Images of Ireland tend to show rolling green hillsides dotted with sheep, narrow country roads, colorful pubs and villages and beautiful ruins of castles, towers and monasteries. You don’t see many photos of Irish forests, largely because they mostly destroyed long before the camera was invented. Farming began in Ireland about 6,000 years ago when humans first began to clear the land of forests. By about 1,000 AD, Ireland’s richest forests were gone. But once upon a time, Ireland was forested with hazel, oak and birch among others. While trees are making a comeback, the days of massive, ancient forests are long behind us. But we carry a sense of history here, and in Ireland trees were never simply wood. They held a deeper, more spiritual meaning that lingers in our souls.
Of course, the Tree of Life symbol is popular and most people with an interest in things Irish have seen some version of it whether they know it or not. It shows up as a tattoo design, greeting card image, symbol in art work and even a knitting stitch. But actual specific species of trees have their own meanings too in Celtic beliefs and tradition.
Hazel: (Coll in Irish) Hazel was associated with the druids, who believed both the wood and the nut were powerful. The hazel nut was believed to give wisdom and inspire poetry, and was used to brew a type of mead. (See, our reputation as beer drinking poets goes back pretty far.) It does make sense to link hazel with mental activity because hazel nuts are indeed a good source of protein, which the brain needs. Hazel sticks have been used as divining rods to locate water underground and as walking sticks.
Oak: (Dair in Irish) Oak has been a spiritual symbol throughout Irish history. Some scholars believe the word ‘druid’ derives from same root as the Irish word ‘dair’. The druids considered oak sacred and worshipped in oak groves. Many Irish place names refer to oak, including Kildare (sacred oak), Derry and Derrybawn (white oak), and in many cases Christian churches were built in places already considered sacred. Oak is also a symbol of St. Brigid, who founded her famous abbey in County Kildare.
Birch: (Beith in Irish) Birch trees were one of the first species to grow in Ireland, and they are associated with newness and beginnings. Birch twigs and brooms made of birch were traditionally used to drive out evil spirits, especially at Samhain, the Celtic New Year, now celebrated as Halloween. The wood was used in fires to celebrate various events such as Beltane and the Yule log. Birch can grow in places were oak cannot, and is usually found in groves rather than as singular trees.
Killarney National Park in County Kerry is one of the best places to get a sense of what a richly forested Ireland was like. It was the first national park created in Ireland, and it boasts the largest area of native trees in the country.