Emerald Isle

Aiteann the Sharp Gold

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season

When the spring turns to summertime in Ireland, a carpet of golden yellow rolls out under drumlin skies across the wild places to greet the changing seasons, the exuberant growth of the gorse, which some call whinn, broom or furze, although in the old language it's known as Aiteann, which means “sharp”. And well named it is, for the beautiful yellow flowers are ringed with long and sharp thorns!

It has a strong association with the sun, the month of May, and Bealtaine, and the people of Ireland found many uses for it in times past. Women used to make a rich yellow dye from its flowers in a colour very similar to the prized saffron, but its making was a secret forbidden to men.

This warm golden colour was the preferred hue of the robes worn by the kerns, or Irish warriors, and they would raid their neighbours' cattle with particular vigour before important feasts so they could afford new clothes!

It was also mixed into the mead, wine and later whiskey of the chieftains for flavour, and some of the flowers can be eaten, especially when the sunlight brings out their full scent. Farmers would enrich the land by burning it, and when cut back, the new shoots made wonderful feed for the livestock. Mind you, if any hares fled the burning gorse, they were killed by the farmers, in case they were witches in disguise!

The flowers of the gorse bush were used to make medicines and were scattered about the floor to keep out fleas, and walking sticks were cut from its longer boughs. It was also used for roofing, cleaning chimneys, hedge lining, as a clothesline, making tool handles, hurleys and a myriad of other purposes.

Aside from its practical uses however, the gorse had deep spiritual meaning in Ireland – it was one of the nine sacred trees, and its oily wood burned as hot as charcoal, and so was used to light the Bealtaine fires. As with the other quicken trees, although to a lesser extent, the Aiteann was thought to hide entrances to the fairy otherworld.

On May eve, the flowers of the gorse were scattered across doorways and entrances to keep out any unwelcome spirits or visitors, and walking a circuit around farm animals with a sprig of brining gorse was said to protect them from harm and witchcraft.

Young women who were to marry could cut a sprig and add it to their bridal bouquet to better their chances of bearing children, but it could not be received as a gift, for that was terrible luck.

A Kidlare man, Stephen Rynne, was perhaps the most passionate of all about Irish gorse, when he declared, “May I marry a girl of furze-coloured hair! Give me bouquets of it, sheaves and posies; stick it in wands for me; nail it to my mast; and hang it out of the windows should I come riding home in triumph.”

He lived near to the spot marked on the map below:

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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