Gaelic Tree Lore in the Lay of Iubhdan

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      Hello everyone. I came across an old Irish, bardic poem that contains a lot of interesting tree lore. The poem (English translation and original Irish) can be found in Silva Gadelica I, 1892, Standish H. O’Grady. The English translation is quite heavy in that it’s using very archaic style and language, nevertheless, I’ve typed it up and typed out and I’m posting it here. The only liberty I have taken is to add bold and break down the original text into more readable blocks. I’ll provide links to the sources below. I’ve also typed out the original Irish version as best as I can, I apologise if an accent (sineadh fada) has gone amiss or astray.

      “O man that for Fergus of the feasts dost kindle fire, whether afloat or ashore never burn the king of woods. Monarch of Innisfail’s forests the woodbine is, whom none may hold captive; no feeble sovereign’s effort is it to hug all tough trees in his embrace, The pliant woodbine if thou burn, wailings for misfortune will abound: dire extremity at weapon’s points or drowning in great waves will come after.

      Burn not the precious apple-tree of spreading and low-sweeping bough: tree ever decked in bloom of white, against whose fair head all men put forth the hand.

      The surly blackthorn is a wanderer, and a wood that the artificer burns not; throughout his body, though it be scanty, birds in their flocks warble.

      The noble willow burn not, a tree sacred to poems; within his bloom bees are a-sucking, all love the little cage.

      The graceful tree with the berries, the wizard’s tree, the rowan, burn; but spare the limber tree: burn not the slender hazel.

      Dark is the colour of the ash: timber that makes the wheels to go; rods he furnishes for horsemen’s hands, and his form turns battle into flight.

      Tenterhook among woods the spiteful briar is, by all means burn him that is so keen and green; he cuts, he flays the foot, and him that would advance he forcibly drags backward.

      Fiercest heat-giver of all timber is green oak, from him none may escape unhurt: by partiality for him the head is set on aching and by his acrid embers they eye is made sore.

      Alder, very battle-witch of all woods, tree that is hottest in the fight – undoubtingly burn at thy discretion both the alder and the whitethorn.

      Holly, burn it green; holly, burn it dry: of all trees whatsoever the critically best is holly.

      Elder that hath tough bark, tree that in truth hurts sore: him that furnishes horses to the armies from the sidh burn so that he be charred.

      The birch as well, if he be laid low, promises abiding fortune: burn up most sure and he stalks that bear the constant pods. Suffer, if it so please thee, the russet aspen to come headlong down: burn, be it late or early, the tree with the palsied branch.

      Patriarch of long-lasting woods is the yew, sacred to feasts as is well known: of him now build ye dark-red vats of goodly size.

      Ferdedh, thou faithful one, wouldst thou but do my behest: to they soul as to the body, O man, ‘twould work advantage!”

      Silva Gadelica I, p.278 – in English – available at

      Some of the tree lore here is fascinating. I was intrigued by the rowan (mountain ash) being attributed to wizards (druids?) – Caerthann fid na ndruad. Some of the other references are also very thought provoking, especially the one about the willow and poetry and the elder’s association with sidh. Here is the Irish version, note that this is not modern Irish.

      A fhir fhadós teine . ac Fergus na fledi ;
      ar muir ná ar tir . na loisc rig na fed

      A irdri feda Fail . im nach gnáth sreth sluaig Í ;
      ni fann in feidm riog . sniom im gach crann cruaid

      D á loisce in fid fann . bud mana gréch nglonn Í ;
      ro sia gábad renn . nó bádad trén tonn

      N á loisc aball án . na ngéc faroll faen Í ;
      fid man gnáth bláth bán . lám cháich na cenn chaem

      D eorad draigen dúr . fid nach loiscenn saer I ;
      gáirid elta én . tréna chorp cid cael

      N á loisc sailig sáir . fid deimin na nduan ;
      beich na bláth ac deol . mian cáich in cró caem

      C aerthann fid na ndruad . loisc caemchrann na gcaer Í ;
      sechain in fid fann . na loisc in call caem

      U innsenn dorcha a dath . fid luaite na ndroch Í ;
      echlasc lám lucht ech . a cruth ac cládh chath

      C rom feda déin dris . loisc féin in ngéir nglaisí ;
      fennaid gerraid cois . srengaid nech ar ais

      B ruth feda dair úr . ó nach gnáth nech séim ; II
      tinn cenn tís ó a dhúil . tinn súil ó a ghrís ghéir

      N a fern urbadb fheda . in crann as teo i ngliaidf
      lose go derb do deoin . in fhern is in sciaig

      [C ui]lenn loisc a úr . cuilenn loisc a crion ;
      gach crann ar bith becht . cuilenn as dech diob

      [T] rom dana ruse ruad . crann fírghona iar fíor í ;
      loisc co mbeidh na gual . eich na sluag a siod

      C id na fharrad faen . béithe ba blad buan í ;
      loisc go deimin derb . cainnle na mbalg mbuan

      [L] éig síos madat maith . crithach ruad na rith ;
      loisc co mall co moch . crann ‘s a barr ar crith

      [S] innser feda fois . ibar na fled fis ;
      déna ris anois . dabcha donna dis

      [D]a nderntá mo thoil . a Fhir déedh dili ;
      dot anam dot chorp . ni bud ole a fhir

      Ref: Silva Gadelica I, p.245 (32 b:1) – In Irish (Gaelic) – available at



        I should’ve added this in the first post, a bit of context, the poem above is from Aidedh Ferghusa Maic Léti or the Death of Fergus Mac Leide, dating from the late 11th/early 12th century CE. It is also known as Imthechta Tuaithe Luachra 7 Aided Fergusa and forms part of the Cycle of Kings in the Ulster Cycle. An older version of the story of Fergus, 8th century, is Echtra Fergusa maic Léti. The manuscripts are held at Trinity College, Dublin, and in the British Library (Egerton and Harleian respectively).

        david poole

          Nice work there Dowrgi. Correct me if I’m wrong but I thought I read somewhere that it is bad luck to burn the Alder, here we are being asked to burn it; which version is true? I think all of these trees are Ogham trees if I am not mistaken? There is some interesting lore here.


            A very late good evening David.

            Yes, there does seem to be a good bit of tree lore in there, doesn’t there? I’ve also heard superstitions about it being bad luck to cut or burn alder, something about the tree that bleeds – the sap inside. However, these may well be from different traditions and different epochs, so we need to be careful about drawing any conclusions – I know, I always say that! 😀 Nevertheless, freshly cut alder does smoke a lot too, so it might have a more profane origin. Who knows with these beliefs? It’s like black cats, lucky in Britain and Ireland, but unlucky just about anywhere else! I’ve also got an inkling that these woods to be burned or not burned may refer to something a bit deeper than firewood, but I’m still researching that.

            They are indeed mostly Ogham trees, even though this does not make any reference to Ogham nor is the story from which it comes Ogham related. I thought you might appreciate the line about the willow. I’m intrigued by rowan being the druid’s (?) tree and there is indeed a lot of folklore about rowans being a powerful tree against witchcraft and suchlike. The reference to the elder and the sidh is also very interesting too and the sacred yew is something that I think we’ll recognise from the British Isles and Ireland straight away.

            Anyway, I’m glad you found this interesting and I hope the Old Irish was useful to you too. If you follow the links, you can find a vast corpus of Irish materials in the Silva Gadelica, something which I’m very glad to have “discovered”. I’m still working on the calendar material – it’s a bit more complicated than it seemed at first!



              I thought about having a look to see if there were any correspondences between the Lay of Iubhdan and the Auraicept and bríatharogam kennings. At this stage there doesn’t seem to be a lot of correspondence; some don’t seem to be connected at all and some require a very great stretch of imagination. Nevertheless, three did seem to have a degree of correspondence that was quite striking.

              Fearn/Fern (alder)
              The Lay mentions the “battle-witch of woods” that is “hottest in the fight” with a warning to burn it at discretion. In the bríatharogam we find alder as the “vanguard of warriors” (Bríatharogam Morann mic Moín).

              Sail (willow)
              The similarity here was quite striking. The Lay mentions the bees sucking nectar within the willow’s blooms and in the kennings we find willow as the “sustenance of bees” (Bríatharogam Mac ind Óc) and the “beginning of honey” (Bríatharogam Con Culain).

              Onn (ash/furze)
              The Auraicept indicates furze, but this seems unlikely given the attributes, so I have preferred the usual interpretation of ash. The Lay mentions ash as the timber that makes the wheels go around and also mentions mounted horsemen and warriors. The respective bríatharogam kennings are “wounder of horses”, “smoothest of craftsmanship” and “equipment of warriors” – suggesting a connection with warriors and cavalry. Of course, ash is a strong wood, good for an axle, a hurling stick or a spear.

              A lot more research needs to be done, and perhaps it already has been, but I would say that it is certainly tempting to see some of these attributes as originating in a common culture and poetic heritage. Of course, two entirely different poets stating the obvious, such as some wood or other is good for its usual use, does not a correspondence make, however, some of these seem to be a little deeper than that.

              david poole

                Thank you Dowrgi. Regarding the burning of the trees, is there something in Brehon law which specifies which trees are allowed to be burned and which not? Maybe there is something in there which might explain some of our beliefs and customs? Regarding tree lore, we know that the Battle of Cad Goddeu medieval poem describes several trees in a similar way; maybe there is a reason to do a comparison between that poem and the Silva Gadelica? And excuse me for pointing this out, but that reference looks awfully familiar – I am sure that the Silva Gadelica is within the Order’s reference texts, I am sure I remember seeing this title in there.


                  Hello there.
                  I don’t know of anything specifically in the Brehon Laws about burning trees. The Bretha Comaithchesa categorises the trees according to rank and deals with the various fines for damaging them, now that might include burning, but I don’t think it’s mentioned specifically. I think the Lay of Iubhdan is doing something else, although I’m still not sure what; however, I think it’s more than just a good guide to firewood.

                  As for the reference to the Silva Gadelica, you might be right, but I don’t remember coming across it. Do you remember where exactly it may have been given as a reference? I hope I haven’t overlooked anything.

                  david poole

                    I can tell you exactly where it is. Go to the Members’s Home Page, go down to Library, go to the section on Ireland, then go to Irish Manuscripts and there it is, fourth line down. See <<>&gt; Dowloaded 22/11/2019 Unfortunately I can’t seem to share it. There certainly seem to be plenty of good texts there, and you can even rate them once you have read them.


                      Aha, right, thanks. I thought you meant in one of the Bardic booklets, my mistake. I haven’t been looking at the Irish material in Our Library very much, I should have a thorough look at it though. I’ve got a couple of books on the go at the moment as I said before, and I do have a knack for putting one book down before it’s finished, starting another one and then forgetting about the first one! 😀 So it’s probably better to slow down a bit and stick to one or two books at a time!

                      Thanks again.


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