Tara: Whitethorn Fairy Trees

By July 25, 2014 at 8:44 am

Ireland, a land filled with superstitions and traditions, some good some not so good.

At Summer Solstice 2014, I was approached by one of my fellow Tara campaigners to participate in the celebrations at Royal Tara. One of the activities organised for the day was an examination and tidy up of certain trees close to the Lia Fáil. I was shocked when I saw them up close. Tara had always been a beautiful green site, with gorgeous views and folk worked hard to keep it that way down through the years, so when I saw what had become of the beautiful Tara white thorns I was disgusted.

This beautiful tree was now smothered in trash, which is the only word for it.

Rag trees are fairly well known in Ireland and they can be found at Holy Wells. It is an old custom or tradition for folk to tie a small bit of linen cloth around a branch of a certain tree in the hope that the Fae will grant their wish, which usually was a request for healing, fertility, or help in other situations. As the rag degrades it is hoped the wish will be granted. The fairy folk are usually associated with a certain type of lone whitethorn or blackthorn, but other trees are occasionally used also such as the White Ash at the Holy Well at Fore.

The whitethorns in question at Tara, up until 4yrs ago were beautiful specimens, without problems and very healthy, standing proud. Then one person tied a rag to it, and started the ball rolling on the destruction of the tree, as others followed suit eventually overloading the trees with rubbish. During the tidy up of the tree we found handcuffs closed around a healthy branch close to the main trunk, a broken rusted umbrella, metal chains, padlocks, plastic bags, nylon hair bands, all sorts of underwear, branches tied together with material, and any amount of other plastic rubbish and non biodegradable materials, some of which were of a personal hygiene nature.

This type of abuse damaged the trees, a lot of the lower branches are now dead wood, other branches are struggling as their buds are covered with material and leaf unable to open. Bark and branches are badly cracked. When the rain falls, the sheer weight of all that material is causing branches to break under the burden.

Nails and copper coins have been hammered into the bark, opening the tree to parasites and other problems such as bacterial and viral infection. Copper is poisonous to trees. While there used to be a tradition of hammering coins into wood, it was always a dead tree or piece of wood that was used, not a living tree, or a pin or coin was thrown into a Holy Well.

The local birds rely on the berries, insects rely on the buds. This tree is part of the local ecology and the effect of its loss is far reaching. The tree itself is very hard to reproduce and is of a variety that is hard to transplant or grow from scratch.

So while it is understandable that this practice is based an old tradition, the tree in question was not initially a Rag Tree, and isn’t situated beside a Holy Well. There is a fairy tree at Tara which folk have visited for many years, but it is now nearly dead and the focus has shifted to the trees near the centre of Tara.

Using a tree in this way is sad. How damaging the trees is supposed to get your wish granted by the fairy that live there is a puzzle. I know if you where damaging my home the last thing I would do is grant you a wish, I may actually turn against you, unsurprisingly.

So what can be done? If you are visiting a place and see these trees, please do not add to the problem and please encourage others not to add to the tree’s burden.

At Tara we performed a rite, sending all the wishes to the spirits, asking that healing was given where needed. We then proceeded to try and remove the worst of the rubbish, and when I see crisp bags being tied to a tree, then yes it is rubbish.

There was an amazing ash tree at Fore which was listed as one of the seven wonders of Fore, it was said that a piece of its’ wood, placed on a fire would not burn. Now it is just a piece of dead wood which folk still tie rags to. The healing well at its roots, which once had miraculous healing powers is now dried up. What right have folk to destroy these beautiful trees, especially when there is usually a Holy Well nearby which can supply them with a better alternative. They can even take some of its water away with them. This does no harm to the local flora and fauna and is a much healthier way to deal with healing issues by far.

Tara has enough to deal with as it is slowly eroded away by human encroachment and destruction, what we have left needs to be carefully nurtured by you and I.

We hope to come up with alternatives for folk visiting. Suggestions so far include installing a bell that folk can ring, state their wish and spend some time with the tree for example. Some folk think biodegradable pieces of paper folk can write on would help, then add these to tree, but personally I wouldn’t give paper which has been made from a chopped down tree, back to a tree! It usually becomes litter for someone else to pick up anyway! Some folk prefer to leave a strand of hair on the tree, or maybe a feather at the foot of the tree, or a small offering of food, but it must be remembered that local wildlife are sometimes allergic to human food e.g. hedgehogs are lactose intolerant, nutmeg is poisonous to dogs etc. so leaving food could be detrimental to local wildlife. What would seem safe to us may actually kill or sicken an animal, bird or insect.

There have been notices placed by TSPG asking folk not to add to the problem but they are always removed and destroyed. It is hoped a more permanent notice can be arranged at a future date.

So enjoy the outdoors and our rich Irish heritage but please help take some responsibility for ensuring that these wonderful trees stay healthy.

text © Debra Hoyle   |   photograph Fairy Tree, Hill of Tara © John Wilmott


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