Roots of a Republic – An Irishman’s Diary about Brehon tree law and the Irish National Foresters

Mention of tree alphabets, Joycean and otherwise, last week has resulted in a small forest of correspondence. If I had been in any doubt beforehand as to how central all things arboreal are to Irish history and culture, I know now.

I'm especially grateful to John McLoughlin who, via his recent paper to the Society of Irish Foresters' Journal, introduced me to the fascinating concept of Brehon Law on tree vandalism. As with latter-day drug offences, this differentiated between crimes of the Class A, B, C, and D kind.

But of course, being in eighth-century Irish, it was more poetic.

McLoughlin was in turn indebted to a talk given to the same society some years ago by Fergus Kelly, who found that in ancient texts, Class A trees were called airig fedo (“lords of the wood”).


There were seven of these: oak, ash, hazel, holly, wild apple, yew, and Scots pine.

And if you were found guilty of damaging one, the fines could be swingeing: a stiff 2½ cows (ie two milch cows and a three-year-old heifer), plus compensation.

Even the compensation was carefully calibrated, ranging from a “yearling heifer” for mere branch-cutting, via a “two-year-old heifer” for more substantial amputation, to another milch cow for injuring the base of a tree.

That was for mere damage, mind you. The complete destruction of one of these timber aristocrats is not mentioned in the texts, apparently, as if that was too heinous to consider.

The second class of trees, aithig fhedo (“commoners of the wood”) comprised alder, birch, elm, rowan, willow, whitethorn/hawthorn, and wild cherry. The fine for damage there was one milch cow plus compensation. And so it went, down to Class D, which included bracken and whin/furze, with a damage-fine of “one sheep”.

Interestingly, even in Brehon times, the law could be an ass, and that sheep was complicit in making it so.

According to Kelly, “a ninth-century legal commentator on this text recognises the absurdity of imposing a fine for minor damage to such plants”.

Of more relevance, probably, was the fine for outright destruction of a furze bush – one yearling heifer.

As readers will have gathered by now, the Society of Irish Foresters is a group concerned with tree life. This may seem a statement of the obvious. But it's not, necessarily, as the case of the Irish National Foresters, which we also mentioned in passing last week, illustrates.

The INF was a philanthropic and later political organisation that thrived in the late 19th and early 20th century. And apart from having had many branches (and a split) once, it had very little to do with trees.

It originated in an older English organisation, members of which were inspired by the lore of the Royal Forests.

That motif aside, it was essentially a mutual-benevolence society, doing for members what would later be done by the welfare state, which in time made it redundant.

Anyway, I have had a letter about this too, from David Flood, who laments that an organisation formerly so central to Irish life – with 1,000 branches at its peak – and to the foundation of the Republic, is now so little remembered.

Part of the problem is that its role during the revolutionary years was a conspiracy within the conspiracy. It had no formal link with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, but its headquarters at 41 Parnell Square were nevertheless a front – literally – for subversion.

With active encouragement from the INF's hall manager, one James Stritch, volunteers constructed a separate premises at the rear of No 41 for drilling and other activities.

And the authorities well suspected what was afoot: they usually had policemen posted at the front door. Even so, with all the coming and going of Foresters, it must have been hard to see anything clear through the foliage.

Well into his 60s by then, Stritch was one of the oldest revolutionaries of 1916. He also survived long enough after it that among those who attended his funeral in 1933 was a boy named Brendan Behan, who would later recall the privilege of marching "behind the coffin of the veteran Fenian James Stritch".

Sure enough, Stritch had been a Fenian. Indeed, a looming anniversary may yet bring him and the INF back into the spotlight. This coming September, it will be 150 years since an ill-fated assault on a prison van in Manchester led to the hangings of Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien. Although only a teenager at the time, Stritch was there too: holding the horses while the others forced the van door.