The Enchanted Garden 2: trees and the Gaelic mythic imagination

The reclamation of an abandoned garden – now there’s a project of the heart. It’s also very much a project of the mythic imagination, and as I wrote in my last post, it is already inhabited by a character or two from the Irish mythic tradition.

That Irish mythic tradition, and the mythic tradition of its Gaelic neighbour, Scotland, is rich in tree-lore. And, as I also explained in that last post, this abandoned garden of mine is in good part wood. I find myself surrounded by trees – an unlikely occurrence in the wild and boggy granite hills of this part of Connemara. But we blew into a magical village, oddly sheltered, and greener than most.

My relationship with the land over the past couple of decades has been deep and rich, and full of surprises. You’ll know about some of those surprises, of course, if you’ve read If Women Rose Rooted and The Enchanted Life. The landscapes which draw me are those which many people categorise as ‘bleak’. I love the solitary, silent desert of a bog; I love the rocky harshness of ancient mountains; I love the storm-strewn western shorelines of these wild Celtic lands. But now, as I find myself hurtling all too rapidly towards elderhood, I find myself, for the first time in my life, deeply drawn to forest. There is something in the mossy magic of old woodland which is beginning to feel like home.

The truth is, I’ve never really known woods; the landscapes I’ve inhabited recently have been too wild and wonderful to embrace trees. On the far western shores of the Isle of Lewis in the magical Outer Hebrides, no tree withstood the prevailing gales from the south and west which battered our croft with salt wind – and for four years there, I learned to exist without trees. I do not think I could do that now. The most magical wood I’ve ever known was one I visited for only a short while – in Huelgoat, in Brittany. I wrote about that sojourn in the remnants of the enchanted forest of Brocéliande in this post, back in 2015. I found Old Moss Woman there (more of her soon), and had a long conversation (as I am prone to do) with a passing crow.

 

Old Moss Woman, in Huelgoat

So here I am now, surrounded by unlikely trees. When you first come upon our land as you drive down the small lane, a kilometre from the road, the first thing you’ll notice is a border of giant leylandii. Not a very promising start, you might think to yourself, and in many ways you’d be quite right. They’re not native trees; they provide very little nourishment for native birds and insects – though the crows like them well enough, and the wood pigeons, and the magpies seem to hatch all their finest mischief in the tallest and leafiest boughs. But what those three rows of tall evergreen trees on three borders of this misshapen patch of land have achieved is to provide shelter: shelter enough to harbour a growing, and profoundly native, wood.

Woods and trees are important in the Celtic tradition, but to do the subject justice would require a separate and a longer article than this. Let’s just say that Classical writers reported that each continental Celtic tribe maintained a sacred grove – which, in the case of the Gauls, was called a nemeton, and indeed the goddess Nemetona was venerated in both Britain and Gaul. The oak is the tree which is most closely associated with the Celts in the popular imagination, and there’s little doubt of its importance. Pliny writes that oak trees had particular significance for the druids, and that they conducted their most sacred rituals in oak groves – but the particular tree which was held sacred by each individual tribe would of course have depended on their location.

Tree symbolism pervades Celtic literature and cosmology, especially in the Gaelic tradition. The inauguration of rulers was often conducted at a sacred tree (bile) from which a rod of sovereignty was cut and given to the new leader. The concept of the sacred tree likely survived well into Christian times: The Annals of Ulster record that the Ulstermen felled the sacred trees at the royal inauguration site of a rival clan in the year 1111, nearly seven centuries after Christianity was introduced to Ireland. Historically, there were five great sacred trees in Ireland: Bile Uisnigh, the ancient tree at Uisneach; Bile Tortanat 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, County Meath.

 

Holly, willow & gorse vie for space

The importance of trees in Ireland can be seen in the old Irish law tracts (the Brehon Laws), which categorised trees into four grades based on human social classes (Scottish Gaelic tradition similarly divided trees into noble and non-noble classes). Under the Brehon Laws, certain trees and shrubs were protected because of their importance to the community, and penalties were imposed for any unlawful damage such as branch-cutting, barking or base-cutting. There were four classes of tree, roughly mirroring the social classes in early Irish society. These were the airig fedo (‘nobles of the wood’), the aithig fedo (‘commoners of the wood’), the fodla fedo (‘lower divisions of the wood’) and the losa fedo (‘bushes of the wood’). Which group a tree belonged to depended on its economic importance – which was usually related to its fruit, the quality of its timber, or its size when fully grown. The importance of trees can still be seen today in the great number of tree-based place-names: out of 16,000 townlands in this country, 13,000 are said to be named after trees.

Silver birch is the dominant tree in my tiny wood (see the ‘featured image’ at the top of this page): silver birch interspersed with holly. This village is defined by its giant hollies; I’ve rarely seen them flourish so. There is willow, of course, and a few scattered rowans; there is hawthorn and blackthorn, and a couple of baby ash. Enough, then, to provide a good foundation for one of the projects which I plan to re-enchant this long abandoned garden: the creation of an ‘Ogham wood’.

 

An ancient blackthorn against the backdrop of granite hills

Ogham is an alphabet that appears on inscriptions dating from the 4th to the 6th century AD, and in manuscripts dating from the 6th to the 9th century. It was used mainly to write Old Irish, but also to write Old Welsh, Pictish and Latin. It was inscribed on stone monuments throughout Ireland, particuarly Kerry, Cork and Waterford, and in England, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Wales, particularly in Pembrokeshire in South Wales. The word Ogham is pronounced [ˈoːm] or [ˈoːəm] in Modern Irish [i.e. you do not pronounce the ‘g’]; it was spelt ogam in Old Irish. The origins of the word are uncertain: it might be named after the Irish god Ogma, or after the Irish phrase og-úaim (point-seam), which refers to the seam made by the point of a sharp weapon. Ogham probably pre-dates the earliest inscriptions – some scholars believe it dates back to the 1st century AD. Some have speculated that it might have been intended as a secret form of communication, offering warnings or protective spells; it is certainly clear that it was intended to be used only by the learned druidic class, and not by the people.

Ogham originally consisted of 20 letters, each of which is associated with a native tree or plant.* Birch, rowan, alder, willow and ash; hawthorn, oak, holly, hazel and apple; vine, ivy, broom, blackthorn and elder; pine, gorse, heather, aspen and yew. My aim in my new garden-wood is to have at least one example of each – and already I’ve mostly achieved that aim, with just one species (pine) to go. Each of these trees and shrubs will be a haven of food or shelter for native birds and insects. Some will offer us food, too: there’s nothing like rowan jelly, elderflower syrup, sloe gin, hazel nuts and apple pie.

 

A newly planted yew

But just as important to me is the role these trees play in my own mythic imagination, for each of them has its own unique, archetypal qualities. Willow, the witch-tree, pliant and tenacious. Blackthorn, used to create the staff of the great old Cailleach who made and shaped this land. Hawthorn, the fairy tree. Hazel, the tree of wisdom. Every one of those trees or plants has at least one old story in which it appears, and those are the stories I remember – re-member – when I walk among those trees and reach my hand out to their growing branches. Myth is at the heart of my Ogham wood; myth is at the heart of everything. And myth is the anvil on which the re-enchantment of my abandoned garden will be forged.

 

A new elder & hazel hedge, with wild garlic for company

* Most people associate trees in the mythic Celtic tradition with the so-called ‘Celtic Tree Calendar’. However, this is an invention of Robert Graves, in his book The White Goddess. We have no evidence for the existence of such a thing in ancient times.

2 thoughts on “The Enchanted Garden 2: trees and the Gaelic mythic imagination

  1. What a wonderful way to begin my day, reading this. As someone who grew up on a small farm with many trees of all kinds and also as a Celtic harper playing “a tree with strings”, I am so grateful for both the words and the images. I look forward to more.

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  2. I adore this idea, which I confess is one thing I decided upon when I got the news of my new battle/challenge in my life . I thought of this as a legacy woodland for the good of all that would be a real aim to focus on as well as a diversion from the c that has appeared. Long live woods!

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