The Yew Tree at Muckross Abbey, Killarney

It’s odd that Ireland doesn’t have any truly ancient yew trees.

Yew Tree
Johanning, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
There are a few that are thought to be 700 to 800 years old, but for a tree that lives for millennia rather than centuries, that isn’t really old. However, educated guesses rather than scientific data are typically used to determine the age of the majority of yew trees.

They are always hollow when they are old, making it impossible to take cores out of them and count the annual rings. Nevertheless, I am aware of very few cores taken from living Irish trees. Take the yew that fills in the groups of Muckross Convent close to Killarney.

Yew Tree
Muckross Abbey, Killarney National Park, Ring of Kerry, Co. Kerry, Ireland
It has always been assumed that the Franciscans planted the tree when they built the abbey in 1448, which gives it a lifespan of more than 550 years.It is much more likely that the abbey was constructed around a mature and established tree, making this tree much older.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that in the past, ecclesiastical sites were chosen based on the presence of an old yew tree there.Archaeological evidence indicates that the tree existed prior to the Anglo-Saxon church in some parts of southern England.

The trees in some of these churches are as old as 1,200 years old.One of many instances of the Christianization of a much older pagan belief is the decision to construct an abbey around a yew tree.In folklore and mythology, there is a lot of evidence that yews were venerated.

They are the largest native evergreen in our area. When they grow in mixed woodland, they create an open clearing by casting shade and releasing toxins through their root systems, making it the ideal location for a ceremony.

Yew Tree
No machine-readable author provided. David Edgar assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The fact that they remained vibrant and green after all the other large trees had succumbed to winter seems to have impressed our ancestors as well.They came to be associated with overcoming death. However, we also have hard evidence from studies of fossil pollen and bog wood that they were much more common in the past than they are today.

Additionally, their decline may have been precipitated by persecution. While we may have revered yew trees, we have demonstrated over the millennia that we revere cattle and horses even more. Yew foliage is quite poisonous to livestock (and humans), andThere is an old yew tree actually filling in the Scottish lines and there’s a legend that Pontius Pilate once sat under it.

It is not impossible, but it is unlikely.Before he was sent to the Holy Land, Pontius Pilate was a Roman civil servant who worked on the border between England and Scotland. The tree was definitely mature 2000 years ago.

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