Irish Mythology | Yellow Gorse

Yellow Gorse. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Yellow Gorse. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Yellow gorse, furze, broom, whinn, call it what you will, it’s blooming marvellous at the moment, and its glad golden glow is currently brightening the hills and hedgerows of Ireland as Bealtaine nears, like a halo over the landscape. Naturally, this prolific plant features prominently in Irish mythology and Ireland’s ancient lore.

Its official name is Ulex Europaeus. In Ireland, it is called aiteann, which, according to an ancient manuscript known as Cormac’s Glossary, comes from aith meaning ‘sharp’, and tenn, meaning ‘lacerating’. This is due to its prickly nature, and fierce thorns.

In fact, this was one of the reasons why farmers and shepherds used it in hedging their fields; it kept livestock in, and intruders out. It was believed to extend protective powers over the herds, and act as a good flea-repellent. Ground up, it made excellent animal fodder.

As it is fast-growing, and rather invasive, farmers would burn back the old growth. This would have two benefits; not only would the ashes provide good nutrition for the soil, but it would encourage the growth of tender new shoots, which were highly prized as a food for their cattle and sheep.

However, the reason why I love yellow gorse so much, is the amazing scent, which becomes even more heady and powerful in full sunlight. Imagine the scent of coconut combined with marzipan… I just adore it! Apparently, its blossoms are edible, and actually taste like almonds!

In Ireland, the flowers have long been used to colour and flavour whisky, and also to make wine. Here is a recipe, if you feel so inclined. (How to make Yellow Gorse Wine) I’ll be happy to come on over and taste test it for you.

Loughanleagh
Yellow Gorse coming into bloom at Loughanleagh, Co Cavan.

Yellow Gorse blooms for at least nine months of the year, hence the lovely old Irish saying;

When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season.”

I saw it blooming happily on New Years Day this year up at Loughnleagh. According to tradition, it is associated with love and fertility, probably because it is so prolific, and a small sprig would be added to bridal bouquets. The bride would have to cut it herself, however, as it was considered unlucky to give or receive as a gift.

This is no doubt due to the fact that all thorny bushes and trees, including the hawthorn, blackthorn and blackberry, were considered to belong to the Sidhe, or fairy folk, and thus be under their protection. These trees where thought to guard entrances to the Otherworld, and so were thought of as sacred or cursed, depending on one’s beliefs.

Having said that, as one of the nine sacred woods, branches of gorse would be gathered and burned on the ceremonial fires of Bealtaine. Gorse wood has a high oil content, which means it burns at a similar temperature as charcoal, and it would often be used to start the bonfires.

In the Ogham alphabet, yellow gorse is represented by Onn, the 17th character. According to the Lebor Ogaim, the ‘Book of Oghams’ also known as the Ogham Tract, plants were categorised by rank. Gorse was ranked highly as a ‘chieftain’ tree, as was furze, whereas broom was listed as the lowest rank of ‘bramble’. Quite how this was decided is beyond me, never mind that I thought all these names were for one and the same plant.

In ancient times, gorse had many uses other than guarding the homes of the Sidhe, lighting the Bealtaine fires, and penning livestock.

Yellow gorse on the way up to Fionn's Fingers.
Yellow gorse on the way up to Fionn’s Fingers.

A yellow dye in a shade now generally thought of as saffron was made from its blossoms. Dying cloth was considered something of a magical process in early Ireland, carried out only by women; no men were allowed to be present. I’m sure that went down well with the arrival of the Christian church.

As well as being used in whisky and wine, gorse was also consumed for medicinal purposes. An infusion of the flowers would be given to children as a cure for scarlet fever, and the seeds were considered beneficial for a ‘laxness of the bowels’… nice! It was mixed with honey and used as a mouthwash, and strewn about the floor of a dwelling was thought to repel fleas.

Its ashes, which were high in alkali, were spread on the earth as a fertiliser, or mixed with fat to make soap. Burning torches of gorse wood around cattle and other livestock was thought to prevent infertility, and keep their coats clear of parasites. Gorse wood was also used for making hurleys and walking sticks.

As we have seen, yellow gorse was always associated with the festival of Bealtaine. With the advance of Christianity, this celebration was replaced with May Day. The deep golden colour of the blooms perhaps still represented the flames of the fires in the minds of the people, and perhaps symbolised the growing strength of the sun.

Homes would be decorated with boughs of yellow gorse, and in some parts of Ireland, instead of using hawthorn, gorse would be decorated with shells and flowers as the Maybush. Of course to the Christians, the pagans were seen as witches, their deities and customs interpreted as devil worship.

The pagan association with yellow gorse meant that it was believed to harbour witches within its spiky domain. On May day, the gorse would be set alight in the hope of flushing out any witches hiding there. It was believed that they would transform themselves into the shape of hares and thus evade the flames by leaping swiftly for safety. Any hares found would be killed, poor things.

A sea of yellow gorse beside the quarry on the Hill of Allen, legendary home of Fionn mac Cumhall.
A sea of yellow gorse beside the quarry on the Hill of Allen, legendary home of Fionn mac Cumhall.

Yellow gorse is clearly a feature of the Irish landscape which is inextricably tied up in Ireland’s history and mythology; a plant of contrasts, good and bad, healing and wounding, at once protecting, nurturing and dominating.

33 thoughts on “Irish Mythology | Yellow Gorse

  1. I’m deeply interested in the history of Christianity in 6th century Gwynedd, and this essay has given me some serious food for thought.
    Welsh mss claim that proto-Christianity was carried to North Wales sometime during, or before, the 6th century, by immigrant families of preachers/teachers/Judges from Ireland (having arrived in Ireland from Egypt via Gaul). One of the foremost of these families is said to have been associated with a now-unknown place called Dinas Eiddin – the town/city of Eiddin; or Ynys Eiddin – the island of Eiddin (“ynys” being the Welsh form of the Irish “Innis”). The “dd” represents a sound similar to the “th” in “the”.
    19th Century historians insisted (having been mislead by a dubious claim found in the Life of Kentigern) that this referred to “Edinburgh”. I’ve never believed this assertion. I wonder, now, whether the mysterious “Dinas (or Ynys) Eiddin” might be a corrupted form of “Dinas EITHIN”. As you’ve probably guessed, “eithin”, in modern Welsh, means “gorse”.
    I must think about this possibility for a long, long time.
    PS. The most famous member of this Egyptian/Irish/Welsh/(possibly Jewish) aristocratic family was a lady named Tennau; legend names her as the grandmother of Saint Winifred.

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    1. Hi Elspeth, I don’t really know anything about Welsh mythology to be honest, but the concept of the aristocratic wise woman of Egyptian origin is interesting, as we have several references to such a person over here too. One is Scota, who came with the Milesians who defeated the Danann, but she died in battle and was buried near Cork, I believe. The other is Tailtiu, foster-mother of Lugh, and last Queen of the Fir Bolg. Some say she was of spanish origin, others that she was a pharoah’s daughter, or even Moses grand-daughter, and that she brought Jacob’s Pillow with her, which was the Lia Fail coronation stone. Her other name was Tea, or Teffi Tea Neffertiti?). Anyway, its interesting. Island of gorse could even refer to Ireland, although it could also have been closer to home; my first truly overwhelming experience of gorse was when I lived near Holyhead. The summers were hot (when we finally emerged from the fog!) and the smell and the vast blanket of searing yellow was glorious! No wonder our ancestors revered it so much!

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      1. Thanks so much for this additional info! New sources like this are like gold dust to me.

        In case you’re interested (and I wouldn’t blame you if you’re not):
        The story told by medieval Welsh historians seems to have been that Christianity spread initially among Jewish emigrant communities around the wider Grecian world, possibly even as early as during Christ’s lifetime. The religion as it developed within the Jewish community in Egypt was particularly austere: one of their practices (perhaps performed as penance) was to allow themselves to set adrift in small boats, to go wherever the wind took them (one is reminded of the tale of Kentigern). Thus, believers in this proto-Christianity are supposed to have travelled to France, thence to Ireland, thence to the most rugged parts of North Wales.
        South Wales is a different story: the Religion was supposed to have been taken there by teachers who originated among the Jewish community in Rome (almost certainly not the same group later joined by Peter.) The leader of these Roman immigrants was a woman named Eurgain: supposedly the daughter of the sister of the Virgin Mary. A few of the surviving pedigrees of our Welsh saints trace their bloodlines back to this Jewish Princess, and thus through her to the Kings (or Queens) of Israel. Our Saint David was one of these saints. Even the Catholic Norman monks, when they redacted and/or destroyed the history of our country, retained this story – only changing Eurgain from a girl to a boy, of course.
        I propose it’s probable that the leaders of the Egyptian branch likewise claimed descent from King David.
        It is possible (I would say it’s likely) that the Egyptian Jewish/Christian immigrants are the people referred to by the historians as the Gwyddelians, meaning either “people of the forests”, or “people of the lore”. I think the latter is the more likely interpretation. They seem to have allied themselves to the band of romantically violent Danish or Norwegian pirates known as the Lochlynians, who carried them and their religion to our coasts and up our waterways deep into the countryside.
        The archaeological evidence supporting the idea of an Egyptian origin for the ‘Gwyddelian’ Christians can be read in “Saint Seaways And Settlements” by E. G. Bowen.
        Sorry this is so unnecessarily long, but it is my passion you know.
        PS, I suppose it’s too much to hope that you might have an inkling as to the age of the word “Erin”… Could it possibly be as old as the early medieval…?

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    1. It certainly seems to be! It’s everywhere here, and the scent is delicious! Its almost considered a weed now, though, as it can be quite invasive and hard to clear. Its a sign of the times I guess. Humans dont like what they cant control, we certainly live uncomfortably with nature, rather than in harmony with it.

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  2. And there’s me thinking it was just the stuff that scratched your legs when out walking and jogging. Astonishing it has such a wide variety of properties and was held in such high regard.

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    1. I know, its crazy isnt it? But it stems from the pagan celtic spring Goddess Ostara, whose familiar was the hare. So naturally she became a witch, and so the hare was seen as equally as evil a creature!

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  3. Always loved gorse,but never knew its history fascinating,I love it because of its colour Ii now will look at it in a different light. Remember. Eating the flowers at the red hills by the black water x

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    1. Thank you Monica. The colour is amazing… it leaps like fire with the sun full on it! For me though, its glory lies in its scent. Please can you clarify what you meant by ‘remember eating the flowers at the red hills by the black water’?

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