Sunday, 17 April 2016

Blackthorn, dark sister of the May.

Blackthorn, Draighean, a prelude to the May, 
has recently started to blaze a trail, like pale spirits across the land.

Unlike the whitethorn, blackthorn blossom appears before the leaves unfurl, giving a contrast of white flowers against dark, thorny branches and although both trees in folklore are associated with fairy belief, tales told of the blackthorn are darker.

White blossoms are appearing to signal the ebbing of the winter weather.

Blackthorn is understood to be protected by the Good People and only the fool hardy would consider cutting or burning these thorns. 

In other places, whether a lone bush or a stand of trees, the thorn should not be cut on May 11th, 
the old date for Bealtaine, or on November 11th, the original Samhain. 
Those who ignore this advice do so at their peril as it is known They have their own ways of exacting the price to be paid.

Lone blackthorn.

Where blackthorn grows near whitethorn, the site is considered especially magical. 
This is Dempsey’s Ring. Co. Offaly, photo taken in summer 
showing some remaining whitethorn blossom.
Here both blackthorn & whitethorn trees protect the remains of a fairy fort.

Just as the devil is said to spit on blackberries at the start of winter, so the Good People blight the sloes of the blackthorn at Samhain.
In Galway it was customary to drink sloe wine on Hallow’een, whilst in Co. Roscommon the last sloe was baked into the Barn brac, the Hallow’een cake, and whoever received the fruit in their slice was the person who would live the longest.

Sloes, the fruit of the blackthorn, are still used to make sloe gin.

The tree itself is said to be protected by the ferocious Lunantishee, beings believed to live within 
the bush itself.
Some associate the blackthorn with the Leannán Sidhe, the Fairy Lover, who seeks the love of a mortal but whose love is both beautiful and terrible. 
Once captivated the human is blessed with poetic inspiration but will finally waste away of longing for her.

‘The Spirit of Blackthorn’ painted after many visits to a wild place where
 thorn trees grew unmolested.

The fierce nature of the thorn is also reflected in Irish mythology when it was used by warriors who fought with clubs of spiked blackthorn ringed with iron. 
The shillelagh or Irish fighting stick was also made from blackthorn because of its’ hardness and the wood was cured to further strengthen it by burying it in a dung heap or smearing it with butter then placing it up the chimney.

Antique shillelagh.
It is said that the first blackthorn fighting stick was made in the village of Shillelagh, Co. Wicklow and they were developed by the Siol Ealaigh people of the area over 1,200 years ago.

In many areas a thorn walking stick was understood to be a charm against danger and evil spirits 
and when carried at night, it protected against ill-wishers and the attentions of the Good People.

Image from
'Paddy the sticks', who made and sold blackthorn walking sticks 
was once a well known figure in Killarney.
The abiding belief in the Good People here has meant that in many places fear of retribution has guarded the blackthorn and hidden many sacred sites from destruction.

In untamed places, where the blossom grows thickest, 
beware the paths which wind through her spiny tunnels, for eventually
they will lead you to the waiting Lunantishee and on into the Otherworld.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

LOUGH GUR - “a personality loved, but also feared.”

The land surrounding Loch Goir, Lough Gur in Co. Limerick 
has been inhabited continually for 6,000 years.  

Early Bronze Age wedge tomb on the shore of the Lough.

Pics: &

The bronze Lough Gur Shield, known as the ‘Sun Shield’, dates to 700 BCE 
and appears on the beautifully designed information boards adjoining the lake.

Stone circles, standing stones, tombs, barrows and hill forts dot the landscape 
and there is a wealth of folklore. 

However, the heart of this sacred landscape is the Lough. 

Although it was a spring day when I visited, the water was still and silent, holding mysteries 
dimly remembered in folk tales. 

“ Lough Gur dominates the scene. It was to us a personality loved, but also feared.
Every seven years, so it is said, Gur demands the heart of a human being.”

It is believed that Lough Gur was originally a circular lake belonging to Fer Fi
leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann and brother of the Goddess Áine, who has her palace beneath 
the waters.
As Bean Fhionn, the White Lady, it is Áine who summons a victim to the lake every seven years and takes them to her realm below. 

“Called the Enchanted Lake; some say that in ancient days there was a city where the lake is now.”

Áine is described in folklore as a fairy Bean-tige, housekeeper to Gearóid Iarla, the enchanted son of one of the Earls of Desmond.
Gearóid, banished to the lake, is doomed to return every seven years and gallop over its’ surface seated on a milk white horse shod with silver shoes.

Knockadoon ©

The hill of Knockadoon, once an island, has on its’ shore a rock formation 
known as the Suideachan Bean-tige, the Housekeeper’s Chair, 
which is the seat of the goddess Áine. 

Pic © Derek Ryan Bawn - more information The Tipperary Antiquarian

Also known as Áine’s birthing chair and the Old Hag’s Chair, 
no mortal may sit on this stone without losing their wits.

© 2015 National Folklore Collection, UCD. 

Across the Lough from Knockadooon stands Knockfennel, named for Áine’s sister. 
It is understood that this hill too is hollow and within resides Fer Fi, the king of the fairies. 


His realm is entered through a cave which has a small opening at the back.
“It was said anyone who had the courage to squeeze through the hole would find himself in the hollow heart of the hill.”

Entrance to the Otherworld courtesy of The Standing Stone.
More photos of the cave can be found on The Standing  

In the distant past on Samhain night, when the bonfire was lit on Knockfennell and on the sixth night of every moon, the sick were brought out into the moonlight to be healed. 
This night was known as ‘All-Heal’.

If the patient did not recover by the eighth or ninth night of the moon they would hear the ceolsidhe, the fairy music which Áine brings to comfort the dying. 
The music itself, the Suantraighe, is sleep music played by Fer Fi on his harp .

“They say the Suantraighe is the sweetest tune of all, 
and that anyone who hears it falls into a trance with its beauty. 
But ‘tis a sleep from which no mortal man or woman will ever awake.”

Words of the late Tom McNamara, local seanchaí, storyteller. 

Lough Gur Heritage Centre -
The design of the centre is based upon the ancient lake-dwellings.

Today Lough Gur is a wildlife sanctuary, popular with local people and tourists yet there is a feeling of stepping into a landscape still alive with the old stories. 

And once the visitors have departed and the Lough settles into night

Moonlight over Lough Gur © Michael de Barra.

The Shining Ones race in their boats across the water whilst Áine’s enchantment remains irresistible 
to those who hear her call. 

‘The Enchanted Lake’ Video - Nicky Fennell, produced by Mike McNamara.

To hear more stories about the Lough from the late Tom McNamara 
please visit Voices From The Dawn.