Irish myths and legends – the hawthorn tree

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Can you believe it is the first of May already?  As I write this, I am looking outside my window at a beautiful hawthorn tree in full bloom and I am reminded me that this tree is also known as the May tree, after the month in which it blooms.

While its blossoms are used in May Day celebrations, it was considered unlucky to bring hawthorn into the house, because of the folklore that doing so would bring illness and death to that house. Much nicer then to reflect on its more positive symbolism, chiefly that of regarding the hawthorn as an emblem of hope. In fact its genus name Crataegus, comes from the Greek kratos, which means strength.   Its branches are said to have been carried by the ancient Greeks in wedding processions, and in Celtic lore, it was said the hawthorn can heal a broken heart.

hawthorn blossom

The hawthorn features widely throughout our own native Irish myth and legend, with many references to the tree (sceach gheal in Irish) and its connection to the little folk – the fairies. My grandfather, long dead now, was a great believer in the fairies and the old folklore. A Co Longford farmer, he would plough a wide circle around the lone hawthorn tree in his field, for fear of offending the fairies that supposedly inhabited the tree. It was widely held that disaster would befall those who dared to dig up a hawthorn tree.

The hawthorn is in flower from May to June and right now it is a joy to behold the hedgerows and fields  alive with great clusters of its beautiful 5-petalled white flowers. Come September the pollinated flowers become 1cm wide, deep red fruits known as haws and a once common expression in Ireland ‘When all fruit fails, welcome haws’ is something else my grandfather used to say to us when we were children.

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20 responses »

  1. It is such a beautiful time of year in Ireland. The trees are at their best at the moment and the weather has been so beautiful these past few weeks. Loved reading your post about the hawthorn. I had forgotten the mythology around this.Happy May Day – May the summer be long and continue to remind us that the best things in Ireland are still free.

  2. Hi Marie,

    I just happened on this post, from my Facebook account…I loved the mythology and connections to the past…Thanks so much for sharing, such a Spring-time post…Also, I think my Irish lineage was at work as a child…Each Spring, when the flowers on our trees and bushes bloomed in our backyard, I could entertain myself for hours, telling my mother that I was playing with the fairies, in the yellow buds…I still see those buds and tell the kids, those were my fairy trees…Happy May Day, Marie, on an equally beautiful Spring day, North of Boston, from a friend, with a light Spring heart…~Peg

  3. I can remember writing an essay many years ago on the common folklore that was believed in the mid 19th century along with the belief in magic/witches/fairies etc and found it fascinating. Lovely blog post :)

  4. Thank you so much for this wonderful post! I never knew the hawthorn had so much meaning in Ireland. Perhaps it does in Scotland as well, I must try to find out. A belated happy May Day to you! I hope your spring is full of happiness.

  5. Hi I Love the smell of the hawthorn flower it scent reminds me of my childhood days. I was wondering if I could bottle the smell and keep it with me all the time, but my husband said it was unlucky to bring it into the house. Hence I looked iit up and came accross your poem. I will just enjoy it as it is and keep your tale with me. Thank you. Rosie.

    • Hi Rosie, thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment. I am not particularly superstitious, but I think I will keep the hawthorn for outdoor enjoyment all the same :-)

  6. What a lovely blog, I love anything to do with Irish myths and legends, as a teacher I love to have new resources so will deffo be using this. I came across your blog from the Tipp Tattler twitter newspaper.

  7. Pingback: Peter Donegan, Landscaping Dublin » 10 Plants for an Irish Hedge

  8. Hi I am working on a design for a metal gate based on a hawthorn . What I thought of as just a little scruffy hedge has opened up into a world of fairies medicine and mythology, I don’t know if I will be able to turn it all into a few bars and hinges, but I’l try. Thanks for the inspiration.

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