Tree lore is a suspected ancient school of knowledge with roots stretching back into our earliest symbolic imaginations. The Tree is a common universal, archetypal symbol that can be found in many different traditions around the ancient world. Trees are symbols of physical and spiritual nourishment, transformation and liberation, sustenance, spiritual growth, union and fertility.
The Guardians of the Five Provinces is a title that was given to five special trees which were in ancient times considered sacred. According to folklore, a tall stranger, some say a giant as high as a wood, came to the court of the High King at Tara, bearing a branch from which grew three fruits: an apple, an acorn, and a hazelnut.
The stranger’s name was Trefuilngid Tre-eochair, meaning ‘of the three sprouts’. From the description, he was clearly a descendant of the otherworld.
‘As high as a wood was the top of his shoulders, the sky and the sun visible between his legs, by reason of his size and his comeliness. A shining crystal veil about him like unto raiment of precious linen. Sandals upon his feet, and it is not known of what material they were. Golden-yellow hair upon him falling in curls to the level of his thighs.’
He requested of Conan Bec-eclach, a just and brave High King, that all the men of Ireland be assembled, and from them he selected seven of the wisest men of knowledge from each ‘quarter’ of the land, and also seven from Tara. He taught them all about their history and heritage, and shared with them his knowledge. When his work was done, he gave the fruits from his branch to Fintan, the White-Haired Ancient One, who extracted seeds and planted them in each quarter of the land, and one in the centre, at Uisneach.
The trees which grew from these seeds became the five sacred trees of Ireland:
Eó Mugna – Eó is the old Irish word for the yew tree, yet legend claims the Eó Mughna was actually a mighty oak. It was said to have been a son of the original Tree of Knowledge, which some say resided in the Garden of Eden. Eó Mughna was the only one of the five reputed to have borne the three fruits, apples, acorns and hazelnuts, just like the branch from which the seeds were originally obtained. It was supposedly located at Bealach Mughna, on the plain of Magh Ailbhe, now known as Ballaghmoon, Co Kildare.
Bile Tortan – Said to be an Ash, the Tree of Tortu stood at Ard Breccan, near Navan, Co Meath.
Eó Ruis – The Yew of Rossa was said to have stood at Old Leighlin, Co Carlow.
Craeb Daithí – The Branching Tree of Daithe was also a great Ash, located at Farbill, Co Westmeath.
Craeb Uisnig – This sacred tree, another Ash, was to be found at Uisneach, a hill which stood at the heart of what was once the High King’s territory, known as Mide. It was considered the very centre point of Ireland, symbolised by the great Ail na Mirean (Stone of Divisions), or the ‘navel stone’, marking the point at which the country’s provinces joined together.
Trees were seen by our ancient ancestors to have possessed these properties, not due to their size, longevity and enduring strength; their roots pierced the underground realms of the otherworld, where the magical Sidhe resided, while their branches reached high into the heavens. The roots were thought of as doorways (the name Derry is an anglicisation of the Old Irish name Doire, meaning oak grove, which means ‘oak’ – in Old Irish, it would be daur, meaning ‘door’.
All the clans possessed within their territories, their own sacred tree and it is believed that chieftains would have been inaugurated beneath the sacred tree, thus connecting them to both the powers of below and above. Thus the trees were seen as powerful, and representative of the success of the King and his tribe; they were the Guardians of their province, and this explains when each tree was said to have ‘sheltered thousands of men’ – it was meant symbolically, rather than literally.
To capture and destroy the sacred tree of an enemy, then, was probably viewed as a very significant and demonstrative act. The Irish Annals record that in 981AD, the Bile (sacred tree) of Magh Adhair in Tulla, Co Clare under which the O’Brien chieftains were inaugurated, was torn down and destroyed by Máel Sechnaill, High King of Ireland. In 1111 AD, the Ulidian army cut down the sacred tree of the O’Neils, for which they later had to pay compensation of 3000 cattle, a vast sum in those days.
Notably, records show that all the five sacred guardian trees fell together at some point within the joint rule of brothers Diarmait and Blathmac, sons of Áed Sláine, who both died in 665AD. The records, however, fail to explain why this happened.
Sources: Ireland’s Trees – Myths, Legends and Folklore and Aliisaacstoryteller
Photo: Cloughlea, Manor Kilbride, Co Wicklow, Gerry Chaney Photography