I am a little late this month, writing about the 5th of the trees celebrated in the Celtic Tree Calendar - ‘Nion, Nuin’ - or Ash. It is written in Ogham as 5 horizontal lines to the centre right of a vertical line.
Ash is the most common tree in Irish hedgerows and is also a traditional woodland species, with some ash trees living to the grand old age of 400 - but the species is currently under threat due to ‘ash dieback’, a fungal disease which causes the trees to lose their leaves and the crown to die back, and usually results in their death. It is thought that tens of thousands of ash trees will die, potentially changing the UK landscape forever.
Growing up, we had a big ash tree standing at the front gate - and in the autumn, the ‘keys’ (its winged fruits) twirled down in the wind, so we called them helicopters. Bullfinches love to eat these seeds - and owls like to nest in ash trees, maybe because of the caterpillars which eat the leaves.
In Norse mythology, a vast, evergreen ash tree called Yggdrasil, the World Tree or the Tree of Life, grew on an island, watered by three magical springs. The tree was the centre of the world, its trunk reaching up to the heavens, its roots pushing down to the underworld, and its branches spreading over all the countries of the world. A serpent lurked in the deep ocean surrounding the island and gnawed at the roots of the tree. A squirrel ran up and down the trunk carrying messages between the serpent and an eagle in the canopy. A deer fed on the ash leaves and from its antlers flowed the great rivers of the world. A magical goat grazed by the tree, and produced mead for the warriors in Odin’s Great Hall. The gods held their councils under the canopy of their guardian Ash tree.
Viking lore told how Odin hung himself from Yggdrasil as a sacrificial ordeal, for nine days and nights so that he might be granted wisdom. He lost an eye to ravens but was rewarded with insights and wisdom, notably knowledge of the system of the Runes. Both he and Thor, the god of thunder, possessed magical spears made of ash wood.
In Gaelic Ireland, the Druids also associated the Ash with wisdom, and they carried Ash staffs, ‘portable’ versions of the World Tree connecting them to the realms of earth and sky.
The Druids believed that five guardian trees protected Ireland: three Ash trees plus an oak and a yew. Legend tells that in the year 665 AD, these trees were cut down to symbolise the widespread acceptance of Christianity and the end of pagan belief. Just two centuries earlier, the Celts had worshipped a sun god, Lugh, who carried a spear made of ash - so there’s a parallel symbolism in the legend that St Patrick himself, who brought Christianity to Ireland, supposedly banished the snakes using an ash stick…
A friend of mine in County Galway, Rory O'Shaughnessy, tells the following story of the birth of St Colman. The King of Connacht was jealous when he heard a prophecy that a child would be born who would become more famous than himself or his sons. Believing that a woman called Rhinagh was carrying this child, the King had his men tie a stone around her neck and throw her in a river. As she sank beneath the water, she said, ‘Dia Linn’ (God save us): the stone floated and she was saved. Rhinagh gave birth to her son Colman under the shelter of an Ash tree. Two monks, one lame and the other blnd, came upon them. When they heard Rhinagh’s story, the lame man hit the ground and water came forth to christen the baby. The blind man washed his eyes in the water and later his sight was restored at a place which, to this day, is called Labane (‘bright day’). My friend shared this story at a recent workshop and one of the children drew this gorgeous picture of the Ash tree and the pregnant Rhinagh.
Ash continues to have significance in Ireland and is often found growing near holy wells and sacred springs. Irish emigrants to America took a piece of ash with them as a talisman against drowning, snakes and accidents.
Many superstitions surround the ash tree. Folk tradition has it that the ash will be the first tree to be hit by lightning, so avoid sheltering near an Ash in a storm.
People would burn Ash wood to banish the devil, or carry an Ash staff to protect against evil. In the Life of St Moling, the saint confronts an evil spectre and drives him away successfully with his Ash staff.
Ash keys carried in the hand were a protection against witchcraft; however, witches also used Ash themselves for making ritual dolls into which to stick pins!
In Antrim, ash sticks were believed to be a “kindly” wood to drive cattle with, protecting them from harm, while a sprig of ash placed under a milk pail would ensure that the goodness would not be stolen by fairies.
With all this significance in our ancient lore and customs, it is no surprise that Ash (‘fuinseog’ in Irish) is represented on our Irish maps. The Funshion River and Killinafinch (church of the ash) are in Co Tipperary; Cloonafunshin (meadow of the ash) is in Co Galway; Funshinaugh (place of the ash) is in Co Mayo; Lisnafunshin (the ring fort of the ash) is in Co Kilkenny. Ashford in Co Wicklow and Ashfield in Co Dublin are more obvious.
In folk medicine, newborn babies were sometimes given a spoonful of Ash sap before leaving their mother's bed for the first time, to prevent illness. Placing Ash berries in a cradle was believed to protect the child from being taken away as a changeling by the fairies.
Ailing children (especially those with weak limbs) would be passed naked through a cleft in an Ash tree. The cleft was often made deliberately for the purpose and bound together again after the ceremony: it would heal in parallel with the child, and a special bond would forever be established between child and tree.
The bark, seeds and leaves of the ash are all believed to have medicinal qualities. They have been used throughout time to strengthen the liver and spleen, cleanse the system and detoxify the body.
In Ancient Greece Hippocrates was known to have used Ash to concoct remedies for gout and rheumatism. The inside of Ash bark is a disinfectant and was used for cleansing wounds before the use of modern antiseptics.
The leaves of the Ash are said to refresh tired feet when put inside boots.
In more practical terms, Ash is great for burning and its fallen twigs make the best kindling. All this past winter, I gathered bags full of fallen ash twigs to light my stove: it saved me a fortune in buying kiln-dried sticks. The Latin name for Ash (Fraxinus) actually means ‘firelight’. My friend Mark Doherty sent me a great poem recently which celebrates this quality of Ash.
People have worked with ash timber for years; it is one of the toughest hardwoods and absorbs shocks without splintering which makes it ideal for the handles of tools such as hammers, axes and spades, as well as for sporting equipment such as hockey sticks, baseball bats rowing oars, snooker cues, archery bows and hurley sticks. For the past few years, on one of my regular tours, I took visitors to meet Tom O’Donoghue in Kilkenny, a master hurley maker, and it was fascinating to watch this craftsman shape the wood which would later resound in the ‘clash of the ash’.
Ash is also prized for furniture - I am writing this at an ash table, and my reference books are in an ash bookcase beside me. Ash staircases are extremely hard-wearing, and the wood can be steamed and bent to produce curved stair handrails and balusters.
In the 19th century Ash was used to construct carriages, and Britain’s Morgan Motor Company still grows ash to make the frames for its sports cars. It was widely used by early aviation pioneers for aircraft construction.
Last month I mentioned that Alder is popular for guitars - but Ash is also often used for the bodies of electric guitars: some Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters are made of ash, (such as Bruce Springsteen's Telecaster on the Born to Run album cover). Ash is also used for making drum shells.
So - as usual, to the hippy-dippy bit. How do you make Ash work for you, aside from the practical ways such as furniture, sporting equipment and tools etc?
Well, Ash trees are a lesson to us in overcoming or working around obstacles: they embrace stone walls, boulders, and there’s a very famous example in London, in the graveyard of St Pancras Old Church, where an Ash has embraced the many headstones that were stacked around it in the mid 1860s, when railway construction led to the upheaval of this old burial ground.
We should take inspiration from Ash to overcome difficulties, be creative and have the flexibility and motivation to persevere. There is an energy around an Ash tree which we are supposed to harness (I never do any of this myself but maybe I should) …. Here’s what to do. Find an Ash leaf with an even number of leaflets and carry it in your pocket: it will bring you great good luck. Carry a bunch of ash keys to free yourself from melancholy. Touch the trunk of an Ash and mentally convey a situation you’d like assistance with: then, respectfully gather nine ash twigs. Once you’re back home, light a candle and use it to safely, successively burn each twig. Let me know how you get on :)
Finally - to watch a Year in the Life of an Ash Tree, click here for a wonderful video.
I hope you enjoyed all this :)
NEW INFO, ADDED 18th MARCH 2021
Ash trees have a strong link with holy wells. A.T. Lucas found that of 210 trees surveyed growing next to holy wells, 75 of them were Ash trees, a figure surpassed only by hawthorn. St Patrick's Well at Kilcorkey in Co Roscommon had a great old Ash growing beside it called St Patrick's Walking Stick. At St Kieran's Well in Castlekeeran, Co Meath, in 1840, an Ash tree was said to bleed and people flocked to the well for cures. In Outeragh, Co Leitrim, a pilgrimage to St Brigid's Well held on 1st February began with walking around an old Ash tree. Similarly, at Brideswell in Co Roscommon on the last Sunday in July, the pilgrimage involved walking around a single Ash tree on a small mound.