Quest for the Lone Whitethorn

The crowning glory of our West Cork hedgerows, highways and boreens at this time of the year is the May bush – Sceach Gheal – Hawthorn or Whitethorn. The example above is on the way down to Ballydehob, just a few minutes’ walk from Nead an Iolair: we can’t resist stopping every time we pass to admire its brilliance – a shining presence among the abundant greenery of the early summer that’s all around us in these quiet days.

You have to get up close to fully appreciate the wonder of the tiny individual blooms that contribute to the billowing white cloud effects we see wherever there is a May bush in the hedges. We have one right outside of our bedroom window (see Rossbrin Castle in the distant view):

Such a visually striking tree has attracted many traditions and superstitions over the generations – and pisogues like these never really go away. A good account of many surviving beliefs in the British Isles is given in The Hazel Tree Blog.

Of course, the May Bush is a thorn – a spiky tree, seen here before the blossoms come out. Even if those pisogues about it being unlucky to bring it into the house didn’t protect it from being cut, then those thorns would certainly be a goodly deterrent. This great picture, with chaffinch, was taken by Finola, who also provided many of the other photos here. Thank you, Finola! We admire the work of Michael Fortune, who lives in Wexford where, with Aileen Lambert, they have succeeded in re-establishing a May Bush tradition.

It’s been a quest of ours, when on our ‘lockdown’ walks – limited to 5km – to find the iconic ‘lone thorn tree’, out in a field, moor or open country, as this is the one imbued with the legends. So far we have been unsuccessful – the whitethorns around us all seem to be part of a hedgerow. In my English west country days – when I lived in the Celtic regions of Cornwall and Devon – I was aware of many solitary thorn trees, particularly out on the moors. Being in exposed locations they were usually distinctively shaped, bending away from the prevailing winds.

I had to search my archives for this photo of a lone thorn tree ‘bent’ by the wind: it was taken on the Sheep’s Head in June 2015 – after the blooms have faded. Always be careful of the solitary thorn for it guards the entrance to the realm of the Other Crowd. If you fall asleep under that thorn tree you will find yourselves transported into the kingdom of the old ones. It will not be an unpleasant experience – they will offer to satisfy all your thirst and hunger… But, if you accept, you will remain in that kingdom and grow old. One day they will release you, and it will seem as if just a few moments had passed since you left, but your aged body will very soon crumble to dust. This belief was as prevalent in Devon and Cornwall as it still is today in Ireland. Beware!

Close to home again – whitethorns in Ballydehob Bay. Once the blooms have gone, of course, we look forward to the haws, which are said to be edible but bland. They are traditionally used to make jelly and wine.

We could not be without the hawthorn trees which are all around us: they are lighting up our days in these times of anxiety and restriction – and they are reminding us of the continuity of nature and the constant cycle of the seasons. Life will prevail.

Our own May Bush a few years ago – blackthorn and gorse. We keep up the ancient traditions out of respect for the lore of our ancestors. If we don’t, the sun may never rise again!

17 thoughts

  1. One of the first folklore narratives I heard in Co. Cavan was that of the Lone Bush. The man took me across the field to see it and explained they used to carry coffins across the countryside to the cemetery and pause at the Lone Bush.

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  2. I like the idea of the decorated May Bush. Thanks for the reminder of the Irish countryside that seems so far away from us at the moment!

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  3. So enjoyed this post! I remember when growing up in Kent this time of year and the abundance of Hawthorn. Rereading White Goats and Black Bees just now. Its grand getting lost in the pages! So missed Fiddle Faire, Declan, and Baltimore this year……I always look forward to the words and super photos you both share. Cheers, Shelley

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  4. We have a self-sown ( she wanted to grow here ) tree in the garden, which I saved from an over-zealous garden fence erector who was going to cut her down – a Fairy tree! Imagine! And she gives welcome shade over a bench in the summer here in Dorset, only our birds ignore the haws – perhaps they are too fastidious, growing used to being fed sunflower seeds etc. If I need to trim her I have to ask permission or face severe repercussions . . . . . .

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    • Jeff, Skeaghanore means ‘thorn tree of the gold’. One explanation is that a thorn tree here marked the place where gold was hidden. That’s all I know!

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  5. Wonderful reminder of my Irish childhood & the legend of the White Thornbush!
    Bringing even a smidge of her blossoms (faerie dust) into our house was considered risky, at best, given the potential for the Queen Faerie’s revenge! I hope these legends remain for without them we are cut- off from the fantasy world of imagination!

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