Where is the oldest tree in Ireland?
Experts say 5,000-year-old yew found in Welsh churchyard may be UK’s oldest tree
Lord and Lady Rosse of Birr Castle and Tom Roche of Just Forests hug a 200-year-old grey poplar on the estate after it was accepted as Ireland’s nominee in the European Tree of the Year 2014 competition. It was blown down in a storm in February. Photograph: Just Forests
Experts say that a 5,000-year-old yew tree found in a Welsh churchyard may be the oldest tree in Britain.
That makes the tree, which stands outside St Cynog’s Church near Swansea, at least as old as Newgrange and older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza.
Experts aren’t sure which tree is the oldest in Ireland.
Wexford-based archaeologist Colm Moriarty thinks it might be the Silken Thomas yew in Co Maynooth, which is about 800 years old.
According to the Irish Tree Council, legend has it that Silken Thomas played a lute under the boughs of the tree the night before he surrendered to King Henry VIII in the 1500s.
Mr Moriarty said it is difficult to date trees while they’re still alive. “It’s often just guesstimating based on the width of the trunk.”
Yew trees are native to Ireland and are most often found in old forests and churchyards.
According to Dr Colin Kelleher, a botanist at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, one reason for the popularity of yews in churchyards might be that evergreen trees, rare in Ireland, were thought to have “magical” properties. “The rarity adds to its allure,” he said.
Also, the trees sprout red berries in autumn, which makes them look “particularly unusual”.
“Yew is also poisonous, and animals can die if they eat the leaves,” he said.
Mr. Moriarty said that yews are evergreen, which “might symbolise eternal life” for religious purposes.
The Welsh yew overshadows what The Irish Times previously called the “tree that died for Ireland”, a 200-year-old giant grey poplar that almost made it into the 2014 European Tree of the Year competition. In February a storm blew it over where it stood outside of Birr Castle in Co Offaly. But Ireland has many other stately old trees.
Dr Kelleher said several oak trees are so old they have names. The Brian Boru oak in Co Clare is “one of the top five, if not top three” oldest trees in Ireland. It reportedly dates from the time of Brian Boru, who was born nearby. “But whether it would be 1,000 years old, I don’t know”, as not much tree “coring and dating” is done in Ireland.
Why isn’t there a 5,000-year-old Irish tree to rival the one in Wales?
“Trees like oak would have suffered a little bit more than in Wales or elsewhere in the United Kingdom because of the history of cutting down timber in Ireland. A lot of forestry was basically stripped to build the ships for various wars the UK was involved in,” said Dr Kelleher.
Most of the felling occurred between the 1500s and 1800s.