As the buds swell on trees around the northern hemisphere, leaves fall from those in the southern hemisphere. The circle of life is constant, all around the global. While new growth is blooming in one hemisphere, it is decaying to feed next year’s blossoms in the other. The ancient Celts were well aware of this eternal, unceasing circle of life and how it plays out annually in nature. Trees were particularly important to them, and that is why the ancient Celtic tree of life is such an important and poignant symbol on so many different Irish gifts.
The iconic design of the Irish tree of life is itself a circle, a visual reminder that as the years repeat, the generations continue. The trunk of the tree is crowned by rounded arch of intricate branches. Below, the roots curve up to the ground’s surface, almost connecting with the branches that extend down. It’s a powerful statement about how younger generations are rooted in previous generations, connected by the parent tree. The roots secure the tree in the soil and feed nutrition that fuels the new growth. We too are fed by our roots, spiritually at least. The tree of life isn’t modelled on a specific type of tree. Instead it is an imaginative interpretation of trees, a stylised rendition of the ideal tree that could be easily recognised in nearly all of the trees native to Ireland. The tree of life is a very meaningful symbol on Irish gifts given from one generation to another.
Druids, Brehon Law and Irish Tree Lore
Trees offered more than shade, fuel, building material and food to the ancient Irish. They believed that trees had a spiritual presence. So highly did they value trees that their legal code, Brehon law, went into great detail about different types of trees and the penalties for harming them.
Brehon law grouped trees into different categories and ranked each category. Harming a higher ranking tree such as an oak carried a much harsher penalty than damaging a shrub. Druids gathered at specific trees, and trees feature in many Irish place names not just because they grow in a particular spot. Kildare, for example, means sacred oak. Hazel was known as the tree of knowledge, while rowan was believed to protect the home.
The belief that trees connect us to the spiritual world persists. Even today, you can find fairy trees and across Ireland, especially in rural areas. If you notice a tree in the Irish countryside decorated scraps of cloth and other small items, do not disturb it! It’s a sacred tree, also known as a wishing tree. People leave tokens on it when they seek healing or some other blessing. These trees usually stand alone and are often near holy wells. Fairy trees also stand alone, but people do not put anything on them. These are often ash or hawthorn trees, and they might have a circle of large rocks around them. The fairies live in these trees, and absolutely no one wants to upset them!
Given the importance of trees in Celtic folklore, it is no surprise that the tree of life is such a popular motif on Irish gifts.