The Sceach GealBecome a Patron!
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,
the hard shyness of Atlantic light
and the superstitious aura of hawthorn.
All I wanted then was to fill my arms with
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
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–
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.
We now have an amazing Patreon page as well, where you can listen to the many myths and legends on the Emerald Isle! Exclusive to our Patreon, you can now hear stories of ancient Ireland, folklore and fairy tales and more, all professionally narrated. It's at times like these that it's most important to support artists and creative people whose income might be reduced, so if you'd like to support the work that goes into Emerald Isle, the Patreon can be found here: https://www.patreon.com/emeraldisle
Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland
Not all that long ago there lived a decent family on the border of Tipperary, Michael Flannagan and Judy his wife were the two that were in it. Although they were not blessed with wealth, they were blessed with children, four sons to be exact. Three of these lads were as fine and stout a trio as you'd ever hope to see, and it was enough to m ... [more]
One of the many ancient Irish traditions whose origin has been lost to the ever-deepening mists of time is that of the wishing tree. They were also called rag trees, raggedy bushes, or clooty or cloughtie trees, and they can often be found growing next to or near holy wells and springs. When people gathered around the old turf fires in Ireland, ... [more]
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 hedgeth ... [more]
Throughout Ireland can be found many holy wells and blessed springs, most of which predate the arrival of Christianity on the island, but which were consecrated by the Church to the service of Christ. Within some of these wells and deepnesses, the old legends tell, swim sacred guardians and fish of strange repute! To this day the people of Irela ... [more]
Lough Gur is a place of great antiquity and the source of many strange rumours and legends, surrounded by misty forests and low rolling hills, not all of which are natural in origin! Once there was an island in the middle of the lake, but now it is a peninsula, and it is joined to the eastern shore by a causeway, not far from the village of Aney ... [more]
There was a farmer in County Kerry who had a nice little cottage for himself and his wife, but the thatched roof was in a terrible state of disrepair and unlikely to last another winter. Unlike the stone houses and cottages in the west, Kerry cottages were less sturdy, and so he knew he had to build himself another place to live. He searched thr ... [more]
Long ago in Ireland, at the dawn of the Christian age, Irish monasteries and schools were famed throughout Europe and the world for the depth of their knowledge and the quality of the education they gave to princes, lords and nobles who travelled from all parts to attend them. One of the most famous early Christian theologians who taught in thes ... [more]
The people of Ireland before the time of Saint Patrick had many strange customs, and some of these survive even to this very day, often mixed and combined with Christian rites and beliefs! One of those traditions was the sunwise walk. What this meant was, in order for good luck to attend an event, you had to walk around it sunwise or deiseal, pr ... [more]
We have a saying in Ireland, that it's the only place in the world where you can get all four seasons in the one day – well there's truth in that, but Irish weather can be even stranger than most people realise! So it is with the Gaoth Sidhe, which means “the fairy wind,” and is pronounced “gwee sheeha”. Oft ... [more]
One upon a time in Ireland, in the farthest west of County Clare, there lived a brave young chieftain whose name was O'Quinn. A kindly enough man was he, and fair to behold, of ruddy locks and clean limbs, and he made his Dún on a flat plain near to a clearwater spring, the purest in all of Ireland and perhaps all the world. He was co ... [more]
Cursing of various sorts has a history as long and rich as Ireland's own, stretching from the very earliest tales of the first settlers in Ireland all the way to the modern day. Whether a quick muttered malediction on someone who had crossed you or an elaborate, lengthy poem intended to satirise and ruin the legacy of a king, the mallacht, or c ... [more]
Much has been said but little written of the old Irish piseóg, the word of the curse. Now the same term is often used to refer to general traditions and superstitions in Ireland, things like if you're ever lost, turn your socks inside out to find your way home, or opening the back door if you hear a knock at the front door, to let the fa ... [more]
Dotted around Ireland in many places can be found bullán stones, meaning “bowls”, which are stones, large and small, with a depression or bowl in them, often filled with water. These are usually of great antiquity, stretching back before the time of St Patrick and before the time of Cú Chulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and ... [more]
There's a common misconception some might have about fairies, which is the idea that fairies are nice friendly little spirits, trailing pixie dust and turning pumpkins into luxury vehicles. As any of the old folk of Ireland could tell you, nothing could be further from the truth, for a fairy in wrath is more dangerous than a hive of wasps or a ... [more]
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]