A wealth of folklore surrounds this tree which, in ancient times, was considered sacred and closely associated with the fairies. Even in modern times, roads have been rerouted around it because of superstition and fears of incurring the wrath of those in an unseen world.
Throughout the country, you’ll find lone ‘fairy trees’ in the middle of fields from which ditches have been removed, due to time-honoured, local beliefs similar to those concerning forts. ‘Don’t interfere’ is the message.
Solitary whitethorn bushes are said to mark the assembly places of otherworld communities, says Christine Zucchelli, who writes on the folklore of trees and stones.
“The fact that these thorns, from the time that they began to sprout from seed, have survived the grazing of livestock, periods of drought and flood, and the work of plough and spade, is seen as evidence as some kind of protective magic,’’ she writes in her book, Trees of Inspiration. “Local traditions recall occasions when people have noticed enchanted music and light around particular fairy trees at night-time,’’ she writes.
In the late 1990s, Clare folklorist Eddie Lenihan succeeded in getting Clare County Council and the National Roads Authority to change the route of the Ennis bypass to save a whitethorn bush at which the fairies of Munster were reputed to gather prior to their battles with the Connacht fairies.
There are a host of stories of bad luck befalling people and even major industries which interfere with, or cut down, fairy trees. When such trees are removed to make way for roads, the belief is such roads become particularly dangerous. So, as happened in Clare, people tend not to touch them.
The whitethorn is one of our most common small trees. With so many prickly and spreading branches it provides a virtual stock-proof hedge. Foresters say the tree can live to more than 400 years. Its red berries, or haws, which appear from September onwards, also offer feeding for birds during winter. As well as that, over 150 species of insect live in the tree.
Some people in rural areas base amateur weather forecasts on the early, or late, flowering of the whitethorn, but such forecasts are given little meteorological credence. In reality, flowering is seen as a sign of changing seasons, from spring to summer, and not an indicator of future weather.
May is when it normally begins to flower but, due to climate change, it has been seen to flower as early as March and April. It is, however, closely linked to the pagan feast of Bealtaine, is known in places as the May tree and its blossoms used for May Day decorations.