Monday, March 3, 2014

'The tree that ate the church' and other stone hungry Irish trees

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Around this time every year I try and do a special tree themed blog post especially for National Tree Week which this year runs from 2nd March to 8th March.

Reading through this wonderful new book by Aubrey Fennell about the Heritage Trees of Ireland I got inspired to do a blog post on some of the stone hungry trees of Ireland.

This book is full of wonderful photos, stories and information and I thoroughly recommend getting a copy. Below are two stories from the book that I have been permitted by the publishers to share with you. They are the story of The Tree That Ate the Church in Co. Offaly and the story of Castle One Tree in Co. Cavan written in the words of the author.

Heritage Trees of Ireland By Aubrey Fennell. Click here to buy with free worldwide shipping
I have always been fascinated by the folklore surrounding many of Ireland's trees. Many of these trees are also often closely tied to stone I find. Unfortunately though the same trees are also often the slow killers of the same stone structures as was the case below.
The Tree that Ate the Church. Co. Offaly. (Photo from Heritage Trees of Ireland book with the publishers kind permission)

The Tree That Ate the Church, Tihilly Church, Laughaun, Coleraine, County Offaly  
"I have been as guilty as anyone in rushing through the countryside on our improved road network, and not seeing some of the wonders of our beautiful island. The road between Tullamore and Clara was one I had often travelled, when a beam of sunshine illuminated a pair of ash trees I had not noticed before. They are two fields in, behind a farmyard, and after getting permission from the farmer I approached them with growing anticipation.
Surface roots of the first ash seemed ready to grab my ankles and pull me into if gaping cavity. The gargantuan tree did not look benign and, if I did not know better, appeared to be ‘Old Man Willow’ exiled from Tolkien’s Middle-earth. 
It stands on a mound of stones which are the remains of Tihilly church. Moss-covered stones and bark merge to create a trunk 7.6m in girth, a new Irish champion at the turn of the millennium. Since then its
cavity has become a cave, which has shrunk its girth to 7.18m. It supports a respectable storm-damaged crown, and at over 300 years old, is living on borrowed time. It probably started life as an opportunist seedling on the walls of the church, when it was abandoned in medieval times. Two walls remain standing beyond its grasping roots.
The second ash stands proudly clear of all this carnage, and is in the prime of life, ready to guard this religious site when the old brute is gone. It shelters a standing High Cross made from sandstone, which depicts scenes from the Bible, along with geometric and animal interlacing. St Fintan founded a monastery here in the seventh century. The last abbot served here in 936, while the church we see now was built from the stones of previous churches.
Ash trees have a special place in Irish folklore, and massive old trees have been venerated down through the ages. After the hawthorn, it is the tree most likely to be found at holy wells and sites of special significance.
Here we have a tree to rival those of the past and I hope to revisit it before it returns to Middle-earth."

Castle One Tree. Bawnboy, County Cavan
Castle One Tree
(Photo from Heritage Trees of Ireland book with the publishers kind permission)

Castle One Tree
(Photo from Heritage Trees of Ireland book
with the publishers kind permission)
‘Castle One Tree’ is a recently coined name given to an incredible old ash tree which is gorging on what remains of Lissanover Castle between Bawnboy and Templeport. Lissanover translates from Irish as the ‘Fort of Pride’, and the story goes that one of its occupants had a priest murdered at the altar because he had started Mass without him. In medieval times the castle was a stronghold of the ruling McGovern clan, and commanded views of the Barony of Templeport from Fermanagh to the Shannon basin as it fed into Lough Allen. 
Another account translates Lissanover as ‘Fort of Extravagance’; in this version a Baron McGovern was building the castle and had his tenants drive their cows to be milked at the castle every day, and the produce was used instead of water to make the mortar. BuIlocks’ blood was also used, and if anyone refused, the Baron had them hanged.
The McGoverns’ despotic rule did not survive the Elizabethan plantation, and the castle stone was recycled into the construction of Lissanover House in the 18th century. 
By the early 20th century, the mansion had suffered the same fate as the castle, and its stone was reused in the building of local farmers’ homes after the estate was divided up by the Land Commission.
Permission to view the tree from Martin Donohoe on whose land the tree stands is essential, as the grazing bullocks may have an ancestral memory of what happened to their forebears. Climb the hill until it levels off, and only bumps and hollows remain of the fort, except for the stout ash on its pedestal of stone. The trunk is over 7m in girth although it is not a conventional trunk, as many roots drop down from the original height of the wall where the ash seeded itself some 300 years ago. The tree’s height and spread is over 18m, and it is obviously thriving on its diet of blood and milk. It is clear why this tree was left well alone, for who knows what malevolent spirit might be released if it is interfered with? The McGoverns had the habit of imprisoning their opponents in wooden barrels with nails driven in and rolling them down the hill from this castle.

Below are two other trees that are stone bound which I have long admired. The first is an old crab apple growing out of a sold rock (an old mass rock I believe) close to my family home in West Cork.

Crab Apple tree, Mealagh Valley, West Cork. (Rock not very visible from this angle as grass has creped up over the rock on this side.) 
 The tree below is a lovely old Hawthorn growing through the wall at the 12th century St Doulagh's Well, in the outskirts of Dublin city. I love how the wall around the Hawthorn tree has carefully been maintained and repaired over the years to allow the tree to grow freely through the wall. It was actually visiting this site that  inspired me to incorporate the Hawthorn 'fairy tree' into the outdoor classroom project I created for the school in Donabate.

Hawthorn growing through the wall at the 12th century St Doulagh's Well

Planting the fairy tree in the outdoor classroom
The Fairy Tree in place

In regards to other Stone Hungry Trees, I also like this photo by Ken Curran of vines consuming a dry stone wall in Co. Tipparary

Vines consuming a dry stone wall in Co. Tipperary (Photo by Ken Curran of Earthstone)

Grave Yards are also great places to see stone eating trees.
Stone Hungry trees in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin

If you want to see some funny hungry trees from around the world, you should check out this link

You can see my previous posts for National Tree Week here.

There are plenty of events on around the country this week for National Tree Week. To find out what is happening in your area or to advertise your own event, check out the Tree Council of Ireland website

Thanks again to Collins Press  for allowing me to share the stories from their book. The Book Depository has the wonderful  Heritage Trees of Ireland book on sale at the moment with 39% off plus free worldwide shipping so click here to get yourself a copy 

1 comment:

  1. I love seeing how these grand old trees not only survive, but take over.
    Great post. Thanks for sharing.