Trees in the Brehon law.
Trees in the Brehon law and their value to the community. (dating possibly 3000BC -17th c AD) 1*
The Brehon Law was a very sophisticated law system that was upheld in Ireland for thousands of years. These were known as “The laws of the land” or “the laws of the neighbourhood”
The Senchus Mor or “the grand old law” was an ancient set of laws, "The old wisdom/ knowledge" was written down in manuscripts by Monks. The Senchus Mor was known word for word verbatim by the Brehon’s/ Judges who would recite it in poetic style. The Brehon’s were the judges, who studied up to 20 before they would be allowed to make a judgment. Both male and female Judges existed.
The Laws were honour and compensation based and was means tested, for example those who had the highest standing in the community had to pay higher fines. This was known as your honour price.
The laws covered many aspects of living in a community, hospitality, farming and nature etc. The Irish knew the importance of trees in the community and had a strict law system regarding cutting, felling and using trees and shrubs. Trees and shrubs were put into 4 categories (each containing 7 trees/ shrubs) relating to their usefulness and yields and punishments were giving according to this categorization.
Nobles of the wood AIRIG FEDO (7)
Oak, hazel, holly, yew. Ash, scot’s pine, wild apple.
*For Cutting/ felling of a noble tree; there was a fine of 2 milk cows and a 3-year-old heifer.
*Cutting a branch of an others noble tree; the fine was a yearling heifer.
*Fork cutting; a 2-year-old heifer.
*Base cutting; a milk cow.
*Higher fines for cutting trees during the period of growth (with sap) rather that when the tree was dormant (sap in roots) as the tree would be susceptible to disease and rot and might not grow back.
Trees/ Nobles of the wood and there Uses and value to the community.
Oak / Dair
Associated with the supernatural.
Acorns for animal feed (especially for pigs)
and hard wood for building houses, roofs and fencing.
Bark used for tanning leather.
Hazel / Coll
Associated with the supernatural.
Hazel rods for fences and building house walls.
Holly / Cuilenn.
Holly leaves were fed to livestock in winter when there was no grain/ grass left (leaves roasted to soften the spikes)
Holly wood used to make chariot shafts (holly is a very hard and can shrink when dried)
Cooking spits (hard wood slow to burn)
Yew / Ibar
There were people called the “sai ibrorachta who were expert yew craft workers making all kinds of vessels for the house.
Ash / uinnnius
Chieftains chairs were made from ash.
Ash growing in a field was the sign of good land.
Scotts Pine / ochtach
Scots pine was useful because of its high quantity of resin which was used for sealing boats and preserving wood.
The wood was used for Beams for inside houses.
Wild Apples / Aball.
Fruit (sweet apples were being grafted by the 2st century AD)
Bark (inner bark) dyes cloth yellow.
Commoners of the wood AITHIG FEDO (7)
Alder, Willow, Hawthorn, rowan, birch, elm and wild cherry.
*Damage to any common tree would hold a fine of 1 milk cow plus extra compensation
*base cutting 1 milk cow plus another milk cow.
*fork cutting 1 milk cow plus a yearling heifer.
*for cutting of a branch 1 milk cow plus a sheep.
* for felling and taking away 2 milk cows and a 3-year-old heifer.
Trees/ Commoners of the wood and there uses and value to the community.
Masts (for ships)
Wall and house building.
Hawthorn / Scé
Associated with the supernatural.
Haws (scechóra) as food source.
Rowan / cáerthann
Associated with the supernatural and magical properties.
Spits for roasting meat.
Berries (cáera) for food
Birch / Beithe
Broom/ brush making.
Elm / Lem
Elm leaves were fed to cows and sheep.
Elm bark rope.
Wild cherry/ Idath
also known as (sirín/ silín)
Lower divisions of the wood FODLA FEDO (7)
Blackthorn, Elder, Spindle, Whitebeam, Strawberry tree, Aspen and Juniper.
*Damage to a lower division tree held a fine of a yearling heifer.
* Base cutting; a fine of a two-year-old heifer.
Trees of the Lower divisions of the wood and there uses and value to the community.
Blackthorn / Draigen
Twigs of blackthorn was used like barbed wire, to keep animals in and out.
(some writings suggest that plums are a cross between the sloe’s and wild cherry)
Elder / Trom
Elders grow where there is abundance of animal / human dung. (in abandoned or cursed places)
Spindle / Férus
Used to make spindles for spinning
Whitebeam / Findcholl
Known as the “White hazel”
Used to make fighting Cudgels.
Arbustus (strawberry tree) / Caithne
Aspen / Crithach
The shivering trees
Juniper / Crann Fir
Berries for alcohol / medicinal.
Bushes of the woods LOSA FEDO (7)
Bracken, Bog myrtle, Gorse, Bramble, Heather, Broom, Gooseberry or wild rose.
*Damage to a shrub on some one’s land, is one sheep.
*Destruction of the whole plant was One yearling heifer.
Bushes of the woods and the uses and value to the community.
Bracken / Raith
Animal feed during winter.
Bog myrtle/ Rait
Gooseberry or wild rose.
Venerated Trees/ Bile or Fidnemed.
The Irish held individual tress sacred, with many hills, towns and churches named after them.
Marriages and ceremonies were performed under these trees.
Still today Christianity and tradition has kept the custom alive, in Ireland we have Holy trees or Mass Trees on church sites. At Holy Wells we still have rag bushes or clootie trees, where pieces of cloth are hung on the tree as prayers or wishes. It is still a taboo to cut down Fairy Hawthorn trees. Folklore states that some trees were associated with the super natural or fairies.
The word for church in Gaelic is ‘Cill’, which very possibly came from the word ‘Coil’l for woods, as the woods were the original church or temple. The Gaelic word ‘timpeall’ means to go round or encircle. 2*
Some of the Bile trees mentioned in the manuscripts are:
Oak of Mugna: Blessed with virtues and three choice fruits, Acorns,
Brown nuts and Apples (possibly Oak apples.) Thirty cubits (13 Meters)
girth and three hundred cubit (137 meters) height, One thousand cubits
(45 meters) its shadow. *3
Yew of Ross: This mighty Yew grew in Leighlim, Co Carlow and
St. Laserine prayed for it to fall down so that he could use the
wood to build a church. *4
Tortu’s Ash tree: The Great Ash of the people of Tortu,
Navan Co Meath *5,a Hugh tree where people would gather.
The tree fell of old age and decay in a wind storm crushing
fifty victims on the fair day. The tree was fifty
cubits (22 meters) thick and three hundred high. (137 meters) *6
Ash Bough of Daithi
Ash of Uisneach
Aine’s hazel or Yew (see summer craft section for story)
Towns named after trees
Derry- Daire -Oak
Kildare – church of the oak
Moycullen- Plain of the holly
Mayo- Plain of the yew
1* Article; Trees in early Ireland – Fergus kelly.
2* Focloir Gelige agus Bearla
*3 Metric Dindseanchus
*4 Sacred trees of Ireland p32
*5 Sacred trees of Ireland
*6 Metric Dinseanchus
Book: A social history of ancient Ireland W.P joyce 1903
The Brian Boru Oak tree in Raheen Woods, Co Clare, believed to have grown from the time of Brian Boru, over 1000 years ago.
Sacred Irish Trees in the Brehon Laws