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Can We Match the Wisdom of the Brehons?

Lessons from the Gaelic Judgments of the Neighborhood

Illustration Credit: Cozy Comfort by Olga Cuttell

Early Irish law was based on decisions made by Gaelic brehons, learned men and women of old Irish society who took on the responsibilities of being the local judge. Legend has it that one great brehon, Morann, son of Carbery Kinncat (king of Ireland in the first century), wore a collar around his neck that tightened whenever he delivered a false judgment and expanded again when he delivered the true one. The goal of the brehons was justice, pure and simple, even if justice hardly ever is—even with something as seemingly simple as trees.

The brehons called their laws fenechas—the law of the freemen of Gaelic Ireland—and it was a civil code that focused on payment of compensation for harm done. Trees were revered and protected as an essential part of each community and recognized as both sacred and valuable, so a seventh-century text called Bretha Comaithchesa (Judgments of the Neighborhood) specifically regulated how Irish society dealt with harm done to trees. Twenty-eight principal trees and shrubs were divided into four classes, with different rules applied to each group. Damage to an especially valuable tree such as an oak or yew was a more serious offense than damage to a less prized tree or shrub.

Take for example the mighty Irish Oak, which can live for more than 500 years and grow 130 feet tall. In Irish it’s called dair, which shares a root with the word for “magic” and “Druid”—draoí. The practical value of the oak in Brehon Law is said to be “its acorns and its use for woodwork.” The acorn crop was particularly useful for fattening pigs, while oak timber is the finest for fences and buildings. Thus, one of the questions a brehon might have dealt with was which trees produced acorns, which became buildings, and what to charge the miscreant who turned an acorn oak into firewood.

Airig Fedo
Lords of the Wood

Aithig Fedo
Commoners of the Wood

DairoakFernalder
CollhazelSailwillow
CuilennhollyScéhawthorn
IbaryewCáerthannmountain ash
UinniusashBeithebirch
OchtachScots pineLemelm
Aballwild appleIdathwild cherry

Fodla Fedo
Lower Divisions of the Wood

Losa Fedo
Bushes of the Wood

DraigenblackthornRaithbracken
TromelderRaitbog-myrtle
Féorusspindle-treeAitenngorse
FindchollwhitebeamDrisbramble
Caithnestrawberry treeFróechheather
CrithachaspenGilcachbroom
Crann fir juniperSpínwild rose

Tree Wisdom in Your Own Neighborhood

Find a tree that speaks to you and is physically convenient. You want to build a relationship, so the occasional flying visit will not do. Go and look at it, really look at it. See how the leaves are shaped, the patterns they form on a stem or branch—notice every part of it.

Feel the sphere of energy, or aura, around the tree. It is formed in circles radiating from the trunk and can be quite large; the outer circle will roughly match the overall spread of branch and root. Step up to, and then inside, the energy circle. If you move slowly and close your eyes you’ll feel a slight push, a faint resistance as you step through, and again as you move through each interior ring as you make your way to the trunk.

Find a comfortable spot and stand or sit with your back leaning against the tree. Sense how you are safe inside its energy circle. Take off your shoes and touch the earth beneath your feet. Put your hands up to the bark of the tree, or flat on the soil beneath it, and let energy flow from the crown of your head, down your spine, and out of your body, down into the earth.

Allow your body to refill with fresh energy as you breathe air into your lungs, and pull the tree’s healing power through the top of your head and down into the center of yourself. Let it circle and flow through you. Think about the wisdom of the ancient brehons and how your special tree connects in your neighborhood.