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!
A poem by Murroch O'Connor in 1740, speaking of the blackthorn battles in Kerry.
Desmoneans would their cudgels yield,
With spailpins they would try the doubtful field;
No scimitar can pierce that hardend wood,
Which many a fight at fairs and patrons stood;
A broken skull ensues at every stroke,
They’ll bend with blows but never can be broke.
Oft I have seen two landlords at a fair,
Where tenants with their sheep and cows repair;
A quarrel first betwixt themselves create.
Then urge their clans to end the fierce debate;
Off go hats and coats, the fight begins.
Some strike the heads, while others strike the shins.
The winding cudgels round their foreheads play,
They need no leaders to begin the fray.
Where ere the brave O Donoghues engage,
Well known with cudgels, such brave fights to wage;
All must submit to their stiffening blows,
Unless the O Sullivans their sticks oppose;
Then victory on either side divides;
No emnity in either partys seen,
Till the next meeting on some neighbouring green.
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 that most know of, and its name meant “the keeper and increaser of dark secrets”, one of the eight chieftain trees. In more recent Irish it is known as draighean.
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.
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
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]
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]