THE OAK ** Quercus robur

A Feature by Mervyn Ennis

In 1990 the sessile oak was declared to be Ireland’s national tree. This choice is testimony to its beauty, to the supreme quality of its timber and to more than two thousand years of veneration as a sacred tree.  Maybe in hindsight the government choice of the oak as an emblem of Ireland was prophetic.  It is again opportune for the Irish people to draw resilience from this national emblem that signifies strength and endurance.



Oak Tree

The oak tree is native to Ireland and special to the Irish people for its strength, hardiness and unique features. It was not named ’Robur’=‘sturdy, by the botanists for  nothing.  Until humans devised iron cutting tools the oak resisted all attempts to fell it. The oak tree stands mighty solid with great branches, matched only by still greater roots.  When struck by lightning, the force of the strike and the heat bursts the sap and the stem apart leaving the trunk gnarled and withered.  Yet it still manages to survive, over the years, decades and centuries.  Its growth is slow but sure. It is a marker point, a cornerstone and a refuge in the forest.  Oaks have been used to mark the boundaries between one area and the next.  In Faerie lore the ‘Oaken Door’ is an entry into the realm of the faerie.  The oak is the doorway between worlds, the tree you climb up to go to another world.

Druids held the oak tree sacred, and gathered mistletoe from its boughs for their secret rites.  They preached under its mighty form, gaining power and tradition from its strength. The Roman writer Pliny pointed out that the Druids ’perform no sacred rites without oak leaves, so from this custom they are called druids’.  Some etymologists argue that  the word druid comes from the Greek word ‘drus’, which meant ‘oak’.  The word druid literally means ‘people of oak’, or ‘wise in the oak’, or ‘having knowledge of the oak’.

To the Celts the oak represents primeval strength and the ability to overcome and survive, while at the same time an essential protection for the less able and weaker who require security in order to strengthen their characters. In the Celtic Calendar Duir, the strong fertile oak stands for May, commencing the spring fertility festival of Beltaine, or Mayday.When left for over five thousand years beneath the bog the oak becomes Bog-Oak a fine black, self-lubricating wood.

Being strong and durable its timbers became the foremost construction material and could be grown into curved shapes suitable for the cruck frames of houses and the knees, or frame supports of ships.

Viking Ship

The Vikings were the first invaders to realise the potential of the oak. The Vikings arrived in Ireland in 795 AD and by the 840s AD, began to over-winter and created fortified bases.  Best known of these is Dublin (Baile atha cliath – the town of the foreigners), but also towns such as Wicklow, Arklow, Wexford, Waterford and Limerick were founded by the Vikings.  Their origins apart from winter quarters and possibly slave markets  later blossomed as trading towns with a great production of everyday consumer articles and extensive international trade.  This trade was in turn enhanced by the Viking use of Irish oak for by 1042 the Vikings were harvesting the oak forests to produce their distinctive long boats and war ships with a thriving boat building enterprise near Dublin.  Indeed, it was in one such craft that in 1066, after the battle of Hastings, that King Alfred’s twin sons Harold and Ulf were brought to Denmark in a long boat named Skuldalev 2 made in Dublin of oak harvested from Glendalough.

It was a true-born warship – built to transport large numbers of warriors at great speed to attacks on foreign shores. In a good wind, the ship will probably out sail most modern sailing ships, and even without the aid of the wind, the 60 oarsmen could make it travel at a comparatively fair speed.

Thankfully, it was the largest of five longships scuttled near the village of Skuldalev some 30 years later in order to block Norwegian raids into Roskilde Fjord.  For when rediscovered the original Skuldalev 2 was found  to have been made  at the cutting edge of contemporary Viking shipbuilding in Dublin using Irish oak.  In 2004, a replica ‘the Sea Stallion’ was built using the original techniques. The project was organised by Roskilde’s Viking Ship Museum and the National Museum of Ireland with a return journey to Dublin made by the sea stallion in July 2007 where it was put on display in Collins Barracks Museum.
Later invaders – English settlers, who were granted land by Queen Elizabeth, Oliver Cromwell and others, were not certain that they would enjoy their property long.  So they felled and sold the trees as quickly as possible and did little to replace them.  The House of Commons and the Parliamentary buildings of that period used Irish oak in their construction.  It could be said that the English parliamentary tradition is founded on or has its roots in Irish oak.
For more than three hundred years, the British navy ruled the waves, like the Vikings before them, with ships built almost entirely of oak-and millions of trees across the isles were felled for their sturdy, robust, resilient timber, much of it, plundered from Ireland.
During the industrial revolution in Britain, oak timber was used to produce steadily burning charcoal to heat the furnaces. Oak became a valuable crop; it made excellent charcoal so large parts of the Irish countryside were finally denuded of this most treasured resource by the colonisers.  To day the only remaining oak forests are Glendalough in Co Wicklow and in Kerry.
Oak features among the folk remedies used for treating horses. The bark of the oak boiled and applied to flesh wounds in a horse was held to be very effective. The wound had to be covered with a mixture of smooth clay, cow dung and milk until it was healed.  This form of healing would probably stop pores of fungi infecting the wound.  The acorns provided an important source of fodder and food for animals until recent times.
Oak bark used to be a source of tannin, a substance widely used for making leather from hides until artificial chemicals replaced it.  After the hides were softened in a lime pit, and all the hair and flesh removed, they were passed through tanning baths containing pounded up oak bark and water; the resultant leather was then rinsed and dried.
In weather lore it is said Oak before Ash means splash or Ash before Oak means a soak.  
The old Celtic words for oak are DUR’, ‘DER’, ‘DAROCHT’ and ‘DERWEN’.  The Gaelic word for Oak is DUIR.  The very word door comes from the Gaelic and Sanskrit ‘duir’, a word for solidity, protection and the oak tree from which the word door comes. A law tract from the 8th century identifies seven trees as ’Nobles of the forest‘ and the first among them is the oak.  The fine for cutting down an oak was a two and a half milch cows, the cutting of a branch demanded the payment of a year-old heifer and the cutting of a fork, two heifers.
Place names associated with the oak tree.
Mervyn Ennis has an M. A. from University College Dublin in Social Work. He recently retired as head social worker from the Irish Defence Forces after 21years service in the Personnel Support Services which he helped found in 1992.