Muckross Abbey

Muckross Abbey’s Venerable Yew Tree

By Donal Hickey

DISTRICT DIRECTOR: Donal Hickey / EDITOR: Cormac Foley

One of the upsides of the coronavirus crisis is that people have become much more aware of their own immediate environment. Limits on travel and activity have localised people, with the result that they have walked more in their own localities and seen things they had never noticed before.

I know, for instance, pensioners who have lived in Killarney for all, or most, of their days and who, prior to the crisis, had never walked through the Demesne, though this wondrous place is just a short stroll from the town centre.

And many such people have been to Muckross Abbey only for funerals.

But now that they are venturing out and finding new and even mysterious corners they have come to discover what is probably Killarney’s oldest yew tree.

The tree, which could also one be the oldest of the species to be found anywhere in Ireland, stands right in the centre of the Muckross Abbey. Some experts believe it to be up to 400 years old.

Yew Tree at Muckross Abbey
Yew Tree at Muckross Abbey

Even two and a half centuries ago, this venerable tree was famous and some of the first tourists to come to Killarney were captivated by it.

In 1756, one such personage, Charles Smith wrote that it was one of the tallest yew trees he had ever seen. “Its spreading branches, like a great umbrella, overshadow the niches of the great cloister,’’ he went on.

The exact foundation date of the Franciscan abbey at Muckross is uncertain: it could be anytime between 1340 and 1448. There’s a deal of folklore and superstition surrounding the tree, including a tradition that it was removed from Innisfallen as a sapling and planted in the heart of the abbey.

In his celebrated book, Heritage Trees of Ireland, Aubrey Fennell noted a tradition that the tree was planted over the grave of a monk who had been absent for 100 years and returned there to die.

And there’s a legend that a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary is buried underneath and that anyone who damaged the tree would die within a year. “This (warning) went unheeded by a soldier who hacked off a small branch which dripped blood. He promptly dropped dead on the spot,’’ Fennell recounted.

Believe the folklore or not, there is something special about this yew which has attracted people ever since visitors started coming to Killarney in the middle of the 18th century.

Muckross Abbey
Muckross Abbey

The trunk is straight and solid and the branches stretch out from it to cover the surrounding walls. It seems the monks kept the tree topped and the branches trimmed whilst they were resident in the abbey, but it grew more and more after they abandoned the place in the 17th century.

Aubrey Fennell wrote: “There is no simple formula for dating an individual yew as they can deviate enormously from the average, but this tree must be at least 350 years old…let us hope that the tree receives the respect it deserves.’’

3 comments

  1. Donal Hickey’s story on the Muckross Abbey Yew highlights its great significance. It touches on the legend. Tells of its national botanical standing. The history is witnessed. The folklore.

    It is a very rich story that should challenge the tellers of stories in many different ways. From a children’s picture book to an in depth authoritative treatment. Modern technology should be used to range over from entertaining and informing the casual visitor to presenting a great spectacle.

  2. you are right one good thing about this whole situation is you get to explore you own town and country more than usual. We certainly done just that in these last few months.

  3. It’s interesting to see so many stories about the yew at Muckross Abbey.The longevity of yew trees add to their fascinating mythology.
    “The Story of Yew” is a novel by Guido Mina di Sospiro. The story is based on the yew tree of Muckross Abbey.It is a beautiful read, with the yew tree telling its own story.Starting from seed, to become the ancient matriarchal tree it is now.The book covers folklore,botany,history and so much more. I would highly recommend a visit to Muckross and a copy of “The story of yew” to accompany you on your journey.

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