated by trees, even to the point of worshipping some trees, believing them to the sacred or special in many other ways.

On a more practical level, people of previous generations used trees to shelter their homes, often planting groves that have lived for many years after the passing of those that tenderly placed the saplings in the earth.

We are blessed by the profusion and variety of trees in Ireland. One of the legacies of British rule here are the remains of the old landed estates which were adorned by trees. Fota, in Co Cork, Killarney National Park and Avondale, in Co Wicklow, are some of the many examples that come to mind.

But something that has become apparent in the past decade or so is that so-called “ordinary” people have far more respect for trees than official and corporate Ireland which have been guilty of wanton vandalism at times.

In many areas, pisheogs, local taboos and lore passed on from one generation to the next ensured the protection of certain trees: nobody would dare damage them because they respected them and feared some misfortune if they interfered with the trees.

But, in modern times, how often have venerable old trees been cut down to make way for roads, housing estates, shopping centres and other projects – all part of what has been a savage destruction of the environment?

People are being invited to get involved in a survey of heritage trees currently being undertaken by the Tree Council of Ireland, in association with the Heritage Council, Crann and the Irish Tree Society.

They want to find out about as many trees as possible.

As well as seeking the help of interested individuals, they believe historical and archaeological societies and community and environmental group could offer valuable information.

The project is being carried out as an extension of the Tree Register of Ireland, which is a record of Ireland’s champion tree. The aim is simple – they want the trees to survive for as long as possible and, therefore, the trees need to be protected. The only way to do this is to map, photograph and record them.

It’s amazing how many aspects of life, mythology and stories are associated with trees. And not just sacred trees: there are also rag trees, fairy trees, military trees, hanging trees, judgment trees and trees that have sprung up at holy wells.

Going back to pagan times, trees have played a role in people’s everyday lives.

And, while many trees have fallen victim to the demands of the modern world, there now seems to be a growing respect for trees and the environment in general.

Many ancient religious sites, including monastic settlements, Mass rocks, shrines and wells boast exquisite trees. In recent years, people have started to revisit such places – often on the same date each year such as on pattern days – and have come to highly regard the trees that seem to protect age-old places of veneration.

Yet, trees are an endangered part of our environment. There is no law to protect trees of historical or spiritual significance, apart from the 1946 Forestry Act which bans the felling of trees without a licence. The law in England is stricter.

A fine book last year by Christine Zucchelli – Trees of Inspiration: sacred trees and bushes of Ireland – has made an inestimable contribution to the knowledge and understanding of trees in Ireland, including many mysterious heritage trees. Her research took her all over the country and she came across some mighty strange trees with a wealth of stories surrounding them.

There is, for example, a rag tree in the Knockmealdown Mountains, in Co Waterford.

A photograph of a lone whitethorn at the top of an old pilgrimage route, between Ardmore and Cashel, is bedecked, Christmas-tree style, with a variety of rags, clothing and personal items left by pilgrims on their way to nearby Melleray Grotto.

In Rathkeale, Co Limerick, St Bernard’s Well seems to emerge from the roots of a large ash tree that has one of its branches growing over the wall like a bow. Traditional dates for visiting the healing well are August 20 and Good Friday.

Anyone with information on heritage trees, meanwhile, is asked to contact the website, www.treecouncil.ie, or email Kat Crane: cranoggin@eircom.net, or telephone the Tree Council of Ireland, 01-4931313.

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