Brehon Laws and Irish Trees

Ancient Ireland was ruled by a series of Kings and Chieftains, under them the Judges, Poets and Druids tying them all together, right up to the early 1600s, were the Brehon Laws. These statutes governed every part of life from marriage & divorce, farming, beekeeping, property ownership, inheritance and war along with many many more. In fact, Brehon Laws were considered to be the most progressive law system of its time. One of the items listed within the tracts was laws regarding the sustainable usage of the trees of Ireland and fines for those who damaged or cut down trees for the wrong reasons!

Female Druid with her Scythe for cutting mistletoe
Female Druid with her Scythe for cutting mistletoe

28 trees were listed under the Brehon Laws, divided into 4 catagoreies. The Airig Fedó or the Nobles of the woods, the Aithig Fedó or the Commonors of the Woods, the Fodhla Fedó or the Lower Divisions of the Woods and finally the Losa Fedó or the bushes of the woods. The trees listed in each catagory were really important to the farming people that once lived here.

The Nobles of the Woods contained seven trees, including Hazel, Holly, Ash and of course, the Oak. The Oak Tree was used to build defensive walls around ring forts, houses and halls but also it was considered to be one of the most Sacred of all the trees. In fact the word Druid itself comes from the old Sanskrit word for Oak – Drú + Wisdom -Wid = Druwid or Druid.

They believed it was associated with the Sun God, here called Lugh but by Celts through various stage and across countries also called Zeus or Jupiter.

This made it the most noble of all trees! And should you cut one without permission or so that it might becomes diseased and die, you would find yourself paying a hefty fine of two and a half Milk Cows. We might laugh at that today, but a blow like that to a poorer farmer could literally be the diffference between surviving a winter or not!

Willow tree

Amongst the Commoners of the Woods, you’d find trees used by all for daily activities like the Willow or as its better known the Sally Tree from the Irish Sailleach. Much maligned by today’s farmers, back then, it was an indispensable part of farming life. The Willow was used for everything from storage baskets, bean poles, chicken pens even tieing down the thatch. the bendy boughs would be pulled into stips and rebound to make rope. And from a medicinal point of view, in a world without asperin, the Willows bark was your go-to for pain relief!

In there as well was the Alder, used to make shields and spear shafts, the Hawthorn, Rowan and Cherry, important food sources. The Birch too, was essential, for an island with plenty of rain, the Birch was used to ease arthritic pains in the knees and backs of our ancestors!

Courtown Woods
Courtown Woods –

Damaging or cutting a commoner down would see you lose one prime milk cow. In today’s money that could be (depending on the breed) up to €5000!

The Lower Divisions saw trees that were less important but still needed. The Blackthorn, Elder, Whitebeam and Juniper all had their medicinal uses and some produced food too. Care to guess what the Spindle tree was used for? Without the spindle tree, we may not have had tartan. Imagine our Scottish cousins without their distinctive Kilts!

Finally, in the bushes of the woods, you have plants like Bracken (ferns) and Heather used for bedding, or more medicinal plants like Bog Myrtle and Wild Rose. This is where Gorse fits too. Those prickly bushes with the bright yellow coconut smell burn at an incredibly high temperature. ideal to get the iron age forge going, baking large amounts of bread or using it as a sweetly smelling washing line. The prickles stop the cloth from blowing away!