Ann Fitzgerald: 'There's a lot more to the yellow peril of ragwort than meets the eye'

Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Pulling ragwort as a means of control is a time-honoured, universally-despised, yet curiously satisfying, activity at this time of year.

But given its prevalence and persistence, there has to be more to our relationship, right?

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Its Latin name is Senecio Jacobea, but it has numerous other - often phonetically similar - regional variants, many of which are recorded in the School's Collection (1937-39) on

They include buachallán buidhe, buacalán, boltarán buithe, bohaclar, busealan, bohalawn, bó-ill-eáns, ba-a long, ragweed, beenweed, yellow boy, fairies horse, staggerwort, cankerwort, stinking nanny and even mare's fart (the last pair due to its unpleasant smell).

While a small number of records in the Collection refer to it as a weed of poor soils, the majority associate it with good land, as exemplified in the following story from 75-year-old Mr J Lomasney from Kilworth, Co Cork.

Once upon a time, there was a blind man who was trying to make a match for his daughter with a farmer's son.

One day he said to his servant "tackle" the donkey. When they reached the house of a certain farmer, the blind man ordered his servant to tie the donkey to a buachallán, but the servant answered, "there are no buachalláns in this field". Then the blind man said, "tie him to a thistle". The servant answered, "there are no thistles here either".

The blind man then said, "it is bad land," and decided that his daughter should not marry that farmer's son.

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While one record says ragwort, "is of no use whatsoever," it is elsewhere given as a cure for everything from yellow jaundice, eczema, sore lips, warts and gouty pains, while soap, sugar and mashed "buachallán" was used to treat stone bruises.

Such is the persistence of the plant that the compiler of the record in Edengorra, Co Meath, notes that a field in John Connor's land in Kingscourt was named "Buachallán", as "the Ragwort weed grows profusely in it".

Another record from Meath reveals the saying, "The year of the bohalaun is a year of blood", suggesting that a year in which the bohalaun is plentiful (like this year!) is a sign of war and bloodshed.

There are also strong associations between buachalláns and magic.

One moralistic story concerns the Little Red Man.

It tells how a man caught a leprechaun, who would only be freed if he revealed where his gold was hidden.

The leprechaun took the man into a field which was covered with buachalláns and tied a thread to one of them. Then he told him that the gold was under that one. But when the man looked again, each buachallán had a thread attached.

Many legends from across the country tell how fairies travel in an instant from their own realm to the physical world aboard a ragwort.

Hence the following verse:

Don't call me a weed,

Though a weed I may be,

I'm the horse of the fairies,

The Buachallán Bui.

Tales also abound of night-time abduction, waylaid travellers forced to ride through the night with a fairy horde, to awake in the morning exhausted and clutching a buachallán.

One other thing I discovered is that the outcome for humans picking ragwort is supposedly very different than for fairies.

Maybe I'll use that excuse the next time I'm sent to tackle a patch of the yellow peril.

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