Emerald Isle

The Sceach Geal

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

Tales of the fairy tree

The Sceach Geal is a tree that grows in Ireland and throughout the north of the world and its name means “bright thorn”. It was known in Brehon law as an Aithig fedo or a Commoner of the Wood, a quickthorn like its ferocious cousin the blackthorn, and it is also called hawthorn, the gentle bush, the lone thorn, the May tree, the hedgethorn, the Beltaine tree, the Gentry tree, the May blossom, the whitethorn and many other names.

In Ireland the whitethorn is best known as the fairy tree, and it would be a brave farmer who even thought of so much as trimming one back, to this very day! This is particularly true of lone trees standing in a field or other place having never been planted by human hands. Not that long ago at all, a motorway was being built from Limerick city to Galway and it had to be rerouted because a single fairy tree stood in its path, delaying the road for years. The white blood of the fairies would sometimes appear around the tree after their battles, or so the locals said.

When standing alone you see, the hawthorn was said to be the meeting place of fairies, and it marked one of the many entrances to their underground realms. Around the hawthorn they played enchanting music, ready to kidnap any beautiful human who took their fancy!

Even to speak of the fairy tree is to invite the attentions and possibly the ire of those who gather by moonlight beneath its branches. It's important not to get a fairy tree mixed up with a rag tree of the sort that people hang pieces of cloth from around blessed wells and sacred springs, as the fairies will take a dim view of anyone hanging rags from their branches!

However, once or twice a year you are allowed to gather leaves, flowers and fruit from the Sceach Geal. The flowers can be scattered around the outside of the home – never inside – in the month of May to banish evil spirits and bad luck, and the young leaves can make a tasty addition to a salad. Jelly or wine can be made from the haws or berries, and the seeds can be ground into flour to make a substitute for bread. The flowers used to also be steeped in sweetened brandy with sugar to make an extraordinary poteen.

When walking home from school the children of Ireland who might grow hungry would take a few of the new leaves appearing in spring, before the flowers appeared, calling them “bread and cheese”.

The scent of the woodland hawthorn's blooms may go some way to explaining the fear and respect with which people in Ireland hold it. Unlike the usual sweet and pleasant fragrance produced by normal flowers, many whitethorns smell of rot and the dead, an odour that would have been all too familiar to people in Ireland of old, since they held wakes before a funeral with a corpse on the table in the middle of the party!

This is a strategy which makes good sense to the hawthorn no doubt, since instead of relying on bees to carry its pollen they get flies, the eaters of decaying meat and carrion insects to travel from tree to tree instead! Perhaps it is for this reason that when Ogham trees were being assigned to the alphabet, the hawthorn was called hUath, which meant "fear".

There are more beliefs around the hawthorn than perhaps any other type of tree in Ireland. At Kilkeedy in County Limerick there stood a hawthorn which was said to have sprung from a thorn which Saint Ita had pulled from the hoof of a donkey, and as a result all of its thorns pointed towards the ground, so that nobody else might suffer the same fate. In some places hawthorns were planted where someone had suffered a serious accident.

Hanging the afterbirth of a calf from the branches of a hawthorn was said to speed the growth of the animal, and bathing in the first dew of May from the boughs and leaves of the hawthorn would make women more beautiful, and men more skilful.

Those who fall asleep beneath a hawthorn are said to have vivid, startling dreams, and wake up years later – if they wake up at all! If one of your neighbours used a whitethorn stick to herd cattle then he was up to no good.

White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland
by Eavan Boland

I drove West
in the season between seasons.
I left behind suburban gardens.
Lawnmowers. Small talk.

Under low skies, past splashes of coltsfoot,
I assumed
the hard shyness of Atlantic light
and the superstitious aura of hawthorn.

All I wanted then was to fill my arms with
sharp flowers,
to seem from a distance, to be part of
that ivory, downhill rush. But I knew,

I had always known,
the custom was
not to touch hawthorn.
Not to bring it indoors for the sake of

the luck
such constraint would forfeit–
a child might die, perhaps, or an unexplained
fever speckle heifers. So I left it

stirring on those hills
with a fluency
only water has. And, like water, able
to redefine land. And free to seem to be–

for anglers,
and for travellers astray in
the unmarked lights of a May dusk–
the only language spoken in those parts.

Kilkeedy can be found on the map below.


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Irish fairy tales, Irish folklore