The Fairy Tree
Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill
The hawthorn stands between the ashes tall and slim,
like matron with her twin grand-daughters at her knee;
the rowan berries cluster o’er her low head gray and dim
in ruddy kisses sweet to see.
Samuel Ferguson The Fairy Thorn
Trees were worshipped in Ireland long ago and some were believed to have magical properties. A prime example of this is the fairy tree found all over the country, which even today is both feared and respected. In some ways they are throw back to a time when people lived closer to the land and are also a direct link to our ancient Celtic beliefs.
The Fairy Tree is usually a whitethorn (cartages monogzna) also referred to as a hawthorn or sceach in Irish. The latter gives is found in many place names such as skeagh, skehy, skey, ske, skeha, skew. Until the twentieth century it was considered irreverent to use the term fairy tree and is still sometimes referred to as a lone bush or a thorn.
It is not only found in this country but in most of Europe, North Africa and parts of Western Asia. There are over a thousand different species of the tree worldwide and it can grow in all types of soil growing up to nine metres. Some of the examples of in this country are a few hundred years old. In autumn and winter its red berries, referred to as haws, provide much needed food for birds. While the wood from whitethorn was seldom used in this country it is in other countries where as good firewood. Hawthorn blossoms are edible and can be used to make a tea to cure anxiety and poor circulation, while its berries were used to curse sore throats or even as a heart stimulant. The blossom was also used as a fertility symbol in many countries.
It was not only in Ireland that it was revered. The Greeks and Romans saw the hawthorn as symbolic of hope and marriage. The Roman goddess Cardea, mistress of Janus, keeper of the doors, had a bough of Hawthorn as her symbol. In central Europe however, it was regarded as a symbol of witchcraft with witches performing their rituals underneath and it was generally considered unlucky. Popular folklore has it that the crown of thorns which Christ wore was of hawthorn. According to Cornish legends Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain after the cruxifiction and where he stuck his staff a hawthorn grew, now known as The Glastonbury Thorn. The success of the hawthorn was taken to symbolise the blossoming of Christianity and it was there he built the first church. In the Celtic Ogham alphabet the hawthorn was given the letter hUath meaning fear, which is particularly apt given its reputation in this country.
While it forms an important part of the hedgerow it is the solitary hawthorn which instills fear and even if its position is inconvenient it will generally be left alone. The warnings have been passed down through the generations. Otherworld creatures are said to either live in or nearby the tree and it has often been recorded how passersby would hear music or see a bright light coming from the vicinity of the hawthorn.
Tales of misfortune befalling those who damage the hawthorn in any way are legion. There are accounts whereby the tree started to bleed when branches were cut away, which was a warning of things to come. This may be a legacy from a time when certain, among them the hawthorn, were considered sacred. In the Crith Gablach, an eighth century Brehon legal poem it is stated:
A danger from which there is no escape
Is the penalty for felling
The noble sacred trees
you shall not cut sacred tree
Usually those who damaged the tree went from being healthy to sick, became paralysed, went mad or in the worst case died. Very often workmen were compelled by their foreman, usually someone not from the locality with little understanding of the piseog, to cut the tree or be fired and they would appeal to invisible forces that the misfortune befall he who ordered the destruction and those who carried it out. Gold was sometimes found near the hawthorn, but given the risk of interfering with the tree few dared to go looking, though sometime the fairies would indicate where to dig.
The magical powers of the hawthorn are said to be greatest when found growing beside an oak and ash tree. Hawthorns are very often found growing beside holy wells. This was maybe an attempt to blend in older pagan beliefs with Christian ones and until recently it was normal to tie an offering to the hawthorn growing at these wells. It also grew at some inauguration sites and for centuries the Maguires were inaugurated beside a hawthorn tree at Lisnaskea fort near Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.
Though beautiful, bringing the white blossom into the house usually brought about illness or death. It has been suggested that a chemical found in the body tissue in the early stages of decompostion is also present in the whitethorn, hence its association with death. As a result it is still very much taboo in Ireland to bring hawthorn into the house. In England however, it seems to have been acceptable to do so around May and was used to ward off evil spirits.
Perhaps the most famous hawthorn is the one located at Latoon in County Clare. In 1999 the motorway from Limerick to Galway was delayed and eventually rerouted to avoid damaging the fairy tree there. It is not clear whether the local authorities did so out of respect for the solitary tree or the international media attention that was drawn to it by the folklorist Eddie Lenihan, author of Meeting the Other Crowd- the Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland. He claimed the tree was a meeting point for the fairies of Munster when they did battle with the fairies of Connacht. He argued that Other World forces would take revenge and the road would be a source of accidents if the tree were to be removed. In 2002 the tree was vandalised by an unknown person who slashed away its branches. The assailant failed to kill the tree and true to form the branches grew back. As the culprit was never identified it is not known whether any misfortune befell him.
Today, many people are reluctant to talk about fairy trees partially for fear of being ridiculed by strangers who do not understand or younger people who have been told that belief in such things is supertitious nonsense. It is essentially a taboo topic and even though belief in Otherworld beings has greatly diminished in recent times there are still very few people who would remove a lone hawthorn.