Derry resplendent with blooming mayflowers of the hawthorn, the revered and feared ‘fairy tree’ of lore

The hedgerows and fields are resplendent now with the white blossoms of the hawthorn.

It’s little wonder people believed – some do still – that ‘mayflowers’ are enchanted.

Sceach gheal (Irish) or crataegus monogyna, to give it its scientific name, has for millennia, along with the oak, the hazel, the ash and the yew, been loved and feared as a sacred tree in Ireland.

A member of the rose family it comes into its own twice a year.

In May its pink-white flowers are as sure a harbinger of summer as the cuckoo, swift or swallow.

There is a second coming in the autumn when it colours the hedgerows red with its fruit, known as haws.

Its leaves, flowers and fruit can all be eaten and are reputedly good for the heart. The haws are bittersweet and can be used to make sauces and condiments but be mindful of the small stones underneath the flesh if you happen to go foraging later in the year.

Hawthorns have long been believed to be the haunt of fairies in Ireland.

The ‘wee’ or ‘gentle folk’ very much existed in the Irish psyche and imagination until very recently. And who would cut down a hawthorn today? Indeed the countryside is dotted with countless specimens proud and untouched in fields and wildernesses across rural Derry, Donegal and Tyrone.

In the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (RSAI) in its 1849-51 number ‘Folk-lore no. II', the antiquarian Daniel Byrne writes: “With regard to the hawthorn being held sacred by the Pagan Irish, I am supported by the traditions and opinions of the Irish peasantry in general.

"All ráth [ancient ringforts] in Ireland are venerated as places sacred to invisible and sometimes visible beings, denominated the 'good-people' or fairies; so that any person destroys a ráth, or cuts a hawthorn on a ráth, is accounted to have incurred their enmity.”

In 1893 in a paper titled the ‘The Druids of Ireland’ for the Royal Historical Society, the German historian Julius von Pfluck-Harttung, confirms that ‘the fairies' favourite resting-place was beneath a hawthorn-tree’.

There are countless examples of these piseoga or superstitions pertaining in the North West up until not so very long ago.

In the 1930s Charles McLaughlin, a 78-year-old man from Shandrum between Buncrana and Drumfries had a large tree in the middle of his farm.

"Manus, his son, thought it was in their way, when they were tilling the land. So he decided to cut it down, but his father [Charles] wouldn't allow it. He thought there were fairies in it.

"Manus said he would cut it down the following day if it were in the way. On going out the following day he found the branches had been all cut off.

"He didn't cut it down, and it remains there yet. It is thought that the fairies came and cut the branches in order to save it from being cut. From that day to the present day it is called ‘fairy tree’,” the yarn went.

This story was collected by Liam Kelly, who was a pupil of Drumfries National School, as part of the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection project that involved the collation of thousands of traditions and stories from schoolchildren at national schools across the 26 counties. Perhaps Charles’ tree is there yet.

Sisters A. Nic Fhionnlaoich and M. Beinín, two nuns at Clochar na Trócaire in Carndonagh, received similarly uncanny reports from their pupils about an incident in the early 1920s.

"There was an old man living in Moneydaragh [between Gleneely and Redcastle] about fourteen years ago and he cut a stick from a hawthorn tree, supposed to be gentle [belonging to the fairies] which was growing outside of his house and when he peeled it he threw the peelings into the fire but they were immediately thrown out again by an invisible hand and were left beside the hawthorn tree.”

Pádraig Mac Fhinn, was a teacher at the nearby Gleneely National School. He told of a common dilemma for local work teams of the day.

"When a gang of workmen were engaged in constructing a new road in the town land of Mounthall, they encountered a hawthorn bush directly in their path.

"The foreman in charge gave orders to some of the men to have it removed. Several of them declined to perform this task declaring that the bush was a fairy tree and they would be inviting disaster if they interfered in any way with it,” the story went.

One of the workmen scoffed and declared that their ‘fears were only rubbish and that he would prove it by removing the tree himself’.

"He first began to remove the small boulders around the foot of the tree and was rather startled but not discouraged when several white mice emerged.

“He next proceeded to extract the bush roots and all. When he succeeded in uprooting it, a large bird of weird shape and without any feathers flew out in his face and disappeared. Then the fears of men were realized.”

Master Mac Fhinn was told by his pupils that the cows of the man who had attempted to remove the tree suddenly refused to give milk.

Terrified the man ‘planted the tree again near where he uprooted it’ and ‘he was very relieved the next morning to find that his cows were overflowing with milk’.

Edward Breslin was a 50-year-old man from Drumfries. He provided details of a supernatural event that had occurred in a field at Meenamallagh called the ‘Black Park’ which lay west on the way to Carndonagh.

The incident, he informed the collection in the late 1930s, had occurred ‘long, long years ago’ and involved a small boy who had been playing in the field.

The boy told his parents he had come upon ‘a rock with a tree growing out of it and that he wanted a hook to cut of one of its branches’.

"They, foolish enough, handed him the hook, and he ran off as fast as his legs could carry him, until he reached the spot. He reached the spot and cut off one of it branches, which he wanted to do, turned into a beautiful stick.

"When he reached his home with the stick he got terribly ill. They, not knowing what was wrong with him, put him to bed. Day by day he grew worse, and at long last some one insisted that it was the stick.

"They made him go back and put it in the spot he got it in. He did so and came back cured. The people of the neighbourhood said afterward that it [was] the magic stick that done the harm. This tree from that day to this is ever afterwards known as the ‘fairy tree’.”

Kathleen Doherty, a pupil at Drumfries National School, got the following from an Ethel Fullerton, who was aged 87:

"Long, long years ago a little bush grew in Glassmullin. Glassmullin lies west of the main road, on the way to Carndonagh.

"Once upon a time a boy was passing this bush. Unfortunately two black women came out from behind the bush, and left him at his own door.

"The boy was very much frightened and never went out afterwards.

"A man named ‘Mickie Bars’ cut this bush, and it remains so to the present day. But little small bushes are coming on it.”

Seán Mac Éibhir was a teacher at St. Oran's, Buncrana, and received the following intelligence from Margaret Mulholland, who was aged 40 and from Gortyarrigan near Stragill:

"There was a man who took a rod off a fairy tree. When he was going to bed he went down to the room and he saw a fairy going out of the window.

"He wondered what it would be in the room doing. He took off him and went to bed, and when he went into the bed the bed was full with thorns and he had to get out of bed and leave the rod where he took it from. When the man came back there were no thorns.”

May Crampsey, a 55-year-old woman from Culdaff, provided Master Doiminic Ó Duibhne of St. Boden’s National School, with a chilling story about one man’s encounter with the ‘wee folk’.

Apparently there was a tree in the parish which was ‘now dead and rotten’ but had been a ‘gentle tree and no one ever touched it’.

"One evening a certain man was taking home his cows, and when he was passing this tree he cut of a stick to drive home the cows. That night when the man went to milk the cow he noticed something wrong and when he went to catch the teats he saw that his fingers were stuck on the back of his hand.”

The reverence for the hawthorn dates back to the pre-Christian era where in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe it was considered a pagan symbol of fertility, of the spring and of the coming of summer.

Its brilliant display of pink-white flowers coincides each year with Bealtaine, the beginning of summer and one of the four major Irish Celtic annual festivals along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasa.

The magnificent plant, however, continued to hold power and sway long after the Christianisation of Ireland.

Celeste Ray, in a paper entitled ‘Paying the Rounds at Ireland's Holy Wells’ in the Anthropos Journal in 2015, notes: “The most common of well-side trees, whitethorn (hawthorn), ash and holly, are often called ‘rag trees’ as they receive rags and ribbons both as votives and as containers of the illnesses or anxiety that may bring one to the site.

“The tree has come to perform the sacrificial act of bearing the devotee's concerns and further enabling the well to offer grace (though both impose conditions)”.

It is believed that during the Penal Era and before the establishment of the Long Tower Chapel in the late 1700s, the Catholic faithful in Derry worshipped in the open air under a hawthorn.

Philip Donnelly, in an account of the life of Bishop Charles McHugh of Derry (1856-1926), in the ‘Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society’ writes that ‘it was said that Mass was often celebrated out of doors under a hawthorn bush. It is claimed it was built on the site of Colmcille's monastery’.

By happy accident St. Columba’s Day falls on June 9 not long after the glory of the hawthorn in May.

As mentioned above the leaves, flowers and berries (haws) are edible and may have provided sustenance in times of scarcity. This might help explain why the Irish have viewed it as magic for dozens of generations.

It is unsurprising then that the hawthorn has been immortalised in poetry.

Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, in ‘At Raven’s Rock’ from her 1999 collection ‘The Water Horse’ has this verse: “I shake a hawthorn and it teems, haws, a couple of which I eat in lieu, of the filbert [the nut of the hazel, another magic tree], eaten by the Salmon of Knowledge.”

And the last word to Seamus Heaney, who would have known well about the fairies’ love for the hawthorn from growing up in Mossbawn in the 1940s. ‘The Haw Lantern’ is the title poem from a 1987 collection:

“The wintry haw is burning out of season, crab of the thorn, a small light for small people, wanting no more from them but that they keepthe wick of self-respect from dying out, not having to blind them with illumination.

“But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost, it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes, with his lantern, seeking one just man; so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw, he holds up at eye-level on its twig, and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone, its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you, its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.”

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