The Importance of Trees Under the Ancient Irish Brehon Law

Under Brehon Law trees were protected and heavy fines were imposed for the destruction of trees based on a hierarchical classification.

Airig Fedo – ‘Nobles of the Wood’ (Cheiftain Trees): Daur – Oak, Coll – Hazel, Cuilenn – Holly, Ibar – Yew, Uinnius – Ash, Ochtach – Scots Pine, Aball – Wild Apple.

Aithig Fedo – ‘Commoners of the Wood’ (Peasant Trees): , Fern – Alder, Sail – Willow, Scé – Hawthorn (Whitethorn), Cáerthann – Rowan (Mountain Ash), Beithe – Birch, Lem – Elm, Idath – Wild Cherry.

Fodla Fedo – ‘Lower Divisions of the Wood’ (Shrub Trees): , Draigen – Blackthorn, Trom – Elder (Bore Tree), Féorus – Spindle-Tree, Crithach – Aspen, Crann Fir – Juniper, Findcholl – Whitebeam, Caithne – Arbitus (Strawberry Tree).

Iosa Fedo – ‘Bushes of the Wood’ (Bramble Trees): , Raith – Bracken, Rait – Bog-Myrtle, Aiten – Gorse (Furze), Dris – Bramble (Blackberry), Fróech – Heather, Gilcach – Broom, Spín – Wild Rose (Dog Rose).

An early legal poem, translated by D.A. Binchy, reads: “A danger from which there is no escape is the penalty for felling a sacred tree”. Historically, there were five great trees of Ireland: Bile Uisnigh, the ancient tree at Scé; Bíle Tortan at Ardbreccan in County Meath; Craobh Daithi in County Westmeath; Eo Rossa, a yew at Old Leighlin in County Carlow; and Eo Mugna, an oak at the mouth of the Shannon. Some of these trees were reputed to be large enough to shelter a thousand men. Trees such as oak and yew were associated with kingship. (the Irish word bíle means ‘sacred tree’) Many other individual trees were considered sacred too.

Sacred trees and groves were considered as sanctuaries and were often the location of celebrations. The ancient Irish built no temples. Instead, they treated nature as a temple. Trees were the oldest living things and were looked upon as sources of great wisdom. Fairy Thorns and Rag Trees were thought to be frequently visited by beings of the Otherworld. Mass Bushes served as the location for sermons and Monument Trees as the location for weddings, royal inaugurations, seasonal festivals and other social events. Even today, there is a reverence for Fairy Trees; highway construction workers have diverted the course of their road so as to leave a single hawthorn standing.

If you think that is an exaggeration then take the case of Eddie Lenihan, the renowned storyteller author, lecturer and broadcaster who came to international attention in 1999 when he stood up to road builders in County Clare who were about to cut down a special whitethorn tree. (The whitethorn is considered in local Irish lore and Celtic folklore in general, to be sacred to the Aos Sí – the fairy folk of Ireland.) In local tradition, this specific tree was believed to serve as the meeting place for the fairies of Munster whenever they prepared to ride against the fairies of Connacht.

Eddie’s protests made international headlines and he succeeded having the course of the road altered to spare the tree. Eddie, demonstrated for us all, the great time honoured and ancient Irish tradition of reverence for nature as well as the punishments that will accrue to those who harmed the abodes of the fairies

Approximate pronunciation guide
Bile – bil-a
Dris – Dr-ish
Eo – oh
Féorus – Faor-us
Fróech – Froo-ach
Scé – Scah
Uisnigh -u/w ish nee

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