The Curious Phenomenon of the Irish Fairy Tree

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…

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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.


Uisneach | Ancient Ceremonial Site of the Bealtaine Fires

It’s Bealtaine, the beginning of Summer according to the ancient Celtic Irish calender. The Hill of Uisneach is the sacred centre of Ireland, and the place where it all happened…

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UISNEACH Ancient Ceremonial Site of the Bealtaine Fires

I had very few expectations of The Hill of Uisneach (Cnoc Uisneach in Irish) when I went there for the first time, but as with Shee Mor, it turned out to be one of those ancient places of Ireland which just blew me away.

It’s hard to get an exact meaning for the name Uisneach. It derives from the Irish word for water, uisce (pronounced ish-ka) and a god of the Tuatha de Denann named Nechtan. Not a great deal is known about Nechtan; the name is possibly a variant of Nuada Argetlam, or some say another name for the Dagda. The Hill of Uisneach is said to be located near Nechtan’s well, which also happens to be the source of the River Boyne.

The interesting thing about Nechtan’s Well, is that it might also be the…

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Five Photos Five Stories Challenge Day Three | Irish Sunset

sunset2

You will know by now that I am partial to a beautiful sunset, particularly if it is one which can be enjoyed from the comfort of my own garden, preferably with a glass of Prosecco or Bulmers in hand.

To our ancient Irish ancestors, sunset was considered the start of the day, not the end of it. They certainly considered the sun as an important source of energy, not only in practical terms with regard to the seasons and growth of crops, but perhaps also in mystical and ritual terms.

The darkest time of year, the winter, when the sun is at its lowest and weakest, was the start of their year, in the way that the dark of night began their day.

Their four major festivals, Imbolc (Feb 1st), Bealtaine (May 1st), Lughnasadh (Aug 1st) and Samhain (Nov 1st), celebrated the turning of the seasons with the lighting of huge fires, perhaps in honour of the life-giving warmth and energy of the sun.

The sun’s movements also gave rise to four other sacred occasions on the Irish Celtic calender; both equinoxes, when day and night are thought to be of equal length, and the solstices, when the sun reaches its highest and lowest position in the sky.


I was nominated to take part in this photo challenge by Sue Vincent, who takes the most beautiful images and always has a story to tell about them. I would like to nominate author and poet most extraordinaire, Jane Dougherty, to take part in this challenge.

The rules of the Five Photos, Five Stories Challenge are:

1) Post a photo each day for five consecutive days.
2) Attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or a short paragraph. It’s entirely up to the individual.
3) Nominate another blogger to carry on the challenge. Your nominee is free to accept or decline the invitation. This is fun, not a command performance!


Video | Bealtaine Fire Festival Celebration at Uisneach 2015

For those of us who couldn’t be there, a taste of the event… looks like fun! Next year…

A Bealtaine Poem | The Old Ways

the old waysSun has slipped beyond the rim, and

on the hill,

fiery petals unfurl,

a towering blossom of flame,

summer’s herald,

an omen of peace and plenty.

*

Around the Beal-fire maidens sway,

yellow wrapped with starry strings of gorse,

their eyes light filled,

heat leaping in their blood,

summer’s song sweet on their lips

*

while men compete at warrior’s sport.

They attempt the hero leap

over the fire,

urged on by mead, camaraderie, bravado,

a lover’s glance, and

the need to prove their own prowess.

*

Children run between the fires,

soot covered, laughing,

or listen, slack jawed,

to the tall tales the fili tell.

*

And then the cattle drive,

no small feat of a man’s skill

to manoeuvre that fire-crazed stampede

successfully through the inferno.

*

Eriu’s eye has opened. She sees all,

as the fires rise and fall

like the washing of the tides,

the wax and wane of the moon,

the wheel of life and death,

*

scattering ashes into the dry earth beneath,

wherein her pulse beats

cadence with the bodhran

and the dancers feet,

*

and life quickens

in the dark warm recesses

of the feminine.

 

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.

Irish Mythology | The Sacred Fires

 

There’s something hypnotic and beguiling about watching golden flames leap, fanning your face with melting warmth, whilst the hiss and pop as they consume their fuel, fills your ears, and clouds of fragrant wood-smoke drift around you… the experience of fire is quite a feast for the senses. A fire can be soothing and relaxing, or mesmerising and exciting, or uncontrollable and frightening.

Our ancestors were well aware of the effects of fire. Mastering this element had changed their lives, yet was fraught with danger. Homes were temporary affairs, constructed of degradable substances such as wood and thatch, and thus highly flammable. Even the landscape could be destroyed by the application of fire, or it could be revitalised.

Observing how fire consumed the living, and yet how new life sprang from the ashes, it’s no wonder that legends such as that of the phoenix were born.

And of course, the greatest fire of them all was that which rode through the sky each day, governing the seasons, separating day from night, bringing warmth and light to nurture seeds in the earth, and life from the womb.

Today, most people assume that the early Irish worshipped the sun as if it were a God. The fact that certain gods and goddesses are associated with the sun has more to do with scholars of later centuries, than any evidence left behind by our ancestors.

For example,  from Victorian times, Lugh Lamhada was thought to be a sun god, because the  Proto-Indo-European root of his name leuk means ‘flashing light’, and thus he is often surrounded by solar imagery.

However, in some parts of Ireland, thunderstorms are referred to as battles between Lugh and Balor, which would imply that he was actually a storm god. This fits more appropriately with the flashing light interpretation of his name, which perhaps more correctly could mean ‘lightning flash’.

Taken into consideration with his festival of Lughnasadh (1st August), and the celebration of the harvest, when the earth is depleted, and the weather is changing, winding down towards winter, the days shortening, storms blowing in bringing rain to renew the parched soil of summer, an association with storms and lightning carries far more weight.

Brigid is another deity associated with the sun. Her feast day is Imbolc (1st February), a time of renewal, regeneration, lengthening days, warmer temperatures, and the greening of spring. She founded a retreat in Kildare, which means ‘church by the oak tree’, and there in her honour the eternal flame was lit.

In 470AD, St Brigid founded a monastery on the Goddess’s site, and she too kept the flame burning. It was extinguished during the C16th, but relit in 1993 by the Brigidine Sisters, who keep it burning to this day.

Yet Brigid’s fire is not that of the sun, at all. Some say it is the fire of the forge, for she was thought to be gifted with the working of metal. However, among her many skills, she was a patron of poets and the poetic art. In that sense, I believe Brigid’s fire was that of poetic inspiration, in other words, the divine knowledge.

The ancient peoples of Ireland celebrated their major festivals with fire. Is this in honour of their sun Gods and Goddesses? According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn, an ancient manuscript detailing Ireland’s waves of invaders, the first Bealtaine fire was lit on the Hill of Uisneach by the Nemedian Druid, Mide. Although ‘Druidical rituals’ were said to have taken place, there is no mention of sun-god worship.

You may point out that the word Bealtaine must be linked to to the gods Baal, Bel or Beli, or even Bilé, who was not a god but the father of Mil Espaine, the Milesians who invaded Ireland and defeated the Tuatha de Denann. In fact, beal means ‘bright/ brilliant’, and taine comes from the Irish word for ‘fire’, tine.

The fires may well have represented the importance of the sun in their lives, but these early people, whilst sensitive to nature and very spiritual, were practical and scientific. We know this by the many stone monuments they left in our landscape, extraordinary feats of engineering still standing strong today, built with technology even we, with all our knowledge and computers, can’t fathom.

We know they studied the stars, and from that the seasons, devising their Celtic calender from it. They left us beautiful artwork carved into rock, and wrought in metal tools and weapons, which archaeologists have dug out of the earth, or rescued from bogs and other watery places.

Although they never left us any writings of their own, we also get glimpses of these skills in the remains of the legends as written down by Christian monks, in documents such as the Annals of the Four Masters, and the Lebor Gabála Érenn.

So, what did the ancient Irish actually do at Bealtaine? The festival was certainly connected with fertility of the land, the crops, and the people; the rituals were about protection and purification.

The bonfires were constructed from wood held sacred, such as rowan, apple, dogwood, juniper, pine, holly and oak, and kindled by Druids with great ceremony. Cattle were then driven between the fires and through the smoke, thus cleansing, blessing and protecting their health and milk yield.

People would also pass between the fires, some even leaping the flames. All household fires would have been extinguished, and embers from the Bealtaine fire carefully carried home to relight the hearth, and heart of the house, thus bringing the blessing and protection over all who lived there.

It is also thought that flames from these bonfires could have been ceremonially applied to the fields, as a quick way of clearing and preparing them for spring planting, a method which has been used until fairly recently, when the world became concerned with global warming. (Watch this space to find out more about Bealtaine!)

But Bealtaine was not the only festival celebrated with fire; so was Samhain, Mid-Winter, in fact all the ancient Irish festivals.

The sun was considered to bring great healing energy. Walking three times ‘sun wise’, or cor deiseil, around a fire represented the circling of the sun, and was a potent ritual invocation of the sun’s healing power. We know from the number of monuments which align with sunrise on a festival morning that this part of the day was greatly revered; no doubt feeling the full force of the rays of the rising sun, as well as being spiritually uplifting, was considered beneficial to one’s healing process.

There are some interesting folk traditions in Ireland concerning fire. For example, it was thought very unlucky to put out a light while people were at the dinner table, as this would mean there would be one less person at the table before the end of the year. It was also considered unlucky to carry fire out of a house where a person was ill, as it would also remove the blessing from the house. It may have been thought that the fire represented a person’s spirit, thus removing or extinguishing it also extinguished the invalid’s spark of life.