While Ireland has been a Christian nation for nearly 1600 years, its pagan heart is not that far from the surface in rural Ireland. The pagan Irish, like other Celts, believed in Pan-Theism. The belief that the divine was present in every natural thing such as wells to rivers and trees. Today we can only hazard a guess why some trees were venerated. The medieval Irish word for a sacred tree was “bile”. Which may be derived from the ancient Celtic word “bilios”, a champion. One could imagine that the oldest, most majestic trees would be the ones that were deemed sacred. The word bile appears in many Irish town lands, often anglicized as ville, as in Moville in Donegal and Down and Altnavilla in Co.Limerick and so forth. In fact there are 13,000 townlands in Ireland that are named in one way or another after trees. The Irish love of Trees is a defining character of ours it seems from antiquity. In the Bretha Comaithchesa, an 8th C. Brehon Law document from Ireland 7 species of Trees were named as Chieftain of the Woods. These were Oak, Holly, Apple, Scots Pine, Hazel, Yew and Ash. The first of these was the Oak Tree, the tree of An Daghdha, the King of the Gods in Pagan Ireland.The importance of the Oak in Pagan times was not just confined to Ireland. Pliny the Elder noted that the word Druid came from the Gaulish Dru, meaning oak and the Celtic root wid, meaning wisdom. A druid in essence was defined as having the wisdom of the Oak. In many parts of Ireland the echo’s of this worship still exist, often entwined with Christianity. These 5 sites combine those traditions of nature worship but the spiritual role being assigned to a Christian saint.
St. Flannan’s Grove, Inagh, Co. Clare.
Known locally as “The Unusual Tree” this ancient Ash Tree is at the centre of a Grove where St. Flannan is believed to have stayed in the 7th C. Often groves and wells like these were pre-Christian in origin but Saints used them to preach to the Pagan populace who already associated them with spiritual belief -a way of replacing the older faith with a newer one. This grove is surrounded by Trees with votive offerings. Home made religious alters are intertwined among the trees. This is a really special and beautiful place.
St. Flannan’s Grove – The Unusual Tree. Copyright: Treecouncil.ie
St. Ciarán’s Tree. Co. Offaly.
St. Patrick gave St. Ciaran a bell with the condition that when the bell started to ring that he would build a Monastery at that spot. The place that the bell rang is now marked with a Whitethorn tree, known locally as St Ciaran’s Tree. It is covered in votive offerings, usually pieces of cloth tied to its branches. Each cloth represents a prayer or a wish that someone has made. It is still widely visited on Ciaran’s feast day of March 5th.
St. Fintan’s Tree, Clonenagh, Co. Laois.
Planted in the 18oo’s this Sycamore tree on the site of St. Colum and St. Fintan’s monastery which was founded in the 6th Century. It is customary to say a prayer at the tree and insert a coin in to its now rotten wood. While the practice of inserting coins has led to the Tree suffering from metal poisoning, it has sent out new shoots after a long dormant period, from death springs rebirth. It is known locally as St. Fintan’s money tree.
Photo by: Andreas F. Borchert. Creative Commons Licence.
Loughmacrory Hill Wedge Tomb. Co. Tyrone
Situated on top of a gradual hill, overlooking the fields of Tyrone for 4000 years stands Loughmacrory Hill Wedge Tomb. In Ireland the fairy race are known as the Sídhe, a warrior race from the other world whose name translates as “the people of the mound”. Places like Loughmacrory Hill were seen as gateways to the next world, where our dead could move on to and the Sídhe would come in to our world. This particular wedge tomb combines 2 elements that most farmers would traditionally avoid touching for fear of angering the Sídhe. An ancient mound and a tree that stands in the middle of a field on its own. I know many farmers, one an atheist, that would still be loath to cut or damage a tree that stands in the middle of their field. Tradition is a powerful thing.
The hill of Imaginary Men, Crocknafarbrague, Co. Tyrone.
Stone circles dot Ireland’s countryside. They can be considered pagan Churches. Often aligned, like Stonehenge with astrological cycles they were a key part of pagan worship in Ireland and many other countries. It was said that if you wandered in to a Stone Circle on certain nights of the year, especially Halloween that you could be taken by the Sídhe to the next world. The presence of this fairy Tree indicates that this is as likely a place as it to happen as anywhere else. Like most fairy Tree’s that are alone in a field it is a Hawthorn Tree, a tree closely associated with the otherworld in Ireland.
If you want to read further on the Sacred Trees and Bushes of Ireland then I have to recommend “Trees of Inspiration – Sacred Trees and Bushes of Ireland” by Christine Zucchelli.