The Blackthorn TreeBecome a Patron!
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland
A strange guardian of old places
The sinister crone of the woods, the wishing thorn, there are as many tales told of the blackthorn trees of Ireland as there are spiky thorns on its branches. The people who came before, whose blood still runs in some, planted them around their tombs and sacred places and bound the lunantisidhe, or moon fairies to protect them, save only on the full moon, when they roam free to drive unwary mortals to madness.
And beware should you push too far into the twisting hollows of the blackthorn thicket, for you might not emerge in the same place, or even the same world, as you left behind!
In County Sligo lived a tailor by the name of Patrick Waters, who said well and wisely enough that the branches of the blackthorn should never be cut except on the old May Day and the old November day, that is the 11th of each month, and no person of Ireland no matter how uneducated or unlettered would take so much as a thorn from their branches besides those days.
But cut them they did, and used them to make the fearsome Irish shillelaghs, rare walking and fighting sticks!
Both flexible and strong is the wood of the blackthorn, and its bark is of surpassing hardness, made even harder by daubing it with butter and putting it in a cubby hole up a chimney or into a compost heap for a few years, as was the way. At the top of the shillelagh was a handy knob shaped out of the bough from which it was cut. When out walking at night, carrying a blackthorn stick was said to avert the intentions of those who wished you ill and the attentions of the Good Folk both.
The men of the Fianna bore hardened spiky blackthorn sticks bound around thrice with iron, but even they feared the wounds of the thorn, which would often bleed heavily and turn septic.
It was called Straif in the Ogham Tracts, the earliest books of Irish writing we have, and its name meant “the keeper and increaser of dark secrets”, one of the eight chieftain trees.
The blackthorn has a special association with winter, for it was said that the Cailleach, taker of life, would sound the beginning of that dark season by drumming her blackthorn staff on the ground. A particularly cold winter might be called a blackthorn winter, and in places crowns were made of it before being burned and the ashes scattered across the fields.
Many dark deeds and stories of witchcraft, murder and the occult mention the blackthorn, and it was favoured by occultists to work their craft in times gone by. Its thorns were called “the pins of slumber”, and less mysterious but quite as mischievous folk would put them under the saddles of horses, so they'd work their way around and eventually cause the horse to throw its rider!
A blackthorn tree may live for a full century, and its descendants grow where the old tree falls, so the thorns protecting ancient mounds have a long lineage! And this, perhaps has kept ancient places safer than they might have been.
Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland
Sometimes when out and about travelling the lesser known byways of Ireland, you might come across a little stone arrowhead or piece of flint shaped by hands long gone, and people would tell you not to touch it for fear it might carry the tinneas sióg, the sickness of the fairy mounds! For it was that fairies, the sidhe, were known to hurl ... [more]
The sinister crone of the woods, the wishing thorn, there are as many tales told of the blackthorn trees of Ireland as there are spiky thorns on its branches. The people who came before, whose blood still runs in some, planted them around their tombs and sacred places and bound the lunantisidhe, or moon fairies to protect them, save only on the ful ... [more]
Once upon a time there was a poor woman with three daughters, and one day the eldest decided to seek her fortunes in the world. “Mother,” she said, “bake me a cake and kill my chicken, for I am away to the wide world.” And so her mother did just that, and when all was ready, her mother asked “which will you have ... [more]
A fair witch crept to a young man's side, And he kissed her and took her for his bride. But a shape came in at the dead of night, And filled the room with snowy light. And he saw how in his arms there lay A thing more frightful than words may say. And he rose in haste, and followed the Shape Till morning crowned an eastern cape. ... [more]
Once upon a time, not so long ago, a lovely young couple had just gotten married in the Irish countryside. It was a wonderful ceremony and all had remarked on how beautiful the bride looked, when suddenly their festivities and dancing were interrupted by the groom, who rushed into the crowd shouting that his Margaret was missing! Well they ... [more]
They do say that once upon a time, long ago, there lived a lady of great beauty in a castle on a lake, and her hair was fair as gold, shining in the summer sun. She had been promised to a king's son, the lord of a nearby kingdom, but as he was coming to see her one dark November evening, who should come upon him but the warriors of a jealous lo ... [more]
One evening in late November, which is the time of year when the spirits of Ireland have the most power, the prettiest girl in all the land was going to the ancient well for water. Then, as chance would have it, her foot turned on a loose stone, and she fell. It was bad luck, but when she got back to her feet, it seemed as though she was in a stran ... [more]
Baile the son of Buan was renowned through Ulster and all of Ireland for his tale-telling, and loved for his his kindly nature, but most of all by by Aillinn, daughter of Lughaidh. From afar they shared sweet messages and poetry, and as time passed she grew to love him more and more, and he in kind. Everyone spoke well of them and looked forward to ... [more]
In the olden days there was a man who played the pipes, but he was not famous for it, or if he was it was for the wrong reasons, since he had but the one tune, a jaunty jig called The Black Rogue. Now it happened one dark night that he was on his way home after entertaining the gentlemen, and with a few pence in his pocket and a few drinks under hi ... [more]
Times were hard in Ireland back years ago, and while some might say they've had it tough today, it was not a patch on the hardships people endured in times gone by. And so it was with Michael McGovern, a poor farmer with hardly an acre of stony soil to rent, who looked upon his three young sons with love for the life of them and fear for their ... [more]
There was a prince in Ireland a long, long time ago, back when Ireland still had princes, and O'Donall was his name. A brave fellow he was, and powerful, but given to risk and heedless thrills in his hunting and leaping and running and swimming, all the better to impress his friends. He was lord of a wide land, and he wasn't hard on the poo ... [more]
A woman was out one day looking after her sheep in the valley, and coming by a little stream she sat down to rest, when suddenly she seemed to hear the sound of low music, and turning round, beheld at some distance a crowd of people dancing and making merry. And she grew afraid and turned her head away not to see them. Then close by her stood a you ... [more]
They say that in Ireland you will enjoy all four seasons in a day, but on this day the four seasons were high and glorious summer, or so it seemed to Tom Fitzpatrick as he walked along a narrow road between two tall hedges in harvest time. As he walked, he chanced to hear a strange ringing like a tiny bell, and he paused, puzzled as to what it migh ... [more]
Connla of the Fiery Hair was one of the sons of Conn of the Hundred Battles, and his favourite son, a swift and agile warrior with a voice that could make the mountains tremble. Himself and his father climbed the heights of Usna on Samhain, when he saw coming towards them a slender maiden of great beauty, clad in strange clothes. “Where do ... [more]
Strange are the ways of the Fairies of Ireland, and strange the look about them, but for all their wild and untamed manner they follow rules written in the ripples of willow-branches on still ponds, and laws murmured by the echo of birdsong in deep wells. Once there was a woman sitting in her cottage, a humble enough abode, and she was making wo ... [more]
There are many types of fairy in Ireland, some more risky than others, and some to be avoided due to their habits rather than out of any particular malevolence. Such a one is the Gan Ceanach, whose name means “Without Love”. Although you might think such a title would indicate a friendless creature of a lonely nature lacking in socia ... [more]
There are a great many raths or fairy forts of old scattered throughout Ireland today, numbering in the tens of thousands, and it is here, the wise say, that the good people or fairy folk gather to hold their revels. Nobody would dare to cross, let alone build on a fairy dwelling in the past, marking as they did the boundary between our civilise ... [more]
Near to the town of Fermoy in Ireland lies the great stack of Cairn Thierna, not as wide about nor as tall as some mountains perhaps but feared and respected by the local people nonetheless. For all around it and along its flanks are tall heaps of stones they say are the work of the fairy folk, or the old people who lived here long ago. And you ... [more]
On the road going down to Cork there's an old set of four walls that used to once be called Ronayne's Court. Although there's little enough to see of it nowadays still the stack of the chimneys stands proud, and on it can be seen the coat of arms of the family that built it and used to live there. They were a fine couple and had one ... [more]
It was known in times past in Ireland that there were men and women who could talk to the fairies, ask favours from them, and even live among them, and some used this acquaintance to work their will on the world, for good or for ill. Most famous, perhaps, among these people were the fairy healers of old. Biddy Early is the best known of their ki ... [more]