For fear of little men...
Not a week passes in the rural UK without an article or feature about the folklore surrounding parts of our landscape. In an almost last ditch attempt to protect if from development we seem to be reaching back into the annals of history in hope that some good old fairy fueled fear will make us consider the consequences of our actions. As I've mentioned on previous blog posts, nobody admits they believe in fairies until you introduce the threat of bad luck or even death. Then and only then do you make their normally skeptical unpointed boring ears prick up and listen.
Thomas the Rhymer, the famous thirteenth century Scottish mystic and poet, once met the Faery Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Faery Underworld for a brief sojourn, but upon reemerging into the world of mortals he found he had been absent for seven years. Themes of people being waylaid by the faery folk to places where time passes differently are common in Celtic mythology, and the hawthorn was one of, if not the, most likely tree to be inhabited or protected by the Wee Folk. In Ireland most of the isolated trees, or so-called 'lone bushes', found in the landscape and said to be inhabited by faeries, were hawthorn trees. Such trees could not be cut down or damaged in any way without incurring the often fatal wrath of their supernatural guardians. The Faery Queen by her hawthorn can also be seen as a representation of an earlier pre-Christian archetype, reminding us of a Goddess-centred worship, practised by priestesses in sacred groves of hawthorn, planted in the round. The site of Westminster Abbey was once called Thorney Island after the sacred stand of thorn trees there.
But no one believes in fairies anymore, do they? Of course not. Ask most people and they will say that it's all old superstition that has no place in the modern world of the 21st century.
Yet when you delve deeply in to our inherited mindset, you find beliefs that defy logic yet are very much part of who we are. A great example of this occurred a few weeks back when I was standing in a field with Declan Little, our local fencing contractor, discussing the location of a new fence to protect yet another small wood I hope to plant shortly.
Standing alone and right on the path of the proposed fence line was an old thorn tree. It has been there as long as I can remember and while blown over by a past storm, it is still very much alive and growing strongly.
As we gazed at it we both knew that it was in the way but I also knew that nothing would induce me to remove it. Now Declan is a much younger man than I am so I asked him to please not laugh at me when I said I wanted the tree to remain as it was, untouched.
Not only did he not laugh but he added that he was hoping I wasn't going to ask him to cut it as he would have had to refuse.
Relieved that we were of one mind, we then recalled the famous incident in 1999 when construction on a national route from Limerick to Galway was delayed and eventually rerouted to protect a fairy thorn tree that stood in its path.
Stories abound of misfortunes visited on those who risked disturbing lone thorns and there have been many incidences in the past where digger drivers have refused, despite threats of sacking, to touch them.
These trees have a remarkable power about them.
A gnarled thorn, often growing in harsh rocky ground, survivor of wind, weather and grazing, somehow possesses its own unique aura.
Despite whatever feelings we might have regarding old beliefs and superstitions, such trees deserve our respect. I have heard it said that rural electrification killed off the fairies, especially in the West of Ireland.
The theory was that if you were outside at night and heard a noise you couldn't explain, then immediately your imagination summoned up images of spirits from another world and with it a fear of disturbing them.
When you could turn on a light and see that perhaps it was just a cat or whatever, then at least the sound could be rationally understood.
The screeching of an owl or a vixen late at night must have also had a chilling effect on anyone walking or cycling alone in the countryside.
When I was a child my family always took an annual holiday in the west and I will never forget the stories of fairies or "the little people" that the hotel staff regaled us with.
There is a hill at the back of the hotel that I still feel has magical properties thanks to all those lovely tales of the otherworld and what might happen to you if you got lost there at night.
While walking in Sligo in the early 1900s, WB Yeats asked an elderly man he met on the road if he believed in fairies. "I do not," replied the man, "What do you take me for? What kind of eejit would believe in the little people or in witches and goblins and leprechauns? Don't be ridiculous. I do not believe in them. Not at all..." There was a pause. "But they're there," the man concluded.
The thorn tree which prompted these musings is one of many that are respected throughout Ireland and regardless of how others might scoff, no-one damages what might well be a meeting place of the fairies. Hawthorn trees are believed to bring good luck and prosperity.
Hopefully mine will survive for many years to come.