Saturday, April 30, 2011



To the Celts, time was circular rather than linear. This is reflected in their commencing each day, and each festival, at dusk rather than dawn, a custom comparable with that of the Jewish Sabbath. Bealtaine is celebrated around 1st May and is sacred to the god Belanus (the shining one). The word derives from Beltinne or Fires of Bel. Bealtaine is a time of fertility when the cattle are set free from their winter quarters and driven between the cleansing fires, a time of feasting, fairs, and mating of livestock.

Foods eaten at the Bealtaine feast may include honey products, mead, fruit, fish, and milk products.

It has been suggested that the sacred fires of Bealtaine were actually a form of sympathetic magic that encouraged the sun to cast its warmth upon the earth.
Bealtaine and its opposite Samhain, divide the year into two seasons, the dark winter and the bright summer and as Samhain honours the dead so Bealtaine as its opposite honours life. The sun reigns over the moon and now begins a time of magic and divination.

Bealtaine is the time when people get up early (at dawn) and gather branches and flowers to decorate their homes. Leaves of the rowan along with primroses and buttercups were hung over the door and placed on the window sills and the colour green would be worn to honour Mother Nature.

The sacred fire would be lit by the druids on the Hill of Uisneach. This had the power to heal and purify and its light would stretch out across the land for all to see. It celebrates the burning away of winter and the return of life to the earth. It was said that cinders and torches would transfer some of the sacred fire to every hearth in the land so that each and every person could share in its power.

There are many superstitions concerning this time and it is the one day of the year when you give nothing away even if a stranger called at your door looking for a light or a bit of butter they would be turned away.

Dependent on which part of the country you were in, the customs were observed, on May Day you should not dig, whitewash, bathe in the sea or take out a boat. At this time the gentry were on the move and no one should upset them. It was also believed that on this day you must not venture out but if you had to go out for some reason then you should carry a piece of iron in your pocket for protection against the faeries (the gentry) if you had no iron then a sprig of rowan would do just as well. People would also leave a gift of food or drink for the faeries on the doorstep or under a hawthorn tree. The first water taken from the well on this day was known to be full of luck and healing but in the wrong hands it could be used for doing harm. It was also believed that a child born on May Day had the gift of second sight but they would only have a short life.

This was also the time of year when tenants had to go up to the big house to pay the half-year rent.

Weather watching was an important pastime and the appearance of the sky, the moon, the strength and direction of the wind, the amount of rainfall were all indications of the coming summer. If it was wet and windy then that was a good sign as it was an omen of good harvests to come. A cold, east wind was a bad sign and frost was an indicator of hard times ahead. Snow was such a bad omen that the farmers expected the landlord to forego the rent for the next half year (fat chance of that).

Family health was important at this time as it was believed that any injury sustained at this time would be very difficult to cure and may be a long time healing. However, this was also considered the best time to gather medicinal herbs and replenishing the medicine chest. Also the first butter made from the milk gathered on May Day would make a powerful ointment.

Bealtaine was a time of unabashed sexuality and promiscuity where marriages of a year and a day could be undertaken but it is rarely observed in that manner in modern times.

In the old Celtic times, young people would spend the entire night in the woods "A-Maying," and then dance around the phallic Maypole the next morning.

Older married couples were allowed to remove their wedding rings (and the restrictions they imply) for this one night. There is absolutely no way you would get away with using that as an excuse today so if any of you are thinking about it. Forget it.

Below is an extract from a poem by Kipling that tells of that night.

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But - we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
And we bring you news by word of mouth-
Good news for cattle and corn-
Now is the Sun come up from the South,
With Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Extract from A Tree Song by Rudyard Kipling.

Top image courtesy of Fine Art America

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Twelve.

Gorse, Furze, Whin. Aiteann.

From our folklore:

'Get a few handfuls of the yellow blossoms of the furze and boil them in water. Give the water as a dose to the horse and this will cure worms'.

From the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin. NFC 782:356 from Co Kerry.

The thorny nature of the plant means that it is often viewed as having protective powers.

The flowers are a deep yellow and have a pungent coconut scent. Although the main flowering period is from March to August, flowers can be found on bushes throughout the year. There are three species of furze, which all have slightly different flowering seasons, so that to the casual observer it would appear that the bush is almost always in bloom. This lengthy flowering led to the country saying:

“when the gorse is out of blossom, kissing is out of fashion.”

The habit of adding a sprig of furze bloom in a bridal bouquet is thought to allude to this, the all-year-round blossom being a symbol of continuous fertility.

Popular with bakers to whom it was sold as fuel for their ovens. It has a high concentration of oil in its leaves and branches, and so catches fire easily and burns well, giving off a heat almost equal to that of charcoal.

Older plants can carry a lot of dead wood, so furze can be a hazard in hot, dry summers. The ashes have high alkali content and can be mixed with animal fat to produce soap, or clay, to form a soap substitute. They were also spread onto the fields to improve the soil.

Furze can also be used as fodder for animals. It was said that an acre of furze could provide enough winter feed for six horses. It has half the protein content of oats. Horses and goats can strip the leaves and eat them straight from the plant, but it was usual practice to run the branches through stone mills or hit them with wooden mallets. This crushed the thorns and reduced the wood to a moss like consistency, which made it more palatable, especially to cows and sheep. The bushes were often deliberately burnt down in order to encourage new growth, the fresh sprouts of furze and grass providing easily accessible food for stock.

The bark and flowers produce a fine yellow dye. In Ireland the flowers were also used to flavour and add colour to whiskey and the Vikings were reputed to use them to make beer. They can also be used to make wine and tea.

Studies in the nineteenth century confirmed that the high alkaline content of the plant had a purgative effect. An infusion of the blooms, as a drink, was given to children suffering from scarlet fever. It was also used to cleanse the home;

‘... against fleas, take this same wort, with its seed sodden; sprinkle it into the house; it killeth the fleas”

In homeopathy furze is used to help people who have given up hope, who have no faith in the future. It puts people in touch with their own inner resources and helps them move forward by releasing courage and determination.

As one of the sacred trees, furze was included in the Celtic Beltane bonfires. The stock would be herded between these for purification and protection before being released onto the summer grazing. When this tradition diminished, torches of furze were still carried around the herds and farm buildings in order to cleanse the air and protect the animals against sterility.

Furze is closely associated with the sun god Lugh, the Celtic god of light and genius and with the Spring Equinox, at which time it’s one of the only plants in full flower. However folklore attaches it to festivals throughout the spring and summer months as a symbol of the power of the sun. In Brittany the Celtic festival of Lughnasdagh, on August 1st, is known as The Festival of Golden Gorse.

As an evergreen that flowers the whole year round, furze is seen to carry within it a spark of the sun’s life giving energy, a spark that can be seen even through the darker winter months. It is a symbol of encouragement and a promise of good things to come. Furze tells us to remain focused and optimistic, even in the darkest days. To keep hopeful and remain constant throughout the inevitable periods of difficulty we all experience.

As one of the first spring flowering plants, the furze provides a plentiful supply of pollen for bees when they first come out of hibernation. The product of the bees labour, honey, is the Celtic symbol of wisdom, achieved through hard work and dedication. The furze tells us that if we apply ourselves and keep faith in the future, we will be rewarded. However bleak things may appear there is always the possibility of periods of fertility, creativity and well being. Whilst its thorns remind us that there is protection from unwanted ideas or influences.

In Ulster eggs were dyed yellow by boiling them in water with Furze blossom. The eggs were then used in Easter games and then eaten. In other parts of the country the blossom was used to dye clothes yellow while the young shoots were used to make a green dye.

A sprig of Furze was kept in the thatch, over the door or under the rafters to bring luck into the home and in some places it was wrapped around the milk churn or butter at May time to protect it from the faeries.

In Ireland if you wear a piece of gorse/furze in your lapel you will never stumble.

The presence of furze on waste ground raises its value.

In Irish law furze was considered one of the Losa fédo or Bushes of the wood.

The top image shows the danger of Gorse/Furze/Whin fires.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Eleven.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Eleven.

Meadowsweet. Airgead luachra.

From the Anglo-Saxon Meodu-swete meaning ‘Mead Sweetener’

Meadowsweet's herbal uses had a base in scientific fact, in common with many other folk and herbal remedies. In the 19th century, chemists isolated salicylic acid from Meadowsweet. The acid was a disinfectant so it not only made rooms smell better but helped the fight against bacteria. It was a painkiller and anti-inflammatory but hard on the stomach. Only after it was synthesised did it become an acceptable candidate for mass production and sold in tablet form as 'aspirin' – 'a' for acetyl and ' –spirin' for Spirea, the original botanical name for Meadowsweet.

It is one of the three herbs considered sacred by the druids; the other two are Vervain and Water Mint.

Creamy, perennial of damp waysides, meadows, marshes and woods, this tall, hairless plant flowers throughout Ireland from June to September. With a heavy fragrance. The flower heads are frequently visited by bees attracted by the heavy scent which can be so evocative of summer days in the countryside. In spite of this fragrance, the flowers produce no nectar. Insects, however, don't realise this but their visits serve to fertilise the plants which are heavy with pollen. A peculiarity of this flower is that the scent of the leaves is quite different from that of the flowers, the leaves having a heavy almond-like aroma whereas the flowers have a strong sweet smell.

Meadowsweet was historically used to flavour mead and it was because of this that one of its other names is Mead Wort. Cooks used the herb to flavour beers, meads and wines and added it to soups for an interesting almond flavour. The fresh leaves can be used to flavour sorbets and fruit salads. Infuse the flower to make a mild diuretic tea, let it steep to bring out the salicylic acid before serving. As a cosmetic, it was soaked in rainwater and used as astringent and skin conditioner.

It was also known as Bridewort because it was strewn on the ground at handfastings for the bride to walk on (wort is an old word that means herb or root) and it was also used in wedding posies and bridal bouquets.

This plant was given to Cúchulainn in liquid form and it was said to calm his fits of rage and outbreaks of fever and it may be for this reason that another name for meadowsweet in Ireland is Cúchulainns Belt or Crios Conchulainn.

It is also associated with death as the scent of its flowers was said to induce a sleep that was deep and fatal. However in County Galway it was believed that if a person was wasting away because of faerie influence then putting some meadowsweet under the bed ensured that they would be cured by the morning.

Legend says that meadowsweet was given its fragrance by the Land Goddess Aine. In some places the flowers were dried and smoked in a pipe (probably less damaging than tobacco.

Meadowsweet was also spread on the floor in medieval times to provide a nice smell and deter insects.

Its roots produce a black dye and its leaves a blue pigment and yellow is obtained from the top of the plant all of which were used by the Celts.

In Ireland it was used to scour milk vessels.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Ten.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Ten.

Honeysuckle. Féithleann.

Other names for honeysuckle include Irish vine, woodbine, fairy trumpets, honeybind, trumpet flowers, goats leaf and sweet suckle.

The old name Woodbine describes the twisting, binding nature of the honeysuckle through the hedgerows.

It was believed that if honeysuckle grew around the entrance to the home it prevented a witch from entering. In other places it's believed that grown around the doors it will bring good luck. If it grows well in your garden, then you will be protected from evil. In Ireland honeysuckle was believed to have a power against bad spirits, and it was used in a drink to cure the effects of the evil eye.

Bringing the flowers into the house will bring money with them.

Honeysuckle has long been a symbol of fidelity and affection. Those who wear honeysuckle flowers are said to be able to dream of their true love. Its clinging nature in the language of flowers symbolises, 'we are united in love,' and emphasis's the bond of devotion and affection between two people. It was also believed that if the blooms were brought into the house then a wedding would follow within a year.

In the Victorian era there was a ban on young girls bringing honeysuckle into the home because the heady fragrance of the flowers was believed to cause dreams that were far too risqué for their sensibilities.

The wood has been used to make walking sticks because of its nature to grow around and entwine saplings. The dried flowers are used for adding to pot-pourri, herb pillows and floral waters. Also, scented cosmetics are made from the fresh flowers.

A less known fact about the honeysuckle family is that Lonicera tatarica Tatarian honeysuckle, a leggy bush honeysuckle with sweet scented pink flowers, is used as a substitute for catnip. The wood contains nepetalactone which is the active ingredient found in catnip.

Medicinal Use.

Culpeper stated that only the leaves of the honeysuckle were used medicinally to treat coughs, sore throats and for opening obstructions of the liver and spleen.

Gerard had the flowers steeped in oil down as being good to help warm and soothe the body that is very cold.

Matthew Robinson in his New Family Herbal shared Culpeper's view that honeysuckle leaves helped the spleen and liver. Matthew also advocated that the flowers are boiled in water and used as a poultice with a little oil added as a cure for hard swellings and impostumes (abscesses).

The leaves and flowers of the honeysuckle are rich in salicylic acid, so may be used to relieve headaches, colds, flu, fever, aches, pains, arthritis and rheumatism.

The leaves have anti-inflammatory properties and contain anti-biotics active against staphylococci and coli bacilli. Honeysuckle flowers and flower buds are used in various infusions and tinctures to treat coughs, catarrh, asthma, headaches and food poisoning.

Pounding together two plants, woodbine and maiden-hare, then boiling them in new milk along with oatmeal will cure dysentery when ingested three times daily.

Despite its lack of any real economic use honeysuckle was regarded as a ‘lower division of the wood’ in some versions of the old Irish brehon laws on trees and shrubs. It was also linked by some medieval scholars with the ancient Irish Ogham alphabet.

Please note that honeysuckle berries are highly toxic and should NEVER be used on any count.

Top image is of a staff with honeysuckle wrapped around it. You can see this and many more beautiful sticks at:

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Nine.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Nine.

The Ivy. Eidhneán

Ivy - constancy - the Latin name, hedera, derives from the Celtic word for 'cord' and Druids revere the plant and often use it in their rites.

In Irish folk medicine, the main use of ivy has been in the treatment of corns. In Ireland, burns and scalds were also treated with an ointment made from the boiled leaves and fat and it was also used to stop bleeding and reduce inflammation.

Like many other evergreens, it symbolizes the concept of eternity; a belief in everlasting life and resurrection after death. Because it is often found growing on dead and decayed trees, it came to represent the immortal soul – which lives on even after the body has returned to the earth. Yet at the same time, because it was often found in sites of death (including cemeteries and old tombstones) it was also viewed as an emblem of mortality. In some old beliefs, if ivy fails to grow on a grave, it symbolizes a restless soul; ivy growing abundantly on a young woman’s grave indicates death from a broken heart.

Like the holly, the ivy is one of the plants found in the Celtic Tree Calendar, where it is known as Gort. Perhaps it was the Celts who influenced the Roman ivy “party head wreaths”… for the Druids would wrap their heads with ivy to represent clarity of thought.

The botany of the ivy plant has clearly influenced its symbolism: amongst its various meanings, ivy represents connections and friendships, undoubtedly influenced by the plant’s natural tendency to weave and intertwine during growth. Such connections often play an important role in our celebrations as we reach out to family and friends, to recall cherished memories and create new ones.

Ivy was used in love divination at Samhain.

An Irish rhyme involving nine Ivy leaves:

Nine Ivy leaves I place under my head
To dream of the living and not of the dead
To dream of the man I am going to wed
To see him tonight at the foot of my bed.

Ivy was also used for death divination at Samhain. You nominate an unblemished leaf for each member of the family; each person puts their leaf in a glass of water to stand overnight. In the morning if the leaf was still unblemished then you were sure of life for the next year. However, if your leaf had spots on it then you would not see the next Samhain.

In Ancient Egypt the ivy was sacred to Osiris, and a safeguard against evil.

The following is an old Irish story concerning Ivy

The Fairy Dance.

One evening late in November, which is the month when spirits have most power over all things, as the prettiest girl in all the island was going to the well for water, her foot slipped and she fell, it was an unlucky omen, and when she got up and looked round it seemed to her as if she were in a strange place, and all around her was changed as if by enchantment. At some distance she saw a great crowd gathered round a blazing fire, and she was drawn slowly on towards them, till at last she stood in the very midst of the people; but they kept silence, looking fixedly at her; and she was afraid, and tried to turn and leave them, but she could not.

Then a beautiful youth, like a prince, with a red sash, and a golden band on his long yellow hair, came up and asked her to dance.

"It is a foolish thing of you, sir, to ask me to dance," she said, "when there is no music."

Then he lifted his hand and made a sign to the people, and instantly the sweetest music sounded near her and around her, and the young man took her hand, and they danced and danced till the moon and the stars went down, but she seemed like one floating on the air, and she forgot everything in the world except the dancing, and the sweet low music, and her beautiful partner.

At last the dancing ceased and her partner thanked her, and invited her to supper with the company. Then she saw an opening in the ground, and a flight of steps, and the young man, who seemed to be the king amongst them all, led her down, followed by the whole company. At the end of the stairs they came upon a large hall, all bright and beautiful with gold and silver and lights; and the table was covered with everything good to eat, and wine was poured out in golden cups for them to drink.

When she sat down they all pressed her to eat the food and to drink the wine; and as she was weary after the dancing, she took the golden cup the prince handed to her, and raised it to her lips to drink. Just then, a man passed close to her, and whispered--

"Eat no food, and drink no wine, or you will never reach your home again."

So she laid down the cup, and refused to drink. On this they were angry, and a great noise arose, and a fierce, dark man stood up, and said--

"Whoever comes to us must drink with us."

He seized her arm, and held the wine to her lips, so that she almost died of fright. But at that moment a red-haired man came up, and he took her by the hand and led her out.

"You are safe for this time," he said. "Take this herb, and hold it in your hand till you reach home, and no one can harm you."

He gave her a branch of a plant called the Athair-Luss (the ground ivy). This she took, and fled away along the sward in the dark night; but all the time she heard footsteps behind her in pursuit. At last she reached home and barred the door, and went to bed, when a great clamour arose outside, and voices were heard crying to her--

"The power we had over you is gone through the magic of the herb; but wait--when you dance again to the music on the hill, you will stay with us for evermore, and none shall hinder."

However, she kept the magic branch safely, and the fairies never troubled her anymore; but it was long and long before the sound of the fairy music left her ears which she had danced to that November night on the hillside with her fairy lover.

Hope you enjoyed the story.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Early Irish Law. Brehon Law.

Just a short note: Trees and Native Irish Law.

Brehon Law, the native legal system of Ireland, functioned until the 17th century when it was finally supplanted by the English common law. It recognised divorce and equal rights between the genders and also showed concern for the environment. In criminal law, offences and penalties were defined in great detail. Restitution rather than punishment was prescribed for wrongdoing. Cases of homicide or bodily injury were punishable by means of the eric fine, the exact amount determined by a scale.

Capital punishment was not among the range of penalties available to the Brehons. The absence of either a court system or a police force suggests that people had strong respect for the law. It was incredibly progressive and rather than use corporal punishment it used fines and other forms of restitution.

Brehon law provided extensive protection for trees and these laws are found in the eight century law tract Bretha Comaithchesa or the Laws of Neighbourhood but they may have their derived from an earlier and now lost law tract Fidbretha or Tree Judgements, which is mentioned in a work dating from the seventh century. The laws recognise a hierarchy of four classes of trees or bushes: Airig fédo or Nobles of the Woods. Aithig fédo or Commoners of the Wood. Fodla fédo or Lower Divisions of the Wood. Losa fédo or Bushes of the Wood.

In each case the particular species owes its economic worth to its position or class. Exceptions are when a plant is valued for its food, like the apple or hazel. In some cases the penalty for unlawfully felling a chieftain tree could be the same as the penalty for killing a human chief.

Classification of Native Irish Trees.

This list of 28 trees and shrubs, drawn from the 8th-century legal tract Bretha Comaithchesa, classifies them in four groups of seven. Due to its date, some of the old Irish names for trees differ from modern versions; translations have been guessed when there was no definite correlation. Different variations exist; in some cases, Blackthorn is listed as a Chieftain.

Airig Fedo - ‘Nobles of the Wood’ (Chieftain Trees):
Dair - Oak
Coll - Hazel
Cuileann - Holly
Iúr - Yew
Fuinseóg - Ash
Giúis - Scots Pine
Uill - Wild Apple
Aithig Fedo - ‘Commoners of the Wood’ (Peasant Trees):
Fearnóg - Alder
Saileach - Willow
Scéach gheal - Hawthorn (Whitethorn)
Cáorthann - Rowan (Mountain Ash)
Beith - Birch
Leamhán - Elm
Silín - Wild Cherry
Fodla Fedo - ‘Lower Divisions of the Wood’ (Shrub Trees):
Draighean - Blackthorn
Trom - Elder (Bore Tree)
Feoras - Spindle-Tree
Crann creathach - Aspen
Aiteal - Juniper
Fionncholl - Whitebeam
Caithne - Arbutus (Strawberry Tree)
Iosa Fedo - ‘Bushes of the Wood’ (Bramble Trees):
Raith - Bracken
Rait - Bog-Myrtle
Aiten - Gorse (Furze, Whin)
Dris - Bramble (Blackberry)
Fróech - Heather
Gilcach - Broom
Spín - Wild Rose (Dog Rose)

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Eight.

Folklore of The Hedgerow. Part Eight.

Folklore of The Wild Cherry. Silín.

In early Irish law the cherry was classified as an Aithig fédo or Commoner of the Wood.

There is very little Irish folklore surrounding the Cherry.

The wild cherry is also known as the bird cherry as they are used as a food source by a huge amount of bird species. You have to be quick if you want to beat the birds to the abundant crop that results from a good spring and summer, and they are often picked when they are still a yellowish red colour before they ripen to a deep reddish purple. They can be used in pies, wine, liquors and even a dessert soup.

Wild cherries were both used to flavour alcoholic drinks such as whisky or gin, and cherry Brandy can easily be made by filling a bottle with wild cherries, adding sugar, topping up with brandy and leaving for a few months.

The resin which leaks from the trunk was formerly used by children as chewing gum.

It is recorded as a treatment for coughs, and when it was dissolved in wine, it was used to treat gall stones and kidney stones. The bark was used to make fabric dyes, ranging in colour from cream to tan, while a reddish-purple colour was derived from the roots.

Apparently the precursor to cyanide is found in healthy cherry tree leaves and the cyanide is released when the leaves are damaged. It does not specifically go into the leaves that fall off the tree in autumn. It has also been suggested that large amounts of healthy leaves can be toxic. Wild cherry is generally regarded as safe when used at recommended doses. However, since it contains small amounts of cyanide it should not be taken in anything other than very small doses. It should never be taken by young children, pregnant women or those who have liver or kidney problems.

There has been some evidence that would suggest that wild cherry may interact with various medications so I would think very carefully before taking it.

Disclaimer: Do Not Take any herbal remedy before consulting a qualified practitioner and ALWAYS check with your doctor.

Middle image: Under the Cherry Tree by the Irish artist John Lavery (1856-1941)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Folklore of The Hedgerow. Part Seven.

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Seven.

Folklore of the Ash. Fuinseóg.

In early Irish law the ash was classified as Airig fédo or Nobles of the Wood.

The fascination of the Ash tree traces its roots to the ancient times. The druids believed that ash had the ability to direct and blend the masculine and feminine energy. Some Druids use a branch of the ash to make their staff. The staff then acts as a connection between the realms of the earth and the sky. In folklore ash was referred to as a home for fairies. A staff of ash is hung over door frames for protection as it will ward off evil influences. Ash leaves can be scattered in the four directions to protect the house against witches and psychic attacks. Despite its role in protecting against witches, the ash is also used by them. The ash is their favourite tree for making ritual dolls into which they stick pins.

Many superstitions surround the ash tree; it is believed that the ash tree will be the first tree to be hit by lightening. The ash is an important woodland and hedgerow tree in Ireland. Ash along with the Oak is one of the last trees to come into leaf and according to folklore, the one that comes into leaf first, gives us an indication as to what the weather will be like for the summer:

“Ash before the Oak, you can expect a soak, but Oak before the Ash, expect a little splash”

It is part of the triad of fairy trees. In folklore it is believed that fairy’s could be seen by mortals wherever oak, ash and hawthorn trees grew together. If you place ash berries in a cradle, it protects the baby from being taken by the fairies.

Sailors believe that if they carve a piece of ash wood into the shape of a solar cross and carry it with them then they will be protected from drowning.

If you carry a few ash leaves they will act as health charms and it was even believed that to gain the love of the opposite sex, you should carry some loose leaves in your pocket.

Another belief was that burning ash wood at Yule would bring you prosperity (the Yule log).

However, given duality in all things not all the ash tree merits are good. The ash tree was believed to have a particular affinity with lightning. So according to legend, standing under an ash tree during an electrical storm would be even more dangerous.

Numerous uses of the ash tree for medicinal purposes are known. The bark, being very astringent can act as anti-periodic. Ash is also a recognized remedy for flatulence. Ash treatment can also help alleviate rheumatoid arthritis, and it may also help restore order to the liver and spleen. Ash leaves are acclaimed for their laxative property and are used in herbal medicine for dropsy and obesity, it is also considered to be able to cure jaundice and dissolve stones.

It is believed that the leaf of the ash can be used to remove skin disorders such as warts or boils. It was said that if you carried a needle for three days and then drive it into the bark of an ash tree then the skin disorder (wart) would disappear from the person only to reappear as a knob or small growth (wart) on the tree, an example of transference. The ash is often found growing near sacred wells and it has been suggested that there is a connection between the tree and the healing waters of the well (possibly iron contain in the roots and leeched into the well). The tree itself can sometimes supply the water. One such tree in Sligo has a hollow in it like a bowl, the water that gathers in this is well known for its healing properties. This could be a good example of a Bile tree (a sacred tree).

Folk uses of the ash involve some clear examples of the transference of disease. One custom, made famous by Gilbert White in the eighteenth century, was to make a so-called shrew-ash, by imprisoning a live shrew in a hole bored in an ash tree. This tree then maintained its medicinal virtue for its lifetime. Such trees were used as "cures" for a variety of ailments, including whooping cough and paralysis.

A hernia in children was thought to be curable by splitting open a growing ash sapling and passing the child through the opening. The tree was then bound up, and as it healed, so would the child. Ash sap was used to treat earache and another use was as an aid to weight reduction, for this purpose, the dried leaves were used as a tea.

As well as making hurleys and spears, ash had a wide variety of uses including building, making fences, furniture and boat building. The bark of the ash could be used for tanning and the dried leaves were sometimes used as fodder for livestock.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Folklore of The Hedgerow. Part Six.

The Folklore of The Hedgerow. Part Six.

Folklore of The Willow. Saileach.

In early Irish law the Willow was classified as an Aithig fedo or Commoner of the Wood.

Most willow species grow and thrive close to water or in damp places, and this theme is reflected in the legends and magic associated with these trees. The moon too recurs as a theme, the movement of water being intimately bound up with and affected by the moon. For example, Hecate the powerful Greek goddess of the moon and of willow, also taught sorcery and witchcraft, and was 'a mighty and formidable divinity of the Underworld'. Helice was also associated with water, and her priestesses used willow in their water magic and witchcraft. The willow muse, called Heliconian after Helice, was sacred to poets, and the Greek poet Orpheus carried willow branches on his adventures in the Underworld. He was also given a lyre by Apollo, and it is interesting to note that the sound boxes of harps used to be carved from solid willow wood.

Willow was often the tree most sought by the village wise-woman, since it has so many medicinal properties, and eventually the Willow’s healing and religious qualities became one and the tree became called ‘witch’s tree’. The Willow is also associated with the faeries. The wind in the Willows is the whisperings of a fairy in the ear of a poet. It is also said that Willow trees can uproot themselves and stalk travellers at night, muttering at them.

Country folk have been familiar with the healing properties of willow for a long time. They made an infusion from the bitter bark as a remedy for colds and fevers, and to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatism. Young willow twigs were also chewed to relieve pain. In the early nineteenth century modern science isolated the active ingredient responsible, salicylic acid, which was also found in the meadowsweet plant. From this the world's first synthetic drug, acetylasylic acid, was developed and marketed as Aspirin, named after the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spirea ulmaria.

The Willow is linked to grief and in the 16th and 17th centuries jilted lovers would wear wreaths of willow and many unrequited love poems were written that included reference to the willow.

In Irish folklore it couldn’t be more different as here it was called sail ghlann grin or the ‘bright cheerful sallow’. Here it is considered lucky to take a sally rod with you on a journey and a sally rod was placed around a milk churn to ensure good butter. It was believed that the charcoal left behind after burning willow could be crushed and spread on the back of an animal as a way of increasing fertility and even restoring hair.

The willow because of its link with water, milk and cattle, is particularly associated with the river goddess Bóinn. Bóinn was depicted as a great cow and the milk that flowed from her udders were said to form the waters of the Boyne.

It is estimated that the Willow in Ireland provides support in the form of habitation and food for 266 different insect species.The Willow is associated with enchantment, wishing, romantic love, healing, protection, fertility, death, femininity, divination, friendship, joy, love, and peace. Placed in homes, Willow branches protect against evil and malign sorcery. Carried, Willow wood will give bravery, dexterity, and help one overcome the fear of death. If you knock on a Willow tree (knock on wood) this will avert evil. A Willow tree growing near a home will protect it from danger. Willows are also a good tree to plant around cemeteries and also for lining burial graves for its symbolism of death and protection.

Willows can be used in rituals for intuition, knowledge, gentle nurturing, and will elucidate the feminine qualities of both men and women. If a person needs to get something off their chest or to share a secret, if they confess to a Willow, their secret will be trapped. Also, wishes are granted by a Willow tree if they are asked for in the correct manner.

Willow leaves, bark and wood add energy to healing magic, and burning a mix of Willow bark and sandalwood during the waning moon can help to conjure spirits. Uses of Willow in love talismans include using the leaves to attract love.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Five.

The Folklore of The Hedgerow. Part Five.

Folklore of the Hawthorn.

The Hawthorn. Sceach Gheal.

Classified in early Irish law as an Aithig fedo or Commoner of the Wood.
The Hawthorn is known by a variety of different names, The May Tree, The Beltaine Tree, The May Blossom, The Whitethorn, The Quick etc. In Irish it is Sceach Gael but we also know it as the Faerie Tree for it is said to guard the entrance to the faerie realm and it is still considered bad luck to harm one. You may however collect sprigs of flowers during the month of May to place in and around the home to banish evil spirits or misfortune (always ask the guardians of the tree first).

There are many superstitions surrounding the Hawthorn and here are just a few of them:

During birth if a calf is born prematurely hanging its afterbirth on a Hawthorn tree was said to magically protect it and give it quick growth (one of the other names given to the Hawthorn is Quickset as it will take very easily as a cutting) This could be magic by association?

The Hawthorn has long been associated with fertility and at Beltaine (May 1st) young women would take a sprig of blossom and keep it close as a way of attracting a husband.

On the morning of Beltaine (dawn), men and women would bathe in the morning dew of the Hawthorn blossom to increase wealth, health, luck, good fortune, and beauty. Women would become more beautiful and men by washing their hands in the dew would become skilled craftsmen. Today it is still practiced and it is one of the woods used in the Hand fastening ritual as it will ensure a lasting relationship.

The Hawthorn is also known as a tree of protection and for this reason it will be found growing near a house. It will offer protection from storm and lightning.

On Beltaine it is the custom here in Ireland to hang strips of cloth or ribbons on a Hawthorn (especially if it grows near a well) in order to make a wish (the wishing tree of legend). This is also done to ask for Brigid’s blessing on the cloth as these will then be used in healing (I hang crepe bandages on ours). It is also the custom to hang strips of coloured cloth from the branches, blue for health, red or pink for love, green or gold for prosperity etc. These will then be used as bindings in the hand fastening.

You may also use discarded pieces of wood in order to make wands or ritual tools but NEVER cut the wood from the tree. If you look in winter you will ALWAYS find pieces of windblown wood.

It has an immense amount of folklore attached to it in Ireland. The young leaves and flower buds are used as both a food – eaten in spring salads, and as a medicine.

Medicinally, an infusion is prepared which has been shown to be valuable in improving the heartbeat rate and strength, especially in heart failure, and in balancing the blood pressure; it also helps with irregular heart beats and improves the peripheral circulation, helping with conditions such as Reynaud's and with poor memory since it improves the circulation to the brain. The bioflavonoids relax and dilate the arteries and blood vessels thereby relieving angina. The bioflavonoids and proanthocyanins are also valuable antioxidants which help repair and prevent tissue damage, especially in the blood vessels. Hawthorn also helps to relieve anxiety and is traditionally thought to mend broken hearts, both emotionally and physically.

The berries are gathered in the autumn and have similar medicinal properties – they can be used fresh or dried in a decoction or infused in brandy to make a heart tonic for the winter months. For culinary use the berries are traditionally gathered after the first frost which converts some of the starches to sugars and makes the berries more palatable. Berries are used as an ingredient in hedgerow wine, or to make haw jelly as an accompaniment to wild game. The berries can also be mashed, removing the skin and seeds, and used to make a fruit leather as a way of storing them.

Thomas the Rhymer, the famous thirteenth century Scottish mystic and poet, once met the Fairy Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Fairy Underworld for a brief sojourn, but upon re-emerging into the world of mortals he found he had been absent for seven years. Themes of people being waylaid by the fairy 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 Gentry. In Ireland most of the isolated trees, or so called 'lone bushes', found in the landscape and said to be inhabited by fairy’s, 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 Fairy 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.

Hawthorn is at its most prominent in the landscape when it blossoms during the month of May, and probably the most popular of its many vernacular names is the May-tree. As such, it is the only plant which is named after the month in which it blooms. It has many associations with May Day festivities. Though the tree now flowers around the middle of the month, it flowered much nearer the beginning of the month, before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752.

The blossoms were used for garlands, and large leafy branches were cut, set in the ground outside houses as so-called May bushes and decorated with local wildflowers. Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed, but there was a very strong taboo against bringing hawthorn into the house. In the early 1980s the Folklore Society's survey of 'unlucky' plants revealed that 23% of the items referred to hawthorn, more than twice as many instances as the second most unlucky plant. Across Ireland there was the belief that bringing hawthorn blossom into the house would be followed by illness and death, and there were many instances of hapless children being scolded by adults for innocently decorating the home.

Mediaeval country folk also asserted that the smell of hawthorn blossom was just like the smell of death. Botanists later discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue. In the past, when corpses would have been kept in the house for several days prior to burial, people would have been very familiar with the smell of death, so it is hardly surprising that hawthorn blossom was so unwelcome in the house.

It has also been suggested that some of the hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) folklore may have originated for the related woodland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) which may well have been commoner during the early Middle Ages, when a lot of plant folklore was evolving. Woodland hawthorn blossom gives off much more of an unpleasant scent of death soon after it is cut, and it also blooms slightly earlier than hawthorn, so that its blossoms would have been more reliably available for Beltaine celebrations.

It was normal to decorate a hawthorn at this time with flowers, ribbons and bright scraps of cloth and sometimes candles or rushlights were attached to the tree and lit on the eve of Beltaine. In some areas of Ireland small gifts of food and drink would be left under the tree for the fairy’s.

The hawthorn has many uses, the young leaves can be eaten and were commonly referred to as bread and cheese, the blossom and berries were made into wines and jellies, and decoctions of the flowers and leaves were used to stabilise blood pressure. The strong, close-grained wood was used for carving, and for making tool handles and other small household items. Probably its greatest practical use to people has been as hedging.

In common with other ‘unlucky’ trees it was widely believed that whitethorn was the tree upon which Christ was crucified, and Christ’s thorns were also supposed to be made of whitethorn.

In Ireland it was believed that if one of your neighbours used a whitethorn (hawthorn) stick to herd cattle then he was up to no good. An old Irish custom was that the first milk of a newly calved cow should be taken and poured under a fairy tree as a tribute to the fairy’s. It was also planted around the house and sheds to keep away witches.

All in all, a very interesting tree.

Top image = The Faerie Tree by an American artist called Bernie Rosage junior.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Folklore of the Hedgerow. Part Four.

Folklore of The Hedgerow. Part Four.

Folklore of the Rowan Tree. Caorthann.

In early Irish law the Rowan was classified as an Aithig fédo or Commoner of The Wood.

The Rowan's mythic roots go back to classical times. Greek mythology tells of how Hebe the goddess of youth, dispensed rejuvenating ambrosia to the gods from her magical chalice. When, through carelessness, she lost this cup to demons, the gods sent an eagle to recover the cup. The feathers and drops of blood which the eagle shed in the ensuing fight with the demons fell to earth, where each of them turned into a rowan tree. Hence the Rowan derived the shape of its leaves from the eagle's feathers and the appearance of its berries from the droplets of blood.

In Ireland the Rowan has a long and still popular history in folklore as a tree which protects against witchcraft and enchantment. The physical characteristics of the tree may have contributed to its protective reputation, including the tiny five pointed star or pentagram on each berry opposite its stalk (the pentagram being an ancient protective symbol).

The colour red was deemed to be the best protection against enchantment, and so the Rowan's vibrant display of berries in autumn may have further contributed to its protective abilities, as suggested in the old rhyme: "Rowan tree and red thread / make the witches tine (meaning 'to lose') their speed".

The Rowan was also denoted as a tree of the Goddess or a Faerie tree by virtue (like the Hawthorn and Elder) of its white flowers. An alternative name, ‘quicken’ refers to the ‘quickening’ or life giving powers, while the Irish name Caorthann derives from the word Caor which means both a berry and a blazing flame.

There are several recurring themes of protection offered by the Rowan. The tree itself was said to afford protection to the dwelling by which it grew, and pieces of Rowan would be hung in the house to protect it from fire. It was also used to keep the dead from rising and tied to a hound’s collar to increase its speed. Sprigs of Rowan were used as a protection for the cattle and against the supernatural forces that may threaten the dairy products. It was kept in the byre to safeguard the animals and put in the pail and around the churn to ensure the ‘profit’ in the milk was not stolen.

There are also records of instances as late as the latter half of the twentieth century of people being warned against removing or damaging a Rowan in the garden of their newly purchased garden. It was traditionally planted in churchyards since it was considered a protection against evil.

The Rowan is particularly associated with the month of May. Here in Ireland at Beltaine livestock would be driven between twin fires to keep away evil influences. Homes, crops and cattle were believed to be of risk on May eve. The first smoke from a chimney on May morning should be from a fire of Rowan twigs, this was done to thwart any mischief that the witches might be planning. A piece of Rowan was put in the crops for protection and cattle going out in the morning were struck with a switch of wood. On May eve it was also the practice to put a loop of Rowan on the tails of livestock, especially cows, to protect them from the fairies. Also, on May eve sprigs of Rowan were placed on window sills, door steps and even the roof for protection.

The Rowan's wood is strong and resillient, making excellent walking sticks, and is suitable for carving. It was often used for tool handles, and spindles and spinning wheels were traditionally made of Rowan wood.

Druids used the bark and berries to dye the garments worn during lunar ceremonies black, and the bark was also used in the tanning process. Rowan twigs were used for divining, particularly for metals.

The leaves and berries of the Rowan are sometimes added to incense to aid divination and to increase psychic powers. It’s believed the bark and berries carried on a person will also aid in recuperation, and are added to health and healing sachets, as well as power, luck and success charms

Rowan wood has traditionally been used for making Druids’ staffs, and its branches used for dowsing or divining. Some believe magic wands made from Rowan are especially effective in ritual when psychic intuition is required.

The berries can be made into or added to a variety of alcoholic drinks, and different Celtic peoples each seem to have had their favourites. As well as the popular wine still made in the Highlands, the Scots made a strong spirit from the berries, the Welsh brewed an ale, the Irish used them to flavour Mead, and even a cider can be made from them. Today Rowan berry jelly is still made in Scotland and is traditionally eaten with game.

Rowans are a species that are at home in some of the more challenging parts of our ecosystem such as barren mountainsides. They are also one of the species that bear their male and female flowers on separate trees so that it is necessary to have both genders present in a population in order to produce viable seed.

The fresh flowers and the dried fruits are both used medicinally. They have laxative and diuretic properties that can be valuable in the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism. They are also used to treat menstrual pain, constipation and inflammation of the kidneys, and are also used as a gargle for sore throats.

The berries are high in fruit acids, Vitamin C and fruit sugars. The bark is used as a strong astringent to treat diarrhoea internally and to treat leucorrhoea as a wash.

Always consult your herbal practitioner or doctor before using herbs.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Folklore of The Hedgerow. Part Three.

Folklore of the Hedgerow.

Elder Tree. Trom.

In early Irish law the Elder was classified as one of the Fodla fedo or Lower Divisions of the Wood.

Trí comartha láthraig mallachtan: tromm, tradna, nenaid. (Three tokens of a cursed site: Elder, a corncrake nettles).

According to this old Irish saying there are three signs of a cursed or barren place: the elder, the nettle and the lonesome calling corncrake. This has some basis in truth, as the elder is a very early colonizer of bare land, the seed of this pioneer species can be spread through droppings from passing birds.

The Elder is considered to have a Crostáil or bad temper or mischief in it and it was believed that if someone were struck with an Elder branch that after their death their hand would grow out of their grave.

Because of its association with witches Elder is considered hostile to children (especially infants). In Ireland it is dangerous and foolhardy to make a cradle out of Elder as the child would sicken and be stolen away by the fairies. In Ireland it is also said to be wrong to strike a child or animal with a piece of Elder as they would stop growing from that day onwards.

The Elder has been held in high esteem throughout our history as a medicinal plant and has even earned the name “Medicine chest of the country folk”. Parts of the Elder are used to treat everything from burns to the common cold and it has been suggested that extract of Elderberry may be effective in the treatment of the bird flu virus.

The leaves also have a scent that is slightly narcotic and there is even an old legend that warns of sleeping under the Elder because you may not wake up. Today extracts of Elder are used in skin cleansers and another legend suggests that if a young girl washes her face in the morning dew of the elderflower she will remain young looking. This may also be because the berries contain dyes that were used to darken grey hair.

Many Christians believe that elder is the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself after betraying Jesus. It is also believed that the cross upon which Christ was crucified was made from Elder. In Ireland it was believed that the Elder tree refused to shelter Christ but the Ivy did so. From then on the Elder is the last tree to come into leaf while the Ivy is evergreen.

The Elder in common with the Hawthorn and the Rowan has strong associations with the Fairy folk and is a tree of protection. It is considered very lucky if you have one growing near your house. Traditionally a Rowan would be grown at the front of the house but the Elder’s place would be at the back door and it was said that it kept evil influences from entering your home. The aroma exuded by the elder's leaves has long been known to repel flies, so this folklore may have been borne out of the need to keep such insects, and the diseases that they carried, away from the kitchen and food.

Bunches of leaves were hung by doorways, in livestock barns, and attached to horses' harnesses for the same reason. Elder was traditionally planted around dairies and it was thought to be efficacious in keeping the milk from 'turning'. Cheese cloths and other linen involved in dairying were hung out to dry on elder trees, and the smell they absorbed from the leaves may have contributed to hygiene in the dairy.

Elder trees were also traditionally planted by bake houses as protection from the Devil (what with all those hellishly hot ovens within!) and loaves and cakes were put out to cool under the Elders. Any foods left out overnight under an Elder however were considered a gift to the fairies.

It is sometimes called the 'hollow tree' because the spongy tissue within its smaller branches can be easily removed, thus providing hollow tubes, and many felt that this hollow offered a door into the fairy kingdom.

The Elder tree was also said to have the power of walking in the twilight and peering into a child's window when the child was alone.

Elderberries are a very good source of Vitamin C and also make wonderful jelly and wines – but don't forget to leave some for the birds. Use the flowers to make a delicious cordial or wine.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Folklore of the hedgerow. Part Two.

Folklore of the Hedgerow.

Blackthorn. Draighean. Classified in early Irish law as one of the Fodla Fedo, or Lower Divisions of the Wood.

The Blackthorn is depicted in many fairytales throughout Europe as a tree of ill omen. Called Straif in the Ogham, this tree has the most sinister reputation in Celtic tree lore. The English word “strife” is said to derive from this Celtic word. To Witches, it often represents the dark side of the Craft. It is a sacred tree to the Dark, or Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess, and represents the Waning and Dark Moons. Blackthorn is known as “the increaser and keeper of dark secrets”. The tree is linked with warfare, wounding and death, associated with the Cailleach - the Crone of Death, and the Irish Morrigan. Winter begins when the Cailleach (also the Goddess of Winter) strikes the ground with her Blackthorn staff.

The Irish cudgel is called a bata or shillelagh (see previous posts on Irish stick fighting). Although it is made from Oak, Ash or Holly it is usually made from Blackthorn, this is a hard, strong, plentiful wood that also has a very convenient knob that is formed from the root of the shrub. Its bark is especially tough and the wood was cured by burying it in a dung heap or smearing it with butter then placing it up the chimney.

Where Blackthorn grows near its sister plant the Hawthorn, the site is especially magical. Blackthorn often topped the Maypole entwined with Hawthorn, and is called “Mother of the Woods”. At New Year, celebrants made Blackthorn crowns, which they burned in the New Year’s fire. The ashes were used to fertilize the fields.

The Blackthorn has a long and often sinister history, associated with witchcraft and murder, but it is also associated with the concept of the cycle of life and death and protection not to mention its practical physical uses. It is often associated with darkness, winter, and the waning or dark moon, a particularly cold spring is referred to as 'a Blackthorn winter'.

The devil was said to prick the fingers of his followers with Blackthorn to seal their pact. It is considered the opposite of the benign Hawthorn (which is also known as Whitethorn) with which it so frequently grows. The Blackthorns spines are extremely hard and can cause a great deal of bleeding, and the wound will often turn septic. They were frequently used as pins by English witches and became known as the 'pin of slumber'. The shrub was denounced as a witch’s tool by the church and therefore the wood of the Blackthorn was used for the pyres of witches and heretics.

The thorns were also placed under horse’s saddles, by the rider’s enemies, causing the horse to throw its rider when the spines pieced the horses flesh, causing injury or death to the unfortunate rider.

The Blackthorn is also seen as a protective tree and representative of the endless cycle of life and death. For all its deadly associations the blossoms were used in ancient fertility rites as well as being hung in the bedchamber of a bride on her wedding night. It provides blossom whilst there is still snow on the ground while everything else still seems dead from its winter sleep, its dense branches protect the year’s new chicks from predation and in their adulthood provides them with food when many other species of plant have lost their berries. It is a thicket of these trees that protects sleeping beauty in her castle, and witches in northern England would carve the symbol for thorn on a Blackthorn staff for protection.

The tree itself is said to be protected by the fairy folk. It is considered a fairy tree and is protected by the Lunantishee, a type of fairy that inhabits it. They will not allow a mortal to cut Blackthorn on May 11th or Nov 11th (said to have been the original dates of Beltaine (May Day) and Samhain (All Hallows Eve) before the calendar was changed. Great misfortune will befall anyone who ignores this advice. The Lunantishee may also be the Leannán Sidhe or Fairy Lover (see previous posts).

Blackthorn wood is the traditional wood for walking sticks due to its durability and rich colour when polished. It has long been favoured by farmers along with the Hawthorn as a hedging shrub. It is also known as Mother of the woods, Dark mother of the woods, Pear Hawthorn, Wishing Thorn and Spiny Plum and of course The Sloe.

The flowers appear before the leaves in the spring, heralding the start of that season. They are a diuretic and depurative (or blood purifier), useful as a spring cleansing tonic and for skin conditions such as acne. The bark is used as an astringent and to treat fever and is also gathered in the spring. The leaves are also astringent and diuretic. The unripe fruit is used to treat acne. There is mention of combining the leaves, bark, fruits and flowers together for certain traditional cures; presumably some of these would be in dried form. The ripe fruit is traditionally gathered after the first frost, which sweetens the taste. They are used to prepare sloe gin, or as a winter fruit to add to pies and jams or to brew wine.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Folklore of the hedgerow. Part One.

I'm going to leave the vernacular cottage for a while and I thought that the folklore of our hedgerow may prove of interest. I will begin with "The little ugly thing" or as he is known "The Hedgehog".

Folklore of the hedgehog.

The Hedgehog, also called the Gráinneog in Irish (Little ugly thing).

However it is not a native Irish mammal having been introduced round the 13th century by the Normans.

There are many stories concerning the hedgehog. In the first century, Pliny the Elder, in his Historia Naturalis, told a story about how the hedgehog would climb apple trees, knock the fruit off, and then roll on the apples impaling them on its spikes and carrying them down to their burrows. Now not only do hedgehogs not climb trees but they don’t store food in their burrows either. Although it didn’t stop some people trying to prove he was right (they never succeeded).

In ancient Rome, the hedgehog was used to forecast spring. If during hibernation it looked out of its burrow (around the start of February) and saw its own shadow then it meant that there was a clear moon and this was believed to herald six more weeks of winter and so it would return to its sleep.

In medieval Britain, farmers believed that hedgehogs stole milk from cows by sucking on them at night, they were even said to be witches in disguise. In 1566, the Elizabethan parliament put a three pence bounty on the head of every hedgehog that was caught and killed. Even the church got involved offering bounties of their own.

Hedgehogs certainly enjoy milk and some vets have reported damage to cow’s udders which may have been caused by a hedgehog’s distinctive teeth marks so it would appear that the odd hedgehog has had a nibble. Thousands were slaughtered as a result.

The poor auld hedgehog's were then accused of being egg thieves, now while it’s true that they will eat the odd egg; most of these have already been cracked or damaged. It has been suggested that hedgehogs would actually find it difficult to break open an egg as they don’t have the physical capability. However, thousands more were hunted down and killed as a result of this, a practice which is still carried on today.

The hedgehog has even been considered a food by some people. The common method of cooking is to roll them in clay (spines and all) you then bake it in a fire, once cooked remove the hardened clay taking the spines with it. I know it sounds disgusting but at one time it was believed that eating hedgehogs would cure the sick of a variety of ailments including leprosy, boils and even poor vision. It has been suggested that certain gypsies will still eat hedgehogs as a cure for poisoning and removing evil spells but I cannot swear to this.

In the past folklore says that hedgehog’s could predict a change in the weather (the Roman’s knew this), they were said to alter the entrance to their burrow accordingly. The hedgehog was also worshipped by some cultures; some thought that a figure representing Mother Earth would take the form of a hedgehog. In particular, they were associated with the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar (also known by her Greek name Asorte) who was the Goddess of love and war.

To the ancient Egyptians, the hedgehog symbolised reincarnation because they were said to have interpreted the hedgehog’s hibernation cycle as if it was dying in autumn and then being reborn in the spring.

Next I will talk of some of the trees that grow in an Irish hedgerow.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Those born in the month of April.

The Alder Tree. 18 March - 14 April.

People born under the sign of the Alder are brave, full of energy and very determined. They depend on their own instincts and are willing to take risks. They are also hard working and affectionate with loads of charm. They will be good leaders who inspire loyalty and passion and attract people to them like bees to honey. They have a natural confidence and great faith and belief in their own abilities and through this they will carry others along with them.

Alder people do not like wasting energy or time and are motivated by action if there can be results but they consider their time to be valuable and will not take kindly to time wasters. Be careful not to forget or leave behind others in your rush to be successful. You can be a great allie but tend to prefer to fight for yourself rather than others and sometimes your actions can result in other people getting hurt.

You can be an excellent leader but the reverse side of this can mean you may be selfish, have a quick temper and can make enemies. You can be the life and soul of the party because of your good humour and energy but you may have an ego that tends to crave attention and recognition.

You are an entrepreneur but may take dangerous risks so remember this can make you vulnerable. You love competition but on the reverse side if things don’t go your way then you tend to quit and move on to something more promising.

Your strong sense of worth, self esteem and positive energy means you will not be easily forgotten by those whose path you cross for you will always speak your mind. You will make someone a loving partner and a great parent.

Your animal is The Hawk.

Clear sighted with the ability to swoop down when opportunity presents itself. Bold and decisive.

Willow. April 15th-May 12th.

Born in the second half of April you are ruled by the moon and so have a certain mystical quality. You are highly creative and have great intuition. You may be highly psychic although you may not yet realise it and you are intelligent with a keen understanding of all things that surround you.

You have a deep understanding of nature and the passing seasons and the ability to take all things in your stride showing compassion and patience for you have the ability to bend with the winds of change without breaking. You are realistic and your perception of others is based on a strong intuition and you will always listen to your inner voice. Along with your intelligence you have a natural ability to retain knowledge and you are able to converse on a number of different levels and expound on subjects because of your great memory.

Willow people have great potential but are a little wary and tend to hold back through a fear of appearing pushy or over bearing but you should let your true self shine through. You will succeed in life for it is in your destiny. You are full of mystery but because of this you may be difficult to get to know. You will make a good friend but a bad enemy for you are tenacious in all you do.

You can be a good counsellor and a wise adviser. You will make a good parent and will be very protective of loved ones but you are also prone to mood changes and find it hard to forgive and forget. Willow people have a deep sense of responsibility so they make good teachers or they can hold down positions that will make use of this responsibility. You are reluctant to express your opinions in public but this will not stop you from having very strong opinions in private. You tend to worry about your health this may be because you have an imagination that works overtime.

You may show an interest in genealogy especially that of your own family. You can be very loyal but don’t allow others to dominate you or try to influence you if this is against your wishes for you can be completely devoted to those you love and sometimes this can be taken advantage of.

Your Animal is The Serpent.

You have a strong spiritual alignment with those around you. You have great wisdom and cunning and the ability to be passive and gentle but if threatened you can be transformed into a dangerous adversary.

This is just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously.

Vernacular Cottage Part Four. Artefacts.

Household items:

Washing your clothes in days gone by was not as easy as it is today. The woman of the house had to use the tub and wash board. She would have a big chunk of green soap (fairy) and buckets of water that she had to heat on the range (before the range it would be over the open fire). Getting water was very labour intensive as she had to go to the well and pump. She would soak the clothes then rub soap on them and then scrub them up and down the wash board until she had a good lather then plunge them into the water. She would eventually be able to put the washing through the rollers of the wringer and in summer hang them outside either on a line or over the Whin bushes (Gorse). The thorns stopped the clothes from blowing away in the breeze.

Ironing your clothes was done with a flat iron, this was heated over the open fire or on the range. They were made from cast iron and heavy to use. You would need a few of them because as you used one you had others heating up. The normal way to test how hot they were was to spit on them. Eventually the flat iron was replaced with the box iron. This was a hollow type that was filled with hot embers or a piece of red hot metal that had been heated in the fire. It had a lift up door in the back into which the hot material was placed and if you were careful you could use a small pair of bellows to blow air in to increase the heat.

In many of the old vernacular cottages there was no bathroom so bath night was in front of the fireplace. This was done in a tin bath, often on a Saturday night so you were nice and clean for Sunday when every child was dragged off to church. Again water had to be carried from the well and heated over the fire or on the range so it might have been used for more than one child.

Many homes in rural areas did not have an inside toilet until well into the Twentieth Century. This meant a long trek out into the garden to use a dry toilet. This was a particular problem at night when it was not easy to find your way in the dark. The solution to this was to use a chamber pot. The chamber pot also had another name “The gozunda” because it goes under the bed.

A cobbler’s last was owned by every house and this was used to either make or repair the family’s shoes.

Oil lamps and Rushlights that also had a candle holder attached were used to supply light before electrification came to rural Ireland.

A common sight in old cottages would be the slabs of cured or smoked bacon hanging from the rafters. The way you ‘smoked’ the bacon was by hanging it on a metal hook up the chimney stack, the bacon was then cured by the rising wood smoke from the fire. I suppose it might even be at the mercy of the turf smoke?

Image One: An early washing machine??
Image Two: Slabs of smoked or cured bacon hanging from the rafters.
Image Three: A flat iron.
Image Four: A cobbler's last.
Image five: A chamber pot or gozunda??