Trees in Ireland in early tradition and place-names
Dr. Kay Muhr
Regardless of appearances today, Ireland was well wooded before the Plantation, and even 16th and 17th century maps show large areas covered with trees. It is likely - almost certain - that during the medieval period the extent of Ireland's woodlands was considerably greater. The current state of Ireland's woodlands is due to centuries of tree felling over the last 1800 years or so. Most of the trees seen in Ireland today are exotic species grown in plantations for cheap, soft wood and for pulp, and it can be hard to imagine this island dressed in vast swathes of mature native woodland as found in parts of France, Germany or Poland, for example. However sad it might be, it is not surprising, then, that the high regard in which trees were held in centuries past is almost wholly absent in twentieth and twenty-first century Ireland
Though heavily wooded in the medieval period, Ireland was home to a limited range of native tree species compared to the rest of Europe. As an island, limited species diversity is a given, and the combination of the virtual - probably total - extermination of trees from Ireland during the last ice-age followed by a separation from Britain and mainland Europe relatively soon after meant that Ireland has little over thirty native species (the number is disputed, but approximates to 32-34). In contrast, Britain is home to twice this number, while continental Europe has well over a hundred native species.
In medieval Ireland, as elsewhere at that time, wood was a major raw material in almost all areas of life. This, combined with the small range of species available, led to certain trees being accorded special status in the laws. The early Irish law-tracts seem to have included at least one text, now lost, specifically on trees, Fidbretha, 'tree-judgements' ..1'. Another law text, giving a hint of the type of issues dealt with in Fidbretha, details the compensation to be paid by a person who cut down a tree belonging to someone else .2 .
In several law texts trees are ranked in four groups of seven depending on their economic worth, with fines and restitution assigned accordingly. The species included, and their rank, varies from text to text to a small degree (though mainly among the lesser species). In the oldest extant listing oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, pine and apple are counted as airig fedo, "nobles of the wood" 3 : oak for its acorns and nobility, hazel for nuts, apple for fruit and bark, yew for buildings, holly for chariot-axles, ash for weapons. Alder, willow, hawthorn, rowan, birch, elm and cherry were counted as aithig fedo, "commoners of the wood". Blackthorn, elder, spindle-tree, aspen, juniper, whitebeam and arbutus were less valuable again and labelled fodla fedo, "lesser divisions of the wood". The reference to arbutus (caithne), which now grows only around Killarney in Co. Kerry and in even smaller isolated groups in counties Cork and Mayo, may help indicate the area in which this law code was compiled 4 Placenames from the Dingle peninsula, Co. Clare and western Co. Waterford suggest the species originally had a much greater range. No extant documents mention arbutus in these other locations suggesting that the species became extinct except at the currently known sites quite early in the medieval period, or even earlier. This strongly suggests, in turn, that the text in question was compiled in the far south-west.
The fourth, lowest, class, losa fedo or "bushes of the wood" included bracken, bog-myrtle, gorse, bramble, heather, briar and broom 5 6 Other listings vary, for example including ivy and excluding heather. Though it may seem today to be somewhat strange to include this last group as a class of "tree", it must be remembered that the definition applied today is tighter and that modern priorities in classification differ greatly from those of 1000-1500 years ago, and many species that rarely occur today except as shrubs due to felling, scrub clearance and development work may have attained considerable size in centuries past. Ivy stems as thick as a human thigh can still be found in Ireland today, and gorse can match goat willow in size if allowed. Perhaps the strangest entry in this group is a fern - bracken. Bracken has had its uses however, such as fodder for horses during winter, for which purpose it was grown and collected even during the twentieth century.
The early Irish names of trees were also allegedly used as a way of remembering the ogam letters, an Irish writing system dating at least from the fourth century, in which all the letters are formed of straight lines for ease of carving 7 . This association has been the source of much speculation in more recent times, mainly inspired by the writings of Robert Graves 8. The association arises, it would seem, in the later middle ages and was perhaps inspired by some similarities between the grouping of the ogam letters and the grouping of trees mentioned above. An illustrated frieze of early Irish trees and their names has been produced by, and is available from, Dorothy Moffat 9 Tables of ogam characters, their names, kennings, associated trees and so on can be had from many sources, including several online, should the reader wish to compare the two
Aside from their utility, the significance of trees was reflected in what have been translated as "sacred trees" 10 . Important individual or groups of trees are mentioned by name in secular and religious legends and in the historical annals. The special term bile for a remarkable tree has given rise to place-names like Billy Co. Antrim, the monastery of Movilla at Newtownards, Mag Bile "plain of the tree", or Crevilly outside Ballymena which is Craig an Bhile "rock of the sacred tree". Place-name legends mention five remarkable single trees in Ireland, and a group of hazels which grew at the source of the Boyne the nuts from which fell into the water where salmon gobbled them up: whoever caught and ate the salmon gained the gift of poetry.11
A story explaining the origin of the five trees 12 , tells how a giant "as high as a wood" came from paradise to an assembly at Tara with a branch bearing three fruits: nuts, apples and acorns. He lived on the smell of this fruit while teaching the people, and gave some to an Irish sage called Fintan, the "white-haired ancient". Fintan then planted the seeds in Ireland, where they grew up as the Ancient Tree of Tortu (Bile Tortan), the Yew of Ross (Eó Ruis), the Yew of Mugna (Eó Mugna), Dathi's Branch (Craeb Daithi) and the Ancient Tree of Uisnech (Bile Uisneg). The words translated as 'ancient tree' and 'yew' above are bile and eó. Bile was regularly used of special, sacred trees across Ireland and particularly of trees used as the focal point in royal inauguration ceremonies. That it is used here in the list of the five remarkable trees of Ireland is not surprising. Eó, however, means 'yew'. Other texts state that Eó Mugna was an oak. However this may be explained, it is clear that the tree, in legend at least, was no ordinary oak or yew; like its parent tree it bore acorns, apples and hazel nuts. It is said to have fallen before the end of the seventh century, due south over Mag n-Ailbe. Eó Mugna was elsewhere said to have sprung from the seed of the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden
Of these five trees, three are ashes: Bile Tortan, Craeb Daithi and Bile Uisneg. The first of these was an enormous tree which reportedly was large enough to have once sheltered the men of Tortu. It is said to have fallen in AD 600. One tale says St Patrick visited this tree and established a church for Justian nearby, from which it has been inferred that it stood near to Ardbraccan in Co. Meath. Craeb Daithi grew at Farbill in Co. Westmeath, while Bile Uisneg stood, as the name suggests, at Usnagh in the same county.
Some of the descriptions of these trees seem to be borrowed from trees in the Bible (one of their miraculous features, bearing of fruit and flowers all at once as in Revelations is not so remarkable where the climate is hotter). The Irish also had trees in their version of paradise. In the eighth-century story Immram Brain "Bran's Rowing-around" or "The Voyage of Bran" the hero Bran was lured on a voyage to the Otherworld by a strange woman who brought him "a branch from the apple-tree in Emain"13 . . This place-name seems to refer to the Isle of Man but it is also the Irish name of Navan Fort near Armagh, the ancient capital of the province of Ulster. At Navan according to the legends was a feasting hall called Craeb Ruad "ruddy branch". Craeb, modern Irish craobh, can also mean "bushy tree". Most probably there was once a tree sacred to the early Ulstermen, and it has given its name to the townland of Creeveroe. There were other verifiably real trees which were tribal emblems, notably at Crew (Craobh) Hill, Glenavy, in Co. Antrim, and Tullyhoge across Lough Neagh in Co. Tyrone, where rival tribes cut down the trees to insult each other early in the 12th century.14
Craobh (Creev-y) is common in place-names, as is the Irish word for "wood" coill, coillidh (Kill, Killy), unfortunately easily confused with one of the words for "church". Kilnamanagh in Co. Tipperary illustrates this well: "-namanagh" is from na manach, "of the monks". It would be reasonable to assume that in this case "Kil-" is derived from cill, "church" if it were not for a record of this placename in the annals as Coill na Manach, "the wood of the monks" 15 . Another awkward term is muine (Money) "shrubbery" because Money in place-names can also be from móin "bog".
Two tree names in place-names seem sometimes to refer not so much to the type of tree but to the wider landscape: cuillean (Cullion) "holly" or "steep unbroken slope", doire (Derry) which seems to have moved from meaning "oak-grove" or "copse" to "land where trees can grow" to "hill" or "island in a bog"16. This explains all the townlands called Derry in the Montiaghs of north Armagh! A word with a similar range of meanings is ros (Ross, -rush) "promontory, wooded height, wood". Other typical elements in place-names reflect the cutting down of trees: ceapach (Cappagh, Cappy) derives from ceap "stump" and meant a "plot of land cleared for tillage", or tamhnach (Tamna, Tavna, Tawna-) which derived from tamhan "stump" and meant a "cleared field".
The stumps must have been a feature of the landscape for some years, as witness a description of the trees in Slutt McNeale's country (Sliocht Uí Néill, "O'Neill's sept", north Co. Down) in about 1645. 17 There were 8,883 oaks of at least "6 inches square at the butt" in the part between Lisburn and Carryduff, including 1130 in the townland of Donkynmuck (now Hillhall). However, there had been far more: "since the 22nd Aug of the 4th year of the late king's reign (James I, 1606) there have been cut on the said lands... the number of 11,631, appearing by the stocks".
The extent of the woods in North Armagh during the 1600s and 1700s has been estimated, partly according to place-name evidence, by W. Crawford 18 1964: "The Woodlands of Brownlow's-derry, North Armagh, in the 17th and 18th centuries", Ulster Folklife x 57-64. 16th and 17th century maps show large areas of Ulster covered in wood, and there are also 17th-century references to tree cutting.
Even the Ordnance Survey Memoirs refer to folk memory of woods now cut down, such as the Grange of Ballyscullion which provided the timber for the old wooden house of Antrim 19 , or the various parishes along the Bann where once a bird could hop or a man could walk on the top of the trees all the way from Toome to 20 Coleraine . The memoirs also refer to surviving patches of scrub wood (scrog) which have disappeared since these texts were written in the 1830s. Only the fairy thorns seem to have been protected from the hunger for land which cleared the other bushes away.
Place-names of Irish-language origin include most of the townlands, and the varieties of trees and shrubs in Irish place-names include alder, apple, ash, birch, elder, elm, gorse, hawthorn, hazel, holly, juniper, oak, rowan, whitethorn and yew, as well as ivy, bog-myrtle and woodbine.
English-language tree place-names on maps refer mainly to farms and big houses and to many more different types of tree. These reflect introduced species and the taste of gardeners, so that beech, cherry, chestnut, fir, larch, laurel, lime, maple, pear, rose and sycamore are additions to the species referred to in Irish. There are also some more homely references to whin (gorse) in Ulster Scots names. However, although English names refer to groves and woods, the forests implied in the Irish-language names are, sadly, no longer to be traced.
Tree names used in Northern Ireland place-names, mostly townland names, extracted from the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project database.
Table 1: Irish-language terms in place-names
Table 2: English-language terms in place-names: collective terms
Table 3: English-language terms in place-names: exotic species
Dr. Kay Muhr, Northern Ireland Place-Name Project, Queen's University Belfast
(2) CIH 78.15 = AL iv 146.18 (Corpus Iuris Hibernici / Ancient Laws of Ireland)
(3) Fergus Kelly 1997 Early Irish Farming, 380
(4) Fergus Kelly 1988, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 242
(5) MS Rawlinson B 487 f. 67a = CIH i 78.18-79.9
(6) Fergus Kelly 1976, "The Old Irish tree-list", Celtica xi 102-24
(7) G. Calder, Auraicept na nÉces "The Scholars' Primer" 304 §26 (Edinburgh 1917)
Reprinted by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS)
(9) Dorothy Moffat, 50 Candahar St, Belfast, Northern Ireland. BT7 3AR
(10) A.T. Lucas 1963 "Sacred trees of Ireland " Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 68, 16-54
(11) The Metrical Dindshenchas, ed. Edward J. Gwynn, 5 vols (Dublin 1903-35) iii Sinann 292-5; also "The prose tales in the Rennes Dindsenchas", ed. Whitley Stokes, Revue Celtique xv (1894), 457
(12) "Arrangement of the Manor of Tara" translated R.I. Best 1910: Ériu iv 121-72
(13) Immram Brain - The voyage of Bran son of Febal to the land of the living, ed. Kuno Meyer 1895-7 (2 vols, London). Reprint by Llanerch Press, Wales
"The prose tales in the Rennes Dindsenchas", ed. Whitley Stokes, Revue Celtique xv (1894), 272-336, 418-84; xvi (1895), 31-83, 135-67, 269-312: xv 420, xvi 277
(15) Deirdre Flanagan & Laurence Flanagan 1994, Irish Place Names, 58; also see
Deirdre Flanagan 1970, "Craeb Telcha: Crew, Co. Antrim", Dinnseanchas iml.iv uimh.2, 29-32
(16) see refs. 18/19 below: A. Day & P. McWilliams, ed. 1990-8
(Ordnance Survey Memoir for Artrea, vi 4b refers to "insulated little hills or Derries", c. 1835)
(17) Inquisitionum in officio rotulorum cancellariae Hiberniae asservatorum repertorium, vol. ii §105 Car. I (Ulster), ed. James Hardiman (Dublin 1829)
(18) W. Crawford 1964 "The Woodlands of Brownlow's-derry, North Armagh, in the 17th and 18th centuries", Ulster Folklife x 57-64
(20) A. Day & P. McWilliams, ed., Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland, xii 4a, xix 98, xxiii 5b,70a,132a (IIS Belfast, 1990-8)
© Kay Muhr MMV
Kay Muhr holds a PhD from Edinburgh University. She has been Senior Research Fellow of the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project in Irish & Celtic Studiessince its foundation in 1987 and is currently Chair of the Ulster Place-Name Society and Vice-President of the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland.
Kay has been published in Ulidia, Emania, Seanchas Ard Mhacha and Celtica. She is the author of vol. 6 North West County Down / Iveagh in the Place-Names of Northern Ireland series.