The Rag Trees of County Offaly. By John Dolan

During the early Christian period the midlands region was covered with great oak forests and vast expanses of bogland left over from the last ice age.  Transport was only possible on glacial ridges or eskers and important monasteries had been built along these trackways.  The most famous of these roadways was the Eiscir Riada which runs westward across the northern edge of Co Offaly on its way between Tara and Clonmacnoise which was always a significant Shannon crossing point into Connacht.  A second great roadway connected Tara to north Munster; this was referred to as the Slighe Dhála and runs through the southern part of Co Offaly.  There was a connecting link between both of these main roadways by a North South running corridor on which a number of additional monasteries were built.

Tree cults.

The interplay between belief systems and nature is complex and deeply rooted.  There is a tradition in many faiths of protecting sacred natural sites or natural landscapes around religious sites.  One of the earlier accounts is in Walhouse’s paper on Rag-Bushes and Kindred Observances where he suggests that the earliest instance recorded of tree worship is in an account where Herodotus, in 5th century BC records an offering to a sacred tree.  He later relates a ninth century account in Tabari where the population ‘on a certain day assembled around a large date-tree outside the city, hung it with rich garments and offered prayers to a spirit that spoke to them from the tree’. 

Another example is from the study of sacred trees in Egypt.  Blackman suggests a sheik’s tomb is erected near a sacred rag tree.  He says ‘wherever a sheik’s tomb is erected there is generally a tree or trees associated with it’.  Blackman explains that Muslims are forbidden to damage these trees and to treat them with reverence.  Perhaps this Egyptian ritual spread across to Cyprus where today’s wishing rag trees can be found at Christian sites.

Rag tree.
Image: John Dolan

Celtic tree worship?

According to the Roman authors Lucan and Pomponius Mela, the Celts of Gaul worshipped in groves of trees, a practice which Tacitus and Dio Cassius say was also found among the Celts in Britain.  Estyn Evans says that ‘the sacred hilltops, the ancestral spirits, the well of water, the ‘gentle’ tree and the cup-marked stone are familiar themes in Irish folk tradition’.  A number of rituals have survived from the pre-Christian period, particularly the holy well, the holy tree and the perpetual fire and these can be associated with a good number of the early churches in Offaly.  In contrast Estyn Evans records that ‘throughout western Europe, from the fifth century Council of Arles onwards, churchmen denounced those ‘who offer vows to trees, or wells, or stones’. In Ireland the hazel tree is mainly associated with holy wells. 

A number of great trees are mentioned repeatedly in the Irish literature – The Tree of Tortu (an ash), the Oak of Mugha, the Yew of Ross, the Bough of Dathí (an ash), the Ash of Uisnech, etc. – but evidently each tuath, or confederation of tuaths, had its own sacred tree which stood on the site were the kings of the tuath were duly inaugurated. 

Fieldwork was carried out by A.T. Lucas on 210 holy wells and their associated trees throughout Ireland.  It is reported he found ‘that 103 of these trees were thorn or white thorn, 75 were ash, 7 were oak, 6 willow, 5 elder, 4 holly, 3 alder, 2 elm and 1 fir’.

An Bile.

Lucas’ paper The Sacred Trees of Ireland finds that they were located at inauguration sites, ecclesiastical sites, association with saints, at holy wells and associated with funerals; he then goes on to list them by province. Lucas examines the word ‘sacred’ in an Irish context.  He says ‘the Irish word for a tree in this character is bile.  It survives in modern Irish only as an archaism but forms a component of a limited number of place names. Standing alone, it appears as the townland names of Billy (County Antrim) and Billa (County Sligo)’.  He then proceeds to identify place names were the word bile is part of the name.  He identifies achadh an bhile ‘the field of the tree’ as in Aghaville (Cos. Cavan, Leitrim and Monaghan), Aghaville (Co. Cork) and Aghavilly (Cos. Armagh and Down)’.

Rag Trees – International

One of the surprises from the research was the range of material indicating the occurrences` and uses of rag trees in all parts of the world.  As has been seen earlier, particularly with the sacred trees in Egypt, there are many instances of rag trees being used for religious purposes. In Central Asia an important form of dedicatory offering is the tying of rags on branches and other amenable surfaces at special places and sacred sites in the landscape. The phenomenon is found among the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks but it has been noted as a practice found amongst numerous peoples from Tibet and Afghanistan to Europe’.

Hanson, France.
Image: John Dolan

Many European countries have surviving rag trees associated with holy wells.  St. Godelein’s well near Boulogne, France where cures have occurred for the ‘ague, rheumatism, and all ailments of the limbs; and a quantity of crutches, bandages, pieces of rolls of rag, and the like are hung upon the neighbouring bushes as thank offerings and testimonies of recovery’. A long list of locations of rag-trees in England is included in Masani’s book on Folklore of Wells; the list includes Great Cotes and Winterton in Linconshire, Newcastle and Benton in Northumberland, Newton Kyme, Thorp Arch and Gargrave in Yorkshire.  Of particular interest to Irish pilgrims are the holy well and rag tree dedicated to St. Bridget in Glastonbury, Somerset.

St Brigid’s Mound and rag tree, Glastonbury.
Image: John Dolan

So, How many Rag Trees are there in Offaly?

Compiling a list of the rag trees in Co Offaly is not straightforward.  There was no single document or source that provided all of the necessary detail, a number of the documents were antiquarian and published 100 years ago or earlier.  Consequently, both the physical landscape and local religious rituals that they documented have often changed considerably through time.

A number of different sources needed to be researched in order to identify the rag trees in Co. Offaly.   The initial source was the National Monuments database where the monuments were recorded as part of the 1830s Ordnance Survey.  Ritual sites are recorded on the National Monuments database under the following headings, holy well, holy tree/bush, holy/saint’s stone.  Many of these sites recorded in the 1830s are no longer in existence or may have been altered significantly.  Another source which proved disappointing was John O’Donovan’s OS letters relating to Co. Offaly.  Whereas there is much rich material in the letters about the religious rituals of the time in the local parishes, there is little mention of holy wells and no information on holy trees/bushes. The richest source of information on holy trees/bushes in Co. Offaly has been found in the School’s Collection housed in the National Folklore Commission.  Another invaluable source identified during research in the National Folklore Commission was the 1934 Questionnaire on Holy Wells.  Unfortunately, not all parishes in Offaly made returns to this questionnaire, so quite a number were not covered. 

County Offaly has 27 parishes and the National Monuments database records a total of 61 holy wells as well as 12 holy tree/bush and 28 bullaun stones.  Additional research located an additional 26 holy trees/bushes.  Not all survive today. Records show that three parishes had three rag trees each in their parish, again not all survive today.  Clonmacnoise parish had three rag trees, one on Clonascra, a second at Creevagh and also at Clonmacnoise itself – none survive today.  The parish at Seir Kieran had three also, one surviving at Clonmore, a second at Bell Hill (classified as a sacred tree) and the third one at St. Kieran’s well no longer survives.  At Croghan Hill there is the holy well of St. Patrick’s and one each at Finnean na Shark and at Cannakill.  The latter two may not survive today..

Lucas notes that ‘St Kieran’s Bush stands in the middle of a public road: a whitethorn, which is held in such veneration that no one in the Barony of Ballybritt, no matter what his rank or religion, would think for a moment of interfering with it’. Lucas then quotes Carrigan, writing in 1905, that the ancient whitethorn at Bell Hill ‘was so revered that when it decayed away some years previously another was planted in its place, a procedure which goes to confirm what has already been suggested about the perpetuation of the bile trees’. 

Rag tree, Killeigh.
Image: John Dolan

There are seven holy wells associated with Killeigh, the major one is just off the Killeigh to Tullamore road. The local community have made a pathway of a few hundred metres from a side road down to the well that has two rag trees and one small rag bush at the well.  As part of recent landscaping there is now a circular route around the well.  There is a gate post plaque at the entrance to indicate the well, but which states that the parish founder St Senchell’s feast day is on 26 March, while the parish is dedicated to St. Patrick.  The two main rag trees are extensively covered with offerings, some are of recent deposition. 

Folklore.

The common ritual mentioned throughout the research was the annual pattern (or patron) day, usually held on the saints feastday.  There is no constant in the descriptions of what was carried out on pattern day, accounts varied parish by parish.  Also mentioned are the ‘stations’ and ’rounds’, again with only minimal descriptions of what was carried out.  Perhaps, the writers assumed that everyone was aware of what was undertaken in their own location on the day.   Kevin Danaher describes where large crowds came together to perform the devotions, and, once completed, to engage in the secular amusements normal to such gatherings, sports and athletics, games, music and dancing, eating and drinking’. Also mentioned is the ritual of returning to the holy well during the octave after the saint’s feast day.  This is mentioned for Seir Kieran, St. Brochan of Clonsast and St. John’s, Knockbarron in Co. Offaly. 

Damaging a holy tree/bush leads to trouble. Lucas has the story about St. Kieran’s Bush at Seir Kieran about one person, ‘a man who cut some boughs off it because they scraped his carriage as he drove by, got a stroke of facial paralysis which disfigured him for the rest of his life’. Lucas has another story which repeats the story about the man who attempted to cut down the tree and saw his house on fire, he went home but failed to find a fire, he then returned to felling the tree and once again saw his house on fire; the third time he returned to his house and found it burned to the ground.  Lucas states that ‘wilfully to damage the bush or tree was looked upon as an act of desecration’.

In another case a landlord took railings away from around the well at Seir Kieran in order to allow his horses and cattle drink from it,  ‘the next morning he found his fattest bullock dead in the well’.

Rag tree, Lemanaghan.
Image: John Dolan

A report about St. Finian’s well, Cumber Upper where the man and his burning house is repeated and ‘’another time a man went to cut down a bush over the well.  While he was cutting he saw his house on fire.  He then left the tree and when he got to his house it was alright.  Next he went back to the tree.  When he looked up again he saw his house again on fire.  When he had his sticks cut he went back to his house and it was burnt to the ground.  This story is true.  It happened 100 years ago’. This short story about St. Manchan’s Well, Lemanaghan was from Ballycumber school and recalls ‘people say that the tree was knocked down one night and grew up again next day’.