Today, Ireland only has remnants of its ancient forests and has one of the lowest levels of tree cover in Europe. While afforestation is promoted with plantations of conifers and native trees (tree cover across Ireland is around 12%) there is value in considering how ancient forests were once regarded. Ireland was deforested over many centuries; its great forests declined with successive invasions. There are important ideas recorded in medieval literature that at times captured pre-Christian Brehon laws, perhaps handed down from ancient Celtic oral cultures, about how trees were once valued and why their destruction was a serious, punishable offence.
I have written previously about how Rights for Nature are being advanced today in legal spheres in some countries like Ecuador (codified in 2008) and Aotearoa New Zealand, along with ideas that ecocide, the destruction of ecosystems like forests, is a crime. It is, therefore, interesting to reflect that Ireland’s early system of laws, the earliest in Europe, set out to protect its trees so that human and nonhuman communities could be sustained.
I’ve been thinking about this recently as my husband Martin was commissioned to sculpt an Ogham tree-teaching standing stone (see this link for Martin’s sculpting process) for Blackstairs EcoTrails who have developed an educational Celtic Tree experience walk and talk. Scholars speculate that the very basic Ogham symbols, carved 1500 years ago in standing stones across Ireland (around the 6th century AD) were perhaps influenced by oral Brehon, pre-Christian Celtic forest lore. Some consider that the simple Ogham symbols have long been associated with tree species as they resemble tree branches. In any case, over centuries each of the Ogham symbols became associated with individual Irish tree species.
The Society of Irish Foresters has quoted research about the Brehon laws and trees:
Brehon law was the law of a pastoral people, whose economics were based on a self-sufficient agricultural economy regulated by tribal and family relationships and where wealth was measured in terms of cattle ownership. There were no units of money and barter was the main form of exchange.
It should come as no surprise therefore that there were specific Brehon laws dealing with trees. Under these laws, certain trees and shrubs were protected because of their importance to the community. Penalties were imposed for any unlawful damage such as branch-cutting, barking or base-cutting.
There were four classes of tree, roughly mirroring 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, usually related to its fruit, timber or size when fully grown.
The díre or penalty for an offence was a fine in the form of livestock. The penalties were graded according to the class of tree harmed and the form of damage inflicted. The díre for felling one of the nobles of the wood was two and a half milk cows, while the penalty for cutting down one of the commoners of the wood was one milk cow, and so on.
This Old Irish Tree-List, as it has come to be known, not only provides us with a fascinating example of Brehon law in action, but also gives us some insight into the nature of ancient Irish society and the role and importance of trees in the daily lives of our ancestors.
Blackstairs EcoTrails have also commissioned a 15-minute film about these Irish tree classifications and why Ireland’s trees were so important. Filmed in and around south County Carlow, the film then focusses on the noble trees, their new five acre oak and native tree species woodland and Martin’s tree-teaching standing stone at Blackstairs EcoTrails, Killedmond, Co. Carlow. Importantly, the film reflects on Ireland’s past forest culture that appears critical to re-visit for today’s environmental concerns. We’ve been lucky to meet the filmmakers and to see a sneak preview of the film – some of the drone shots from above south Co. Carlow are extraordinary to appreciate how beautiful this area is and there is reference to people we know who work with wood. While Carlow is not well known for its forest history, its great to see another creative project, along with Hollywood, that is helping cultivate critical reflection and new ideas for Ireland’s forests. Next year, also marks the first time that ProSilva Ireland will organise a forest visit in the county to develop further conversations on the necessity of continuous cover forestry.
The Blackstairs EcoTrails Celtic Tree experience will be an ongoing feature walk for tourists and local people. It is part of the Ancient East promotion of the area by Ireland’s tourist board Bord Failte.
For Heritage Week 2016 people can go on the Celtic Tree Experience, see the film, the young forest and Martin’s standing stone for free.
Venue: The Old Rectory, Killedmond, Borris, Co. Carlow.
Date: Sunday 28 August 2016
Time: 3.00 to 4:30 pm.
Booking is required. Phone 087 2707 189 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Hope to see you there!