South County Dublin has a wonderful heritage of ancient trees preserved in literature and folklore and indeed some remarkable trees still grow here. Trees associated with kingship, mythical trees, a hanging tree, saint’s trees and venerable old trees have all been recorded here.
Roman writers observed that early Celtic societies worshiped in sacred groves or tree sanctuaries and when Christianity came to Ireland many trees associated with pagan worship were incorporated into the new Christian sites. The term bile was used for a sacred tree and survives in the word bileog (leaf) and sometimes the term craebh was used which survives as craobh (branch). An early legal poem of the seventh century reveals that there would be a severe penalty for interfering with a tree sanctuary
A danger from which there is no escape
Is the penalty for felling the noble sacred trees.
One of the earliest references to a special tree is in the Dindshenchas when St Mochua (or Cronán) of Clondalkin is mentioned in a lament for the bile Tortan.
I Mochua with Crónán do plead
Please do not grieve excessively
From the bare stump so grey in hue
Many a tree may spring anew
This idea of a sacred tree renewing itself can be found in Tallaght at St Maelruan’s tree. This magnificent walnut tree, associated with the local saint, was struck by lightning in 1795 and split into several parts which rooted and the tree still bears walnuts to this day. Although this tree is hundreds of years old, walnut trees are not native to Ireland and so the present tree is thought to have replaced an earlier tree dedicated to this “Bright Sun of Ireland”.
There is a fleeting reference in the kingship rite of the O’Rourke clan of Breifne to their slat righe or rod of kingship, this was passed to the king as an important part of his inauguration rite. The branch for the O’Rourke’s inauguration had to be cut from the bile St Maedoc at the saint’s sanctuary at Seiscinn Uairbeoil or MountSeskin.
St Anne’s ash tree and holy well in Glenasmole is typical of a saint’s tree and it incorporates a stone lined well at its base. Although the church is associated with St Sanctan the name is corrupted to St Anne – often an avatar of the old celtic goddess Anu.
Palmerstown can claim to have had one of the oldest tress in Ireland, an ancient yew. According to the antiquaries of the 19th century there was a yew said to be almost a thousand years old in the churchyard. It was illustrated by Wakeman. Yews are thought to live for a very long time but are difficult to date. Churches were often decorated with branches of yew on Palm Sunday. This tree became unsound and was blown down in a storm in the 1880s.
The Old Glebe at Newcastle also has an ancient yew tree known as the Dean’s Tree. It was named for Jonathan Swift 1667-1745, the great writer, who is said to have sat under this tree in the garden writing and conversing with friends. This tree is several hundred years old and has a massive girth of over five metres.
Did you know?
The folklore of South Dublin also has references to special trees. The school’s collection for Clondalkin has a story about a tree that stood in the grounds of Orchard House. A new owner to the house was about to cut down the tree but when told of the local tradition that the tree dated from 1014, the date of the Battle of Clontarf, the tree was saved.
There is also a reference to the Balgaddy Bush in the folklore record. It lay on the boundary between the parishes of Clondalkin and Lucan, at a crossroads, a location redolent of folklore. The story was that a priest was turned away from the Bush House on a rainy night whereupon he said the name of those who turned him away would never again live in the house and that the grass would grow around the door of the house.
The Schools Folklore Collection can be viewed on microfilm at the County Library, Tallaght.