All sorts of trees have often soared evocatively from readers’ memories and reminiscences recounted on this page – a towering oak at the bottom of a garden, nature’s complimentary climbing frame that offered many hours of childhood fun to a little Belfast girl in the 1960s; a spreading chestnut tree in Tyrone, planted by twin-brother evacuees from Belfast on the day WWII ended; a forest glade near the boyhood home of an Ulster painter, the source of countless trees framed in art exhibitions around the world. All of these trees were firmly and warmly rooted in the memories of those who encountered them, but rag trees, adorned with pieces of cloth, paper, or clothing, have a curious and distinctive plot in life’s enigmatic arboretum. “A rag tree is a diary of all the people who’ve put their requests and memories on a tree,” explained County Down artist and craftsman Gerry Murphy. Mr Murphy sent me three photos of his rag trees, an olive tree in Spain, a hawthorn in America, and an unspecified bush in India. The custom of hanging rags on trees was particularly strong among Ireland’s travelling community, but it’s still to be found in many parts of the world today. “It’s where Christianity is overlapped with pagan tradition,” Gerry told me. Usually the rags are placed on trees by people who believe that if a piece of clothing from someone who is ill, or who has a problem of any kind, is hung from the tree, the problem or illness will disappear as the rag rots away. “They transferred an ailment,” explained Gerry, “they hung it on a tree.” And all sorts of people are still doing it! Sometimes the rag represents a wish or aspiration which will come to pass as the rag rots. Sometimes it’s a memory to be cherished. Gerry Murphy’s rag trees illustrate a variety of personal experiences. Most poignantly, he has a tree in Glencoe, Scotland, decorated and dedicated in memory of his two brothers who died several years ago in a tragic mountaineering accident.
He adorned his inaugural rag tree with pieces of linen in 2004 while on a course of study with the Fundacion Valparaiso, a charitable art community based in Mohaja, Southern Spain. Every linen rag on the olive tree represents a vivid memory of each day, such as a little cat, painted in black graffiti, which Gerry discovered in an ancient Roman stone water cistern on top of the hill behind the tree. In 2006 he visited the Ucross Foundation, another arts community in Wycoming, USA, and while cycling through the high, desolate, parched grasslands he discovered a gnarled hawthorn bush. “How perfect,” Gerry thought, “all Irish rag trees are hawthorn!” He decorated it with a “diary of images from the landscape” printed on linen rags – one of them a discarded, long-defunct tractor, an epitaph to mechanisation in the middle of nowhere. Two years later, in 2008, whilst working and lecturing at the Sanskriti art foundation on the outskirts of Delhi, he recycled some of India’s indigenous materials and decorated a tree with 21 multi-coloured rectangles of silk and paper, infused with resin, attached with sisal twine to a garden bush. “They’re meant to look like luggage tags,” quipped Gerry, “though you’d be amazed at some of the things I’ve seen attached to rag trees!” He has encountered everything from empty cigarette packets to crutches hanging from their branches. Gerry is currently preparing an exhibit that’s been accepted for the annual RUA exhibition in Belfast, and he is very keen to develop his work with rag trees. I wondered if he’s ever been back to visit his trees. The answer was no. “I think the Wycoming tree and its linen rags have probably been eaten by now,” laughed Gerry retrospectively, “by gophers or wild deer! It’s very dry up there, and there’s not a lot of forage for them.” Since talking to him, I’ve been inspired to think about a Roamer rag tree, with pages of readers’ memories and reminiscences hung on every branch. But it would need to quite big tree as Wednesday’s page is my 250th. The gophers and wild deer could have a right royal banquet!Words by The Roamer (CW gathers no moss)