Monday 16 September 2019

Country Matters: Fierce females among the thorns

Blackthorn
Blackthorn

Joe Kennedy

As November ends and December asserts its grip on the countryside, it is time to source a stout blackthorn ("to banish ghosts and goblins") as a seasonal aide for oldies and others - and which could spark a revival as a fashion statement!

It is not wise to cut one early in the year. May, when blossom falls to buds, is considered unlucky. And certainly not November when fierce beings called "luantishees", who protect the tree, can disrupt life, according to the 'fairy faith' in folkloric tomes.

The "lunan" is the 'leannan sidhe' or fairy lover, a young woman who roams the countryside seeking men to seduce! If one falls for her charms he is doomed and "wastes away with love", according to author Niall Mac Coitir. There is some upside, however, in that the male may get some poetic inspiration as a result.

I have wondered did the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg have any knowledge of this, when, according to poet Eamon Carr, in accepting an invitation to read to a Trinity students' group he declined a fee and asked for a suit of thornproof tweed instead. This was duly run-up by Trinity's famous neighbours in Dawson St, outfitters Kevin and Howlin, where, in times past, I had found a sturdy three-piece weave. Eamon Carr said he believed Ginsberg went to his grave, or cremation, in said thornproof.

Years back, Mr Carr, my old colleague Willie Kealy and the now well-known publisher Peter Fallon were of a writers' collective called the Meath Poetry Group. One lives in a townland called Rathdrinagh, which may be translated as a place of thorns. The English historical-political writer William Cobbett called the tree "a thorn of the plum kind" (Prunus spinosa) which displays, from August to October, firm, round blue-black plums called sloes, of purple bloom and bitter flesh, valued as an essential ingredient in a liquor called sloe gin.

Many years ago I also lived in a Rathdrinagh (there are several, sometimes shortened to Drinagh). This is an ancient name bespeaking of darkness and fierceness, but also of the strength and power of women.

I did not have much fortune there but though I never cut a thorn in May I may have, unwittingly, done so in November. I recall blackthorns in household hall-stands long ago, the sharp thorns blunted and the canes cut for a firm, knob palm-grip.

There is a tradition also of the thorn being a poetic symbol of beauty. "Ta mo gradh-sa mar bhlath na n-airne ar an draighnean donn" ("My love is like the flower in the dark blackthorn"). I first heard those haunting words more than 50 years ago when Liam Clancy and Joe Heaney were on stage with the Connemara singer Dolly MacMahon at the old Grafton Cinema in Dublin promoted by the legendary Peggy Jordan, stalwart of the United Arts Club.

But not all about the thorn is so rosily romantic. "Draighnean" may also be translated as "wretched one", the outlaw of the woods that tormented Mad Sweeney, Suibhne Mac Colmain, king of the Dal nAraide, who was driven insane by a curse. The malevolence is linked to fierce female spirits. It is not a surprise to discover that the Ogham consonant link to the blackthorn means sulphur!

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