The Yew Tree of Ireland

Do you have a favourite tree? Maybe the majestic oak, or graceful willow? In Ireland, the most ancient and revered is the mighty Yew tree, used to guard entrances to homes and cemeteries.  In this letter we talk about how a tree came to name both the sons and townlands of Ireland.

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The Yew Tree of Ireland

Last weekend, Carina and myself headed off for a day in the beautiful Muckross Park, near Killarney, in County Kerry. It’s spectacular at this time of year – full of early flower and magnificent trees showing off their new foliage. However, one of the most impressive trees in Muckross manages to keep its leaves all the year around.

In the centre of Muckross Park, you will find Muckross Abbey, and a huge tree in the middle of the Abbey’s cloister. It was planted when the friary was first built in 1448 by Dónal McCarthy Mór – the chieftain of the area. That same tree can still be seen and enjoyed today – it’s an old Irish Yew tree.

From pre-Christian times, the Yew has been associated with the eternal – often showing up in cemeteries and Abbeys. Even the Druids preferred to make their wands from the wood of the Yew. Right through to today, if you walk around an Irish cemetery looking for familiar names – there will typically be two old Yews guarding the entrance to the space.

Further north, when County Mayo was carved out of the province of Connaught in 1556, it took it’s name from a small Abbey and village in the south east of the county – a place called “Maigh Eó” (pronounced Mayo). If you look around Ireland today, you will find many towns, villages and townlands with the Irish version of the word “Yew” somewhere in their name – “Youghal” in County Cork, “Terenure” in Dublin and so on.

Arriving in County Mayo

The Irish must have held the Yew in special observation, as the Irish form of Yew made it’s way into a number of Irish first names, tribes and surnames down through the centuries – but mostly be way of one particular Irish boy’s name.

Born of the Yew Tree.

The Irish boy’s name “Eoghan” (pronounced Owen) has been around for many centuries – noted from pre-Christian times in the annals. It literally means “born of the Yew tree” in old Irish.

This was a popular name in ancient Ireland – held by many leaders and warriors of the time. As a result, it worked it’s way into the names of powerful tribes as well as placenames across the land.

There was the “Eoghnachta” tribe of Munster – out of which came the McCarthy, O’Sullivan, O’Donoghue, Moriarty, O’Keeffe and O’Callaghan families (and many more besides).

Then, we had the “Cenél Eoghain” tribe – based across modern Counties Tyrone and Derry. They provided us with the surnames: O’Neill, McLaughlin, Donnelly, Mallon, Gormley and many more besides. Are any of your Irish surnames included here?

In fact, the first name “Eoghan” was so prevalent in the north west of the Island that we find it in placenames such as County Tyrone (from the Irish Tír Eoghain) and Inishowen (Inis Eoghain).

I have found that’s the way it goes with the naming practices of Ireland and the Irish. The root of many placenames, first names and surnames often lie in one simple word with a special significance – mostly from the natural world. It’s often a short word, such as the old Irish for Yew – “Eo”, but this simple word seeds itself into many names.

However, later anglicisation caused us to lose sight of these simple words – and make things seem really complicated! In the end, there is often a simple explanation behind most of our Irish names and places – and you will see this simple explanation repeated many times. And, if these isn’t a good explanation – there will always be a good story! Sure, that’s the Irish way, isn’t it?

That’s it for this week. As always, do feel free to leave a comment below if you would like share a story or the Irish surnames in your family.

Slán for now,

Mike and Carina.

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