Sounds like a sweet little piece of nonsense, doesn’t it? A fairy tale to amuse the kids. Well, not in Ireland. We take our fairy trees, and our fairy tales for that matter, quite seriously. So seriously, in fact, that we delay the building of a motorway by 10 years, and then end up completely re-routing it so that we avoid harming a well-known fairy tree.

Wait… what? Really?

Absolutely. You can 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
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.

This tree in the centre of a field has had boulders piled against its trunk to protect it from accidental harm.
This tree in the centre of a field has had stones piled against its trunk to protect it from accidental harm.

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 as Sceach Gheal, from sceach meaning ‘thornbush/ briar’ and geal meaning ‘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 Huath(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! 😂).

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.

The fairy tree at St Co
The fairy tree at St Co

According to Druidry.org, 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 to everyone who took the time to vote for my blog in the Littlewoods Ireland Blog Awards last week. I was overwhelmed and humbled by your support, good wishes, and sharing on social media… this WordPress author community is a great thing to be part of. Oh, and if you haven’t voted, but might like to, there’s still time: you can vote by hitting this button…

Littlewoods-Blog-Awards-2016-Website-MPU_Vote-For-Us-Button

Also, finally, after 4 weeks, my weekly blog email notifications have returned as mysteriously as they disappeared! Hooray! So if I haven’t visited your blog recently, you now know why, and can expect to see me around real soon.


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37 thoughts on “The Curious Phenomenon of the Irish Fairy Tree

  1. 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 😉

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    1. 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…

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  2. 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 🙂 Thanks Ali for continuing to write so well and expertly on these matters.

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    1. 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…

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  3. 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. 🙂

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  4. 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.

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  5. 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.

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    1. 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.

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      1. 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.

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  6. 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.
    http://www.beddgelerttourism.com/gelert/
    xxx Massive Hugs Ali xxx

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  7. Thank you for your blog, Ali, I love the superstitions about fairy trees in Ireland – I wouldn’t touch them…just in case. Some ancient sites were destroyed when the M3 was built. I wonder if that brought the project owners bad luck as not a huge amount of traffic use the M3. Do you use it? Do you agree with this person who changed his mind – http://www.irishcentral.com/opinion/others/highway-through-tara-was-a-waste-101548443-238042541.html

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  8. 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.

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    1. 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! 😁

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      1. 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. 😉

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        1. 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! 😂😂😂

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