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THE SACRED OAK - AN CRANN DAIR
It is a strange irony that I have come here tonight to give a talk on the sacredness of trees ó from a place, Inis Mór on the Aran Islands, which is famous for having no trees.
Fifteen hundred years ago, in the sixth century, Colmcille came to Aran on a visit. He and the local abbott Enda did not see eye to eye, and after a verbal and physical tussle, Colmcille was banished from the island. He was in such a rage that he put three curses on the island, one of which was that it would have no trees. Since then there have been virtually no trees on Inis Mór. The curse can only be reversed by someone greater than Colmcille ó a tall order, as he was probably the greatest of the Irish born saints, with the possible exception of Brigid.
There have been no trees on Aran for as far back as can be researched. For example, in the archaeological dig done at Dun Aongusa in the late 1990ís, a fort which goes back 3,000 years, there was no evidence of pig meat being part of the diet of the people who lived there. Pig meat or wild boar would have meant forests. So no forest either.
The chief form of penance among the monks of Inis Mór was to live without ever lighting a fire, something which they would have been forced into if they had no timber.
Thirdly, until just the other day, there was no evidence of there ever having been turf on Inis Mór, something which would have indicated the presence of forests at some stage on the island.
What happened the other day was that an engineering company drilled the sand depth around the pier at Kilronan, the main village of Inis Mór, and found there enormous depths of peat below a layer of sand, right in the middle of the harbour. How the peat got there is a complete mystery, unless part of Colmcilleís curse was to shovel any peat there was on the island into the harbour water.
We have one field on the island that has a wood of full grown trees of many different varieties. The tour bus guides point it out to tourists as our own tropical rainforest. The field is called Garraí na Dóibe and is owned by Galway County Council. They want to build houses on it, can you imagine!
There is one place on Inis Mór that is called after trees. Eochaill, as in Youghal, means the wood of ewe trees. Eochaill is in the middle of the island on the highest point, and it is where I lived for the first 10 years of my time there. There has been a parish church situated in Eochaill for many hundreds of years and it is probably from this fact that the name originated. Ewe trees were traditionally planted around churches.
The ewe is the longest living tree of all tress, sometimes over 1,000 years. Because of this quality of the tree, it represented the gateway through death. The ewe tree was planted around churches because it represented eternity, or death and resurrection. Sprigs of the ewe were placed in the coffin and in graves to help carry the dead through to new life. The ewe is also poisonous, and for this reason may have been useful for keeping away the animals from around the church.
Since I came to live on Inis Mór in 1985, there have been various attempts to plant trees on the island including a visit of high level people from the governmentís Forestry Department to advise us on how to go about it, and a more down to earth visit from a small voluntary tree organisation who brought in hundreds of trees to the island, went from house to house offering them for free, and even helped to plant them.
Trees donít grow well on Inis Mór. The soil, where there is any is shallow and sandy, so it has neither depth nor firmness. The wind carries salt in the air when the storms blow. One can taste the salt on oneís face during a storm. Many trees cannot cope with this. And the island is very exposed to strong winds. Trees that do manage to get a footing and grow to 10 feet or more, usually end up with all of their branches leaning away from the prevailing wind, looking like a head of madly flailing hair.
I have an oak tree in my garden that is about 3 feet high. I got it from the tree organisation that visited the island about five years ago, and so far it is surviving. However, it will never grow to the great size to which oaks normally grow. Nor is there much chance of ever having a sacred grove of oak trees on Inis Mór, something which I would love. To visit the sacred oak groves I will have to leave the island.
But this does bring me to the topic of the oak tree, the subject of my talk tonight, and I want to begin by establishing the connection between the oak and my own life, one which goes back to my birth.
When I was born, just after the war in the suburbs of Dublin, my parents flicked through a small pamphlet on Irish names for children and picked out the name Dara for me. It had no particular meaning or relevance for them, they just liked the name. But they told me later that it meant an oak tree. As a child that did not mean much to me. Of more relevance to me at the time and the cause of some amusement was its other meaning: Dara - an dara ceann. I was the second child!
Growing up in Dublin during the 50s and 60s I cannot remember even once meeting another boy with the same name. Now the name is more common, and you will hear it quite regularly on the radio, for example.
In the late 70s and early 80s I worked for a number of years in Dundalk, where I discovered that Dara was a girlís name. I even met a girl called Dara Molloy. She was beginning to make her name as a singer with four of her sisters in a group called the Molloys. The reason for the name Dara being used for girls in Dundalk was the connection with St Brigid. Brigid, who was born at Faughert, outside Dundalk, had a servant girl called Dara, and this is where the name came from. This may have been literally true, or a poetic way of saying that Brigid had a special connection to an oak tree, which of course she had in Kildare, the church of the oak. Either way, in Dundalk, Dara was a girlís name and I felt out of place.
But then, in 1985 I moved to Aran. I can clearly remember my first morning waking up in the small thatched cottage in Eochaill and hearing a knock at the door. I rose and opened it to the postman who welcomed me to the island and brought me some mail. He introduced himself as Dara Mullen. I remarked that it was a name not unlike my own. He took me to the door and pointed out over the sea towards the coast of Connemara. ìyou see that small island there to the north. Well that is Oileán Mhic Dara. That is where your name and my name comes fromî.
That was a profound moment for me. You may remember in the Christian gospels that Jesus once asked his disciples who people thought he was. Some said he was John the Baptist, or Elijah, or an ancient prophet returned. But Jesus said: who do you say that I am? And Peter came forward and said: You are the Christ, the Messiah. (Lk. 9:18-21)
For years I had been searching for who I really was. That search had led me into life in a religious order and eventual ordination to the Catholic priesthood. But still, I remained unsettled in my quest for my true identity. I felt separate and different from those I lived and worked with. I could not wear the clerical clothes expected of me. Despite feeling that my quest lay somewhere in this direction, I was equally clear that I had not yet arrived at the place of my calling.
It was this continued unsettledness that had brought me to Aran. When I first visited Aran in 1982, a part of me awoke that I had not known existed. I discovered on Aran the rich remains of a Celtic spiritual heritage. For me it was the treasure in the field which a man finds and then goes and sells all he has to buy the field. (Mt.13:44-46) That was the effect on me. After my visit there, I immediately began planning to go there to live. On January 9th 1985 I arrived there with my bags and baggage, and on the morning of the 10th the postman visited me.
When Dara Mullen told me that I was named after MacDara, the 6th century hermit saint, it made total sense. This fitted with who I really was. I had come to Aran to place my feet in the footsteps of the Celtic monks of Aran. Now my name made total sense, because the person I was named after was himself a hermit monk. As the monks might say, I had found my place of resurrection.
Sinach MacDara built his cell and oratory on an island only a few acres in size. The island is about 20 minutes by boat from a pier close to Carna in Connemara. He is one of a threesome of Galway Bay saints who were part of the first generation of Celtic monks. The other two are MacCartan and MacDuagh. It is said that the three of them had the same mother but different fathers. Their names indicate who their father was.
MacDaraís feastday is July 16th. On that day, all the local boats ferry people out to the island for Mass and a picnic. On the weekend closest to the 16th, a patrún is held in the area with all types of sea sports and festivities taking place. Even today, fishermen still carry holy water in the boats that has been blessed at that Mass and bless themselves as they pass the island. In times past, the fishermen dipped their sails three times in his honour.
Since I discovered MacDara, his feastday of July 16th has always been a day of pleasant surprises for me. Its as if MacDara gives me a gift on his birthday, each time it comes around. One year it was a cheque for £7,500 that came in the post from the Ireland Fund for the refurbishment of our Pilgrim Hostel. This year it was the chance discovery of a local man in Galway who will supply us with a refurbished old Land Rover, something we had been looking for for some time.
I want to emphasise here that the thread which holds this talk together is the story of my search for my own identity. My identity is of course connected with my name. But for the first half of my life my name meant very little to me. Then in 1985 I moved to Aran as I continued my quest, and suddenly my name took on a profound new depth of meaning. In rediscovering my name, I discover both my place and my family. My place is Aran, and my family is the monks of the Celtic monasteries. This is where I feel at home.
Ironically, my arrival on Aran posed a difficulty for local people there. They have traditionally treated strangers with suspicion. A stranger from Connemara, Clare, or one of the other Aran islands has a better chance of integration and acceptance because the islanders have some familiarity with the people of these places. But a priest from Dublin who neither dresses like a priest nor lives in the priestís house is an enigma.
75% of the people of Inis Mór were born on the island. Many of the other 25% are married in. Being married in gives you an identity based on the identity of your spouse. Peopleís identity on Inis Mór is defined by their family and their birthplace on the island. An islander may have the surname for example O Flaherty. This means very little because so many have that name. But his local leas-ainm carries the full meaning. So for example Máirtín Ó Flaithearta of Raidio na Gaeltachta fame is known as Máirtín Jamesí. The Jamesí bit identifies the line of people from the island to which he belongs. Someone like me comes into the island from outside this bubble of meaning and so cannot be identified in that way. So the islanders have difficulty with me. While they found it difficult to establish my identity, I myself was becoming clearer about my identity.
However, the name Dara is older than Christianity and obviously finds its roots in the oak tree, an Crann Dair. We have the word used in the name Cill Dara, the oratory made of oak, and in Doire Colmcille, the oak wood of St Colmcille, now Derry City.
In order to understand the depth of meaning contained in the oak tree of Celtic times, we need to move ourselves out of the modern day scientific and materialist perspective. In Celtic times, both Christian and pre-Christian, the natural world was the dwelling place of the spirits and the deities. The Otherworld was a world that was always within armís reach.
Try to imagine what it must be like to live totally in the natural world, a rural world without the technologies and material things we have today. Humans were an integral part of this world, living in thatched homes, going to wells and streams for water, gathering or cultivating their food close to their homes. This world constantly spoke to them of the spiritual or other world. The land itself was the goddess who gave fertility and the harvests. Streams and rivers were the blood of the earth goddess, wells were the sacred entrances to her womb.
These peopleís world was contained and held together by their sacred mythology, a mythology which explained the seasons, life and death, and all the other mysterious phenomena of life. In this world, everything material carried a spiritual presence. The way to the spiritual presence was through the material thing.
So, in the Celtic world, trees carried sacred presences. In this book that I have with me, Tree Wisdom, each tree that exists is shown to have carried special meanings and spiritual presences. Imagine what it must have been like to live in a world where you were conscious of these meanings all the time.
My search for my own identity has led me to search further into the meaning of my name. I first researched the scientific aspect of the oak. An oak treeís two great qualities are its strength and its hospitality. It lives almost as long as a ewe ñ over 700 years. It provides shelter and food for many plants, birds and other wildlife. A natural forest of oak is a very precious thing in Ireland, and people go to great lengths to protect them.
All of these aspects of the oak give clues to my own identity. I feel myself to be a strong person, deeply rooted, able to hold my ground against strong forces. My connection to the strength of the oak rings true to me. I have not been afraid, for example, to stand up against the might of the education system.
Hospitality is something I am particularly interested. It was always a strong trait of the Irish, and particularly so among the monks. For the monks, the rule of hospitality meant that a stranger was treated to a wash, a meal and a fresh bed on his arrival at the monastery. Hospitality has become central to the work I do on Aran, where we run a Pilgrim Hostel with 20 beds, a Spiritual Centre with 6 beds for guests, and various programmes for visiting groups to the island.
As for the longevity of the oak, perhaps I will live long. My motherís mother died at 96. My father and mother are both alive, my father 85, my mother 81.
But a search into the more spiritual aspects of the oak provide even greater clues to my identit, not all of which I have fathomed.
St Brigid built her monastery at a sacred oak tree. Nobody was allowed to place a weapon near it. The acorns of the oak were used for burning in the sacred fire of Kildare, a fire that could only be fed by women, and that never went out for over a thousand years. This fire has now been relit since the Brigidine sisters went back to live in Kildare in the last decade. It is possible that Brigid was originally a druid and lived in a community of druids. In taking on Christianity, she brought with her many druidic practices and beliefs, including the belief in the spiritual significance of oak trees and the practice of keeping alight the perpetual fire.
Colmcille was also associated strongly with the oak. Two of his greatest foundations, Derry and Durrow, have been called after the oak. The oak wood of Derry was very special to Colmcille, where the most dreaded sound was that of the saw cutting down a tree. The oaks of Derry were protected as sacred right up to the 12th century.
Preachers used to oak to preach under. Augustine of Canterbury, the apostle of England, used to preach under the oak. Mind you, the Celtic monks had no real respect for him. In the Bible, the oak is mentioned on numerous occasions as a tree where spiritual manifestations occurred. God appeared in trinitarian form to Abraham under the Oak of Mamre.
It is really in pre-Christian times that we find where the roots of the spirituality of the oak lie. The druids as you know worshipped outdoors and did not have chapels or churches. Druidic rituals were held in oak groves, and these groves were very sacred places. The magnificent cathedral of Chartres in France is built on what was originally the site of a druidic oak grove. This choice of site honoured the sacredness of the place, but of course the oaks themselves had gone or were removed.
For the Druids, the oak was a mystical doorway to the divine. (Today, beautiful doors are made of oak). To listen to the voice of the divine, one should stand under the oak tree. The druids gathered in the oak groves to listen to the voice of the divine and to perform their rituals.
Why the oak? The clue for me lies in a certain quality of the oak tree which makes is susceptible to being struck by lightning, more so than any other tree. Its electrical resistance is low. How often have you heard of an oak being struck by lightning? It happens quite often.
One of the gods of the druids was a male god called Esus. The Vikings called him Thor. He was a sky god, living above the earth, like the Christian Father God. A god of thunder and lightning, associated with the weather.
Thor gives his name to our Thursday. Interestingly, in Irish, Thursday is Déardaoin. The word Aoin means ëto fast forí. Déardaoin is a shortened version of ìAn Dé idir an dá aoinî. The day between the two fast days. The two fast days were of course Wednesday, ëCéadaoiní, and Dé hAoine. The word for ëto fast againstí (as in hunger strikes for example) is ëtroscadhí. But this word has now become the common word for fasting and is used for example as the word to describe the Lenten fast, which is not really a fast against but a fast for.
Now if you are leaning up against an oak tree, and listening for the voice of the divine when suddenly lightning strikes the tree, you will certainly be impressed, if you remain alive. The druids took this phenomenon of oak trees being regularly hit by lightning as an indication that oak groves were the best place to be when trying to communicate with this sky god. It makes total sense when you think about it.
There is another example of this type of thinking in the choice of mountain of Croagh Patrick, or Cruachán Aigle as it was known, as the place to celebrate the sun god Lugh. As you know, the practice of climbing Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday of July continues to this day and is still very popular. However, it is a very ancient practice, and traditionally took place at night. According to the ancient mythology, people were climbing the Reek during the night in order to get into bed with Lugh and the earth goddess. Lugh was the sun god. Sun and earth got into bed at this time every year and together produced the harvest. Climbing the Reek at this time of year was harvest festival.
So just like the question we have asked concerning the oak, we can also ask the question, why this particular mountain. The answer came to me in the form of a newspaper article in the Irish Times Saturday September 5th 1992. In it, Michael Viney revealed that a certain stone near the mountain marked the spot where one should stand at two specific dates during the year. If one stood at this spot on either of these dates and watched the sun set over Croagh Patrick, one would witness an extraordinary event.
Firstly, as the sun set it would land directly on the tip of the mountain, like a ball on the nose of a seal. But of more importance was what happened next. Instead of the sun disappearing behind the mountain as it set, which is what you would expect, the sun gives the impression of rolling down the side of the mountain like a ball. This phenomenon was captured in a series of superimposed photographs by a photographer for Michael Viney and printed with the article. The photograph clearly shows the sun rolling down the hill.
This was the extraordinary phenomenon witnessed by the ancient Celts. In it, they saw the sun do something extraordinary and unexpected. This phenomenon made Cruachán Aigle the perfect place for celebrating the sungod Lugh.
These discovered phenomena concerning Croagh Patrick and concerning the oak tree have led me to believe that we must always look for some such quality or phenomenon associated with every material thing used in ritual by the druids. And when one finds it, things they did make a lot of sense. So for example, the druids used to take the topmost twig from the oak tree and use it as a wand. That now makes total sense, because it is the topmost twig which will draw the lightning to the tree. The twig or wand in the hand of the druid is used to make a direct connection with the divine and to channel that energy towards humans.
Then there is the phenomenon of mistletoe. Mistletoe sometimes grows on oak trees. It is especially sacred when white berries form on the mistletoe. People got married under the oak tree if mistletoe was on it. We still have the practice of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas time. Why? Again there is a clear reason.
The berries on the mistletoe, which grew only on the oak tree, were understood to be the sperm of god. Now getting married under the oak tree, and kissing under the mistletoe makes total sense.
Recently I performed a wedding under an oak. Unfortunately none of us had done the research I have since done, and the full significance of what we were doing was not explained or understood. But it does show that there is still an intuition there that getting married under an oak is appropriate.
To go back now to the wand used by the druids, the topmost twig of the oak. Sometimes this wand was tipped with an acorn. Why? The acorn represented the penis of the sky god Thor.
I can identify with these spiritual aspects of the oak tree. To be a channel for the divine, for example, is something that my whole life has been about. As a priest, I have gathered, and continue to gather people around me and together we get into communication with the divine at our ceremonies. One of my most important functions as a Celtic priest today is to perform wedding ceremonies for people. In this, I am like the oak, where weddings took place beneath its boughs. And finally, some rare oaks have mistletoe growing on them, symbolising the sexuality of god. Late in life, I have been married and now have three children.
But perhaps most of all the spirituality connected with the oak has drawn me more and more into experiencing the divine through nature. I see in a new way that there is no way we can experience the divine except through material things, either things outside ourselves in nature, or from within our material selves.
For modern people to be cut off from nature is to be cut off from the divine. It is no wonder the two go hand in hand. We destroy nature by the way we live and at the same time proclaim that god is dead or irrelevant. By killing nature we kill our connection to the divine.
My life project on Aran has led me to search for a way of living on this earth that is respectful of nature, in tune with it, a way of life that is, one might say, sustainable. Where the earth can sustain me and I can sustain the earth.
As I draw to a close, I want to make reference to the wren, an dreoilín, the king of all birds. The dreoilín is linked both to the druids and to the oak, and is said to embody the spirit of both. Since coming to live on Aran, I have become very close to the wren. Wrens are very plentiful on Aran and can be seen flitting in and out through the stone walls and ivy. They have a very clear piercing song which is varied and very beautiful.
The wren came very close to me on one particular occasion. I had just arrived back from a stint of six weeks in the US where I had stayed with the world famous philosopher Ivan Illich. It had been a life changing experience for me, one that continues to give my life depth and direction. But having arrived home from US at the onset of winter, the cold, wet and windy weather got to me and I went into a deep depression.
In those days, I had my own wooden hut, 8í x 10í, a garden shed that I had insulated and put heat into. This was my hermitís cell, where I slept, prayed and studied. During my depression, which lasted a few weeks, I began to notice the sound of fluttering wings at first light in the morning, when I was still asleep. One morning I awoke in time to spot what it was. It was a wren. The wren was slipping into the hut at dusk through a tiny hole at the V of the roof. She was finding a nice perch on a piece of timber under my desk, a piece that held the drawer. There she was sleeping, alongside me, for the night, protecting herself against the nasty weather outside.
The discovery of the wren in my room accompanying me during sleep immediately began to lift my spirits. I understood the wren to be the spirit of the oak and the druids, and so I read a spiritual meaning into his visitation of me. His presence was a sign from the gods. An encouragement, a strengthening of me for the road ahead. So although there is no oak grove on Aran, and practically no oak trees, there are plenty of wrens and these keep me in touch both with the spirit of the oak tree, and with the spirit of the druids.
I have given you a very personalised talk on the Sacredness of the Oak Tree. I hope it has not been too narcissistic. It may not have been what you expected. However, academic information on the sacredness of the oak is always available in books, such as Tree Wisdom, and I did not want to simply study and present this to you in a dry, lecture style format. Instead I told my own story and its deep relationship to the oak. In the end, the only story worth telling is your own ó and only you can tell it.
Talk given to Forest Friends Ireland, Teacherís Club, Parnell Square West, Dublin
1. 16th November 2001. Contact: John Haughton, 49 Bayside Park, Sutton, Dublin 13.
Two other people also gave talks on other nights: Marcus Losack, ëThe Sacred Tree
- out of the Desertí, and someone else: ëThe Sacred Tree - the Celtic Cycleí.
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