Emerald Isle

The Holly in Irish Myth

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

The champion of the dark side of the year

Of all the many plants trees, shrubs and green growing things in Ireland, there are few as closely woven into Irish mythology as the holly, or Cuileann. It was seen by the old people as one of the noble trees, and it was never cut down completely, although sprigs were often taken for the decoration and protection of homes. Some would ask permission first, and leave a piece of silver at the roots of the tree in thanks.

Legends tell that King Oak held sway over the country for the light half of the year, the spring and summer months, but he would lose his crown in a battle at the summer solstice to King holly, who ruled the darker half of the year!

The close-grained white wood of the holly tree was used by Cú Chulainn to make spear shafts and the axles of chariots, and in later times it was favoured for making chess pieces, wooden inlays and tool handles. It was also widely used for making whips for coachmen and ploughmen, since it was believed the holly had mastery over horses.

When the cold winter months draw in, the bright red berries of the holly are a wonderful source of nutrition for little birds – although they are poisonous for humans – and the leaves, when ground, make a great feed for livestock too.

The evergreen nature of the holly tree was a source of wonder for the ancient Gaels, so they associated it with eternity and endurance against adversity in the Ogham letter T, which was called Tinne, meaning fire or iron bar.

It was often hung or grown outside homes in the belief that it would protect from evil spirits, who would get caught on its sharp spikes, and witchcraft, and its spiky leaves were said to protect against lightning, which turned out to be true!

The scent of holly was said to get rid of jealousy and open the heart, while some would put leaves from a female holly tree under their pillows in the hopes that they might see the future in their dreams

Often Gaelic chieftains were crowned with holly, and newborn babes were bathed in water made by soaking and boiling holly leaves. The leaves of the holly tree were used to treat fevers and illnesses which the cold winter months brought.

When Christianity came to Ireland it adopted the holly tree as well, with stories telling how it formed part of Jesus' crown of thorns, and that His blood stained the berries red. The old stories tell how an angel stands on each spike of the holly leaf, and that no prayer said before a holly sprig on Christmas eve would go unanswered.

Once a holly sprig was brought inside, it was never to be taken out again until after the Women's Little Christmas on the 6th of January.

Wild holly trees can still be found growing on the Burren, found on the map below!

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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