Yew Tree - The Stuff of Legends
There are not many things that can claim association with Harry Potter, the Druids and Shakespeare, yet the yew tree can claim all of this and more.
The yew is a truly fascinating tree with a long history in Ireland, said to date back to the last major ice age. It has long been considered a sacred tree by both druids and Christians in Ireland and its association with death and rebirth has given it a special place in Irish culture and history. The feast of Samhain or Halloween as it is more commonly known today, represents the end of Summer and the start of Winter and the Yew tree for ancient cultures symbolised this idea of death and rebirth.
This symbolism is in part due to the yew tree's longevity. It is one of the oldest trees in Europe and specimens found are estimated to be 5,000 years old. It also has an ability to regenerate itself leading to its reverence as a sacred tree in ancient times. It is, however, slow growing and while once prolific in Ireland, is now scarce.
The Irish yew is a particular species of yew that grows upright, and it is thought that all Irish yews can be traced back to a pair of trees still standing in Florencecourt in Co. Fermanagh. You can see the significance of the Yew tree across the country in many of our placenames. Mayo "Maigh Eo" in Ireland translates as the Plain of yew trees and was home to the largest yew tree forest in the known world. Youghal in Co. Cork translates as "Eo Choill", the yew wood. Today in Ireland, Reenadina wood on the Muckross Peninsula, Co. Kerry is Ireland’s only native yew wood. The yew tree can also be found in names dating back to pre-Christian times such as Eoin or Eoghan meaning "born of the Yew tree".
The yew tree also appears throughout history due to the poisonous nature of the leaves and berries. It makes appearances in numerous tales, beautifully described by Niall Mac Coitir in his book "Ireland's Trees" where he says "paradoxically, as well as being a tree of sanctuary, the yew tree is associated with war". From tales of warriors evading capture by eating the berries to the use of the berries as poision in Shakespare's Macbeth this tree is literally the stuff of legends.
"Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver'd in the moon's eclipse".
Another reason yew was so important historically was due to the qualities of the wood which made it perfect for fashioning tools and weapons as well as household objects. Some of these can be seen in the Irish History Museum in Dublin. For any Harry Potter fans out there, it is interesting to note that yew was the druids preferred timber for making their wands or staffs due to not only its perceived magical properties but also its strength and flexibility. It is no wonder J.K Rowling used this as inspiration in her Harry Potter novels.
Today we mainly find Yew trees in graveyards and churches and there are a few theories as to why this is. One of these is the sacred associations we've already mentioned which see it being planted in sacred spaces. Another is that it is one of the five noble trees from ancient Brehon law and was planted to mark burial sites of the nobility. Another much less romantic notion is that because of its poisonous berries, it was planted in sacred places to deter farmers from grazing their cattle.
As we approach the feast of Samhain or Halloween, the yew tree takes on additional significance. This ancient tradition represents the merging of the old and the new, dark and light, the end of Summer and the start of Winter. The yew tree symbolised this idea of death and rebirth. It was symbolic for the ancient cultures from where this celebration originated.
Today, despite being toxic to most animals and humans, the yew tree offers sustenance and good nesting for our birds. For us, it offers the opportunity to reflect on our history and culture and to appreciate how closely connected and reliant we are on our trees.
We are fortunate to occasionally source some Irish yew that has naturally fallen due to a storm or old age. It is a challenging but highly rewarding timber to work on as often cutting into it, you find a gaping chasm which was not apparent from the outside. When you do find a piece that works, however, the character in the grain, the gnarls and the variations are what makes it so special.
Some of our favourite lamps are made from Irish yew. Our newest lamp, Florence, is a nod to that first Irish yew tree from Co. Fermanagh and our Mayo ceiling light is another light made from Irish yew with a historical reference.
If you would like to visit some of Ireland's living yew trees here is a list of some of the places to visit:
Kilmacurragh Gardens, Co. Wicklow
Killarney National Park, Muckross Abbey.
Florencecourt, Co. Fermanagh
Reenadina wood, Muckross peninsula, Co. Kerry
Silken Thomas tree, St Patrick's College, Maynooth
Ireland's Trees, Myths, Legends and Folklore, Niall Mac Coitir, The Collins Press
Native Trees & Forests of Ireland, David Hickie, Gill & Macmillan
Wilwood, A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin, Penguin