The Blackthorn Tree
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. This was because the tips of the thorns would break off in wounds and dig deeper, where the blackthorn's poisons would wreak havoc, getting into the blood and spreading throughout the body.
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.
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