The Curious Phenomenon of the Irish Fairy Tree

In Ireland, we take our fairy trees, our fairy tales, and our fairy folk for that matter, quite seriously. So seriously, in fact, that we delay the building of a motorway by ten years, and then end up completely re-routing it so that we avoid harming a well-known fairy tree.

Wait… what? Really?

Absolutely. You canΒ check out the story right here, if you don’t believe me. Having spent some time in Co Clare this year, and last year, walking the Burren Way, I can confirm that it is a very magical and mystical place steeped in ancient lore, and it’s impossible to be there, and not be seduced by it. As with many of Ireland’s ancient places, there is magic there waiting for you.

So, what exactly is a ‘fairy tree’?

Well, they look like this…

Fairy tree at Loughcrew

You will often find one at an ancient pagan site, or a holy well. They are usually hawthorn trees, but not always. People leave prayers, gifts or a personal token of some kind attached to the trees branches in the hope of receiving healing, or good fortune, or having their prayer answered. It can be fascinating viewing the strange objects people leave; children’s toys, socks, photos, ribbons, messages scrawled on scraps of paper, balloons, even strips of fabric torn from their clothing.

The lone hawthorn standing in the middle of a field was treated with much respect, and some suspicion by farming communities. Whilst it was thought to be auspicious, bringing good fortune and prosperity to the landowner, it was also thought to belong to the magical folk of the Otherworld, the Sidhe. As such, it was never to be cut or harmed for fear of bringing their wrath upon the perpetrator.

In fact, some farmers would go so far as to pile boulders around the base of the tree so as not to accidentally cause damage to the trunk whilst ploughing or reaping around it.

So, a little bit of background about the hawthorn itself: the hawthorn is a small, bushy tree which grows up to six metres in height, which can live to a grand old age of four hundred years. It is native to Ireland, where it is mostly used to mark field boundaries, and roadside hedgerows.

In Irish, the hawthorn is known asΒ Sceach Gheal, from sceach meaning β€˜thornbush/ briar’ and geal meaning β€˜bright/ lumnious/ radiant’. According to the ancient Brehon Law, it was classified as a Peasant tree. In Ogham, also known as the Tree Alphabet, the hawthorn is represented by the sixth symbol called HuathΒ (pronounced Hoo-ah).

But how did the hawthorn come to be regarded as a fairy tree? Well, because it flowers in the Spring, it was associated with the festival of Bealtaine, a sacred time to the ancient Irish and to the Sidhe (the fairy folk, but don’t ever let them hear you call them by the F-word, they’d be most insulted, and I’m sure you’d rather live out your days as a human rather than something… else! πŸ˜‚).

As a tree sacred to the fairies, the hawthorn was never to be messed with, damaged, or cut. Ill fortune would surely befall the fool who took such a chance, and offended the tree’s owners. Poised thus between the Otherworld and the physical world, the hawthorn eventually came to be regarded with fear, and it was said that witches made their brooms from its branches.

Fairy tree at St Colman’s Holy Well

According to, this is what can happen when one destroys a fairy tree…

“Earlier in this century, a construction firm ordered the felling of a fairy thorn on a building site in Downpatrick, Ulster. The foreman had to do the deed himself, as all of his workers refused. When he dug up the root, hundreds of white mice – supposed to be the faeries themselves – ran out, and while the foreman was carting away the soil in a barrow, a nearby horse shied, crushing him against a wall and resulting in the loss of one of his legs.

“Even as recently as 1982,workers in the De Lorean car plant in Northern Ireland claimed that one of the reasons the business had so many problems was because a faery thorn bush had been disturbed during the construction of the plant. The management took this so seriously that they actually had a similar bush brought in and planted with all due ceremony!”

Consider yourself warned!

Did you know: Wands made of hawthorn are said to be extremely powerful. The blossoms are said to be highly erotic to men… which perhaps explains why Ireland did such a roaring trade in exporting hawthorn flowers in the past. May poles were originally made of hawthorn.

The hawthorn was often seen as a gateway into the fairy realms. Thomas the Rhymer, a Scottish poet in the C13th claimed to have met the Fairy Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Otherworld for a short visit, but when he emerged, he found that seven years had passed.

Be careful if you are ever out walking in the countryside and think you may take a nice little nap under that inviting shady hawthorn tree… you may wake to find yourself whisked off to the Otherworld, and it’s highly likely you won’t find your way back…

thank you for visiting

62 Comments on “The Curious Phenomenon of the Irish Fairy Tree

  1. Pingback: Fairy Trees of Ireland – Irish Culture, University of Alberta, 2019

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  4. Replaced one yesterday with a new hawthorn and its protective plastic sheath around it until it gets strong and big. Did not realise what the old three was, it was removed by a contractor ten years ago whom i told that was the one thing he was not to damage. I just liked the look of it, which was the only reason i did not want it touched. It was a little stuck out in the way, but we always worked around it. It was not a problem. Within a year of removing it the contractor got terminal cancer and had a slow dead. i though i seen something weird moving through the bushes towards its companion tree a few hundred yards away after planting the new tree, it made a strange noise which made me look….who knows what it was, maybe an animal or something eles. But the area seems brighter now with its new tree. And last night apparently (30th april) is an active night for fairies. Strange i decided to go to the bother of getting a tree and planting it in the exact spot where the old one stood on that day. it always bothered me that the old tree was destroyed against my instructions.


    • Hi John, what a great story! Well, not for the poor contractor, but you did warn him. I’m sure your replanting has restored equilibrium. Thanks for sharing your story, well told too. 😊


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  7. Glad I checked this out. I have a real respect for Irish folklore. Even though I am a Christian the richness of Ireland’s past has always evoked respect and admiration


    • That’s great to hear, Faye. I think anyone should be able to enjoy these stories, regardless of religion. 😍


      • hi there ali. as a child i lived in the countryside of co. antrim, in the middle of one field was a fairy thorn tree,(a hawthorn) we were warned how to treat it and the farmer ploughed around it but never too close to it. the same farmer told us never to totally strip a tree or bush of fruit for the wild creatures had to eat too and the wee folk would not be happy with us. what a lesson, and it still sticks. (this in the 1940s)

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hi Roy, what a wonderful story and thank you for sharing it with us! It just goes to show how powerful the belief in the old stories and the fairy folk used to be. What I love the most about your story, though, is the idea that you don’t take more than you need, and also that there was an awareness of the needs of all the creatures, not just humankind. This interconnectedness is advanced thinking which the majority of humans today cant or wont grasp, yet is something which clearly lingered and remained important in rural areas while the rest of the world went mad on capitalism and greed. Thanks for getting in touch!

          Liked by 1 person

          • hello again ali. i notice on some of the photos in your website that some of the fairy thorns are festooned with small gifts written wishes etc. re. my previous post on my time as a child in co. antrim where i said about being told how to treat the fairy tree near our house : if we were to mind our manners ( six year old kids) we could walk around the tree , we could sit under it, we could even touch it for the wee folk didn’t mind nice well mannered children, ( another lesson another way ?) one thing we were not to do was take anything away from there not a twig not a leaf not a blade of grass, oh and one other thing was that we leave nothing there. hence my comment on the small gifts etc.? i’m not sure now how i stumbled on your website but i’m so glad i did. more power to you ali. roy c.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Hi Roy, I’m glad you did too! 😊 Well I don’t know how that tradition started up. Actually, tying things to branches causes a lot of damage as the trees grow, the branches get wider and the rags get too tight. Also there was a tradition of hammering coins into the trunks and branches of trees, which over the years slowly poisoned them to death. I was just at the early Christian monastic site of Fore yesterday, and that is exactly what happened to one of the fairy trees there… there are two, and the one which died was an ash tree apparently. A local guy keeps a branch of it locked in his shed which he sometimes let’s people see, but I didn’t have time to search him out. Anyway, in spite of this, people are still hammering coins into the trunks of the replacement tree that was planted, I mean, how ignorant and selfish is that? It would be interesting to know if the Sidhe took any revenge on the people who killed their tree! Most people at Fore left socks, or rags, and to be honest, both trees look a mess. To me the trees look better decorated with their own leaves, as nature intended. Anyway, if you’re interested, keep an eye on the blog, I will be posting about this, with pictures, in a couple of week’s time. 😊


    • Hi Neil, thank you for that… I was literally just reading your very interesting post when you left this comment! Good to meet you, and I am looking forward to reading more of your blog. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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  12. Gorgeous images, Ali… I do love hawthorns, although I didn’t so much as a teenager, because they were fairly useless for hiding behind when doing things you weren’t supposed to do, like smoking πŸ˜‰


  13. so cool. It’s a shame that something so worshipped became something to fear but isnt that just typical? Mind you, with those stories, I think I’d probably be terrified too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lol! Falling asleep under a hawthorn tree then finding yourself in the fairy realms with no way of getting home would not be nice. Although honestly, I’d love to visit a while…


  14. I too love how the old legends live on and are respected, though increasingly the modern world prevails. In my writing I enjoy playing around with the notion that the little folk still occasionally make their presence felt when it pleases them πŸ™‚ Thanks Ali for continuing to write so well and expertly on these matters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the lovely compliment, Roy. 😊 We have to keep the fairy folk happy by remembering them in our writing, don’t we? Maybe one day, they’ll decide to help us achieve the wealth and fame we deserve…


    • Thank you! I probably bore most people to tears, lol! But I love this stuff, and I guess Im not the only one! 😊


  15. I love how the legends persist to this day and are taken quite seriously. That is very cool. The trees are scrappy, but they do look magical in your pictures. I want to plant one in my yard. Thanks for bringing a little magic into my day. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Magical and enchanting, Ali, although I’d never want to upset the Fairy Folk. I’ve never seen a Fairy Tree but, when I do, I will give it all the respect it deserves. Stopping a motorway being built is certainly some power to behold. I hope, for the workman’s sake, they don’t come across any when building the H2 rail link from London to the North of England.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I was horrified when I heard about the M3. I never thought it could happen, but then we’re talking about Irish political decisions and we all know what that means. Did you ever hear that the Catholic church banned hawthorn blossom in the house? I remember my mum going ballistic when I brought her home a bunch of mayblossom when I was little and was told never to do it again. I always assumed that it was because the priests didn’t like it (for the reasons you mention) but it could have been because you NEVER tamper with a hawthorn tree.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wrote an essay on that very subject, Jane, and it was that which got me into uni! The whole process was corrupt from start to finish. I don’t know if any studies have been made post M3, but I suspect the consequences will be more long term. Tara survived thousands of years because no one knew about it and no one went there. In the last 100 years or so, more people have been there since before it fell into disuse. Those visitors feet, and other activities , are bound to have a destructive effect, now the M3 added to the mix. Re bringing the hawthorn blossom inside, it was associated with death because of the slight smell of decay released by the flowers… this ‘scent’ attracts flies for pollination rather than bees. Scientists discover it contains one of the substances present in the early stages of the decay of flesh, a smell people would have recognised when they kept dead bodies of loved ones in their homes before burial. And still do over here, in open caskets.


      • That would figure. The smell is a bit like the one the lilies and embalming fluid can’t quite hide. We still wake the body in my family, though more and more it’s becoming an oddity. People would rather the hospital then the undertaker deals with the corpse. When we waked my mum there were people calling in until the small hours. So many wanted to say goodbye it wouldn’t have been right to do anything else.


  18. Just in case it’s not true ( even though we know it is really) is no excuse to take chances by ignoring the people and destroying precious trees in order to build motorways. The Government should always try to honour the beliefs of the land and it’s people.
    Incidentally, my favourite breed of dog has always been the Irish wolf hound. I love the story of Gelert, the favourite dog of Prince Llewelyn,, mistakenly killed because when the prince’s baby son went missing and Gelert was found with blood round his mouth. When the baby was found it was by the body of a large wolf that Gelert had killed in order to save the princeling.Gelert was buried with honour and many tears and the place Beddgelert (the Grave of Gelert) in North Wales was named after him.
    xxx Massive Hugs Ali xxx


  19. Most enlightening! I wish the old growth redwoods of my Northern California had the same regard as Irish hawthorn trees. After years of study botanists and other scientists discovered that redwood forests can store more carbon than any other type of forest or jungle. So redwoods can play a vital role in combating global warming, and are far more valuable in the ground than as lumber. I just hope the lesson is learned before it is too late.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope so too! I was just reading about how heavily forested Ireland was until the English came over in the 1500’s and chopped them all down for timber for ship building. Its horrendous really. We’ve had a spate of tree felling around here this year… I actually cant bear to look. A new cut tree stump looks like an amputated limb to me. But then I guess I’m just a sentimental softie! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      • The U.S. from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River used to be one big forest before the arrival of Europeans. Empires are built through the exploitation of people and nature.
        And there’s nothing wrong with being a sentimental softie. πŸ˜‰

        Liked by 1 person

        • Its shocking how quickly man can decimate a forest, isnt it? Those trees probably took hundreds of years to grow, yet felled in minutes. Yet nature has an amazing capacity to regenerate. Too late for some species, which are now lost forever. In Ireland, round about the same time actually, the wolf was hunted into extinction. Then the wolf hound itself went into decline, because they didn’t need them for hunting wolves anymore, so they stopped breeding them, and they almost became extinct too! If we carry on with this line of conversation, we are going to get all maudling! πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚

          Liked by 1 person

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