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 LeannĂ¡n 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.


  1. I love your posts, Jane. I learn so much about Irish mythology and legend from them. This is wonderful. I knew the Blackthorn had special magical powers, but not to what extent!

  2. Thank you Val - glad you enjoyed it! Heading over to you to have a catch up! xx

  3. delight with this.. my mum went to school in Shillelagh.and I never knew about the blackthorn sticks coming from there. but also this is very relevant to my work on Ogham and my own work with trees. thank you

  4. So glad you found this interesting Elaine - thank you for your comment!

  5. I don't believe I've seen Blackthorn here in California, but for many years I lived in a house with a Whitethorn in the yard at the edge of the street. I was told many years ago that the Whitethorn should ONLY be cut on Bealtainne, which in the USA is usually celebrated on May 1. Accordingly, I resisted the haranguing by the city trying to get me to prune the tree, and I insisted that the tree was sacred and that I would prune it ONLY on May 1. City officials grumbled but did not try to force me, nor send a crew to do the job themselves. When on May 1 I pruned the tree, I spoke to the tree and explained the situation. I apologized for what I had to do, and promised that the prunings would all be used for making charms and wands (a Whitethorn wand being especially prized here, provided it has been respectfully made). I gave two bowls of milk: one for the Good Folk and one for the tree itself. This was my habit for all the years I lived there. I never suffered any ill for it--indeed, the Good Folk did me some favors, probably saving my life on one occasion. So I believe they accepted my apologies and my offerings.

    1. Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) was jncluded in domestic horticultural plantings in Reno, Nevada during the early part of the 20th century, as was English hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata). In Reno, English hawthorns 100+ years in age have deeply fluted trunks and include a cultivar with shocking pink blossoms. I believe the blackthorn is now considered to be an invasive, and is banned from plantings in many states. It is likely that P. spinosa is present in many backyards of older houses in California, throughout the zone that will support it.

    2. Thanks for the information Popeye Kahn.

  6. Hello Valerie & thank you for your lovely comment. I don't think the blackthorn is in your part of the world but great to hear you have a whitethorn! Congratulations on keeping the officials at bay & your offerings to the Good People are perfect. Over here the time we do not cut the whitethorn is at Bealtaine - when the energy of the tree is rising to blossom & if it is known as a fairy bush then it is left at that time too. The best time to prune I think is after the leaves have fallen when the sap is low & the tree is 'resting'.
    I hope to post a blog soon about the May bush - which may be of interest to you.

  7. And the blackthorn seems especially exuberant this year. I love the photo of Paddy the Sticks.

    1. So it does Freespiral - isn't Paddy the Sticks great?

  8. Love all these stories its so good to keep them alive for the young people


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