Saturday 29 April 2017

Fire, blood and a pot of gold

THE lone hawthorn (crataegus monogyra), the bush of magical powers, sits on its own, undisturbed for reasons of folklore and superstition, in the small field and all dressed up for the coming summer celebration. There have been days when it seems summer has arrived already. Swallows and martins criss-cross the evening sky, anglers get ready to travel west for some Mayfly spo

COUNTRY MATTERS

JOE KENNEDY

THE lone hawthorn (crataegus monogyra), the bush of magical powers, sits on its own, undisturbed for reasons of folklore and superstition, in the small field and all dressed up for the coming summer celebration. There have been days when it seems summer has arrived already. Swallows and martins criss-cross the evening sky, anglers get ready to travel west for some Mayfly sport while the 'sweets of May' have been patterning the hedgerows for weeks past. In some places, mostly in the north, a pink glow will infuse the white flowers, assembled like maidens in bright dresses waiting for suitors at a crossroads.

These 'bread-and-cheese' symbols of summer will be before our eyes for weeks, roadside bouquets among the undergrowth of Queen Anne's lace, burnet saxifrage, wild carrot and profuse Alexanders. Almost all have blossoms of pure white, H E Bates' "risen cream of all the milkiness of May-time", and carry a powerful folklore of pagan and Christian significance of the sceach gheal or draighnean. Some of this is quite contradictory. For instance, it is considered unwise to bring blooming sprigs into the house yet I remember a custom of young girls making devotional 'May altars' on inside window ledges or chests of drawers with a statue or icon of the Blessed Virgin decorated with hawthorn blossom and other early summer flowers. In penal times a sprig of blooms in a window meant a priest would be calling to say Mass. Blossom was often placed on the mantelpiece to ward off evil. There was also a custom of cutting a thorn bush to bring home to be decorated with coloured rags, ribbons, flowers, and even eggshells, and candle stubs which were lit at dusk. All this was outside the house and eventually the thorn would be thrown on a dying bonfire.

On a roadside near Kilkenny there are coloured scraps of cloth tied to an ancient thorn that signifies that here was - and still is - a place of devotion, a holy well, and the cloth symbols are small fluttering tokens of prayerful requests. Sometimes written petitions are left. At St Kieran's well at Clonmacnoise on the saint's feast day pilgrims used hang rags on the thorn beside the well while they circled it and prayed. You will also hear of sprigs of thorn being sprinkled with holy water and stuck in the ground to protect cattle and crops from the fairies!

The bush is coming into blossom earlier than ever though its regular appearance used be slower with no profusion of flowers until the month was well established. This had to do with the revision of the calendar in 1752 when 11 days were 'lost'. But the bush is notoriously erratic in its flowering and greatly influenced by late winter and spring temperatures. In the North, there are families of the 17th century plantation who brought with them from Scotland the symbol of the red hawthorn literally in their family tree, a link with the wild countryside of Annandale, Dumfries and the borders.

The red of blossom, fire, summer light and sun is linked to the Celtic god Belinus, a solar power of healing, hence Bealtaine, the old Irish season, the fire of Bel, a time of brilliance and brightness. In ancient Ireland the druids used drive cattle between two fires at this time to protect them against disease, while recorded in Old Irish law texts is the instruction: Ni teind fearbolc bil beltaine (the edge of May does not cut its scrotum). In other words, calves are not to be castrated before May Day.

But enough of fire and blood. I rather fancy the story of the generosity of the Little People to the farmer who decided not to disturb a fairy rath with his building plans. The sidhe indicated a better site would be between two nearby hawthorn bushes. Yes, he found a pot of gold!

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