The Hawthorn and Its Significance in Celtic and Local Folklore
Nicholas Maher (2019)
Many of you will be aware of the Raggedy Bush a few miles out the Kells Road. The bush in question is a Hawthorn which prompted me to research a little more about this tree of ancient roots and its place in both a historical and folklore context.
Studies reveal the Hawthorn to be a tree of various degrees of spiritual, nutritional and medicinal properties and the tree most representative of the struggles the Christian Church had in suppressing the Pagan beliefs and celebrations that it encountered. The Hawthorn is generally seen as a tree which brings good luck to the owner and prosperity to the land where it stands. It was also customary to plant a Hawthorn in a place where someone had suffered an accident. One also encounters a tradition of never cutting down this tree, even diverting roads so as not to interfere with what many believe to be “a meeting place of fairies”.
Getting back to the Raggedy Bush on the Kells Road, I note that it’s also known as St Patricks Raggedy Bush, a humble bush claimed to be a relic of Celtic Mysticism. There is a practice here of hanging rags on the tree which would seem to represent a visible manifestation of a prayer. The age of the Bush and this practice is unknown though there is evidence of it marked as such on a map dating 1903. The historical legend goes back to the time of St. Patrick who is reputed to have rested on this spot after a day’s preaching. As he was resting the Gaelic warrior Finn McCool came on the scene. Again it is reputed that Finn was unimpressed with St Patricks attempts to convert Ireland to Christianity, and in the process, threatening the old order with this new doctrine. And so, legend has it, that Finn took an enormous rock and flew it at St. Patrick, who, alerted by an Angel, ducked and avoided certain death. Patrick immediately knelt and gave thanks to God. Legend has it that his knees melted the ground beneath them and it was here that the famous Hawthorn grew.
In Kilkeady Co. Limerick, the Hawthorn tree is associated with St Ita. It is said that the Hawthorn tree that stands there sprung from a thorn which St Ita plucked from the hoof of a Donkey. As a result all of its thorns are pointed downwards.
The Glastonbury Thorn is a type of Hawthorn found in England and Palestine. The tree is said to have been brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea. Wherever Joseph travelled preaching the word of God, he carried a staff which he acquired in Palestine. Legend tells us that he visited the Isle of Avalon in Somerset which at one time was surrounded by water. Tired from travelling he sought rest and sat down upon “Weary – All Hill”, now called “Worrall Hill”. It is said that when Joseph stuck the staff into the ground it took root and a Hawthorn tree grew. The tree was seen as sacred and reputedly only blossomed on Christmas Day.
International studies also reveal that there was some belief in connecting the thorny Hawthorn with the Crown of Thorns used in Christ’s crucifixion. Consequently people were reluctant to bring any part of the tree into a house , especially the flower, for fear of someone in the house dying. The Hawthorn is often to be found guarding Wells and Springs , and its beautiful flowers are said to help prayers reach Heaven.
If any of you visit Freestone Hill a few miles out the Carlow Road, you will find a Hawthorn tree at its centre. Archaeologists have asserted that a possible cult type community lived here around the 4th or 5th Century AD. The Tree, like others, has a spirituality about it. Local legend has it that if a woman from Clara parish brings a young man up there for a walk, he will have no chance of escaping marriage from her. The land around Freestone Hill is quite rich and fruitful, bearing some evidence to the belief that farmers who plant, respect and protect the Hawthorn will be rewarded with rich soil.
The Hawthorn also contributes to our food chain. The leaves when very young, can be included in salads. They can also be mixed with a small herb – Speedwell – and used to make tea. Picked in their prime and steeped in brandy with sugar, the blossoms make an extraordinary liqueur. Jelly or wine can be made from the berries and the seeds can be grounded into flour to make a substitute for Bread. The flowers of the hawthorn were highly prized and at one time were exported around the world. People also look upon the hawthorn as a weather omen, noting that the flowering of the Hawthorn is often taken as a sign that Winter is over and Spring is underway.
The flowers, leaves and fruits of the Hawthorn are deemed by many to have properties that reduce blood pressure and stimulate the heart, as well as acting as a mild sedative. In Herbal Medicine they treat heart and circulatory disorders, migraine, menopausal conditions, angina and insomnia. The berries (also known as Pixie Pears) contain Vitamin B complex and Vitamin C. It is also said that the blooms of the Hawthorn have been used in spells for fertility and happiness with the blossoms deemed to be highly erotic to men. A word of caution at this point however – always consult with your healthcare professional when evaluating any of these medicinal remedies.
Believe in these magical properties or not, the Hawthorn is definitely a tree of ancient roots bearing both Pagan and Christian symbolism and revered in ancient Brehon Law as a sacred tree with any wanton destruction of same seen as a serious crime. Some people look on all of this with their deepest faith; others with disbelief. For me, I’m somewhere in between I guess. Would I unnecessarily interfere or remove an ancient Hawthorn tree or bush ?? ………… Never.