The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 6/Irish Plant-Lore Notes


The Smooth-leaf Holly.

IN the north of Ireland, especially Donegal, I have heard the smooth-leaf holly called the "Queen of the Wood," but I could not learn the reason why. Lately, however, I was in Ross and Cromarty, and learned, when in the neighbourhood of Loch Maree, that St. Maelrubha (who is both an Irish and Scotch saint) founded the church of Applecross A.D. 673, and died there on the 21st April, A.D. 722. He was much venerated in Gairloch, having his residence on Tuchmaree in Loch Maree. He is said to have introduced "the sacred smooth-leaf holly to outrival the Druidical oaks," and dedicated it to the Blessed Virgin. In the neighbourhood of the western end of Loch Maree there was a Druidical station, the ancient oaks, under which they sat, still remaining, and it is said that up to not long ago the place was used as a manor court.

The Ash.

A lady has sent me the following query and notes in connection with the ash in Ireland. Can any correspondent answer the query? "Can any one give me information as to whether the common ash is treated with veneration in Ireland—whether it is supposed to be a sacred tree in any sense (as it is in England and Scotland), or possessed of mystic virtue, or malignant influence of any kind? As well as I can remember when I was a child, in days now long ago, the country people in Tipperary used to use the common ash and the rowan-tree indiscriminately to keep the witches, or evil influences of Bome sort, away from the cows. Whether this was done only at certain seasons or on certain days of the year I cannot recollect, but that the presence of leaves and branches about the cows' heads (which I have often seen) was considered to secure a good supply of milk I am certain, although not quite so sure that the common ash as well as the rowan-tree was used. I also remember an old gate-keeper in Tipperary telling me that the ash made the best of all walking-sticks, giving as a reason that ash trees might grow wherever they liked, but had a way of growing 'all of themselves' on the ruins of old churches and on the tops of the walls round graveyards. It was 'a good tree,' he said, and the impression left upon my mind was that he implied some mysterious sanctity in it. A few years ago, in Cork, at a holy well where an ash and some thorn-trees were decked with the usual rag offerings, a countryman I met at the spot told me the Irish held the ash and the thorn to be the best of all trees; but further information on the subject I could not get from him. I shall be much obliged if any one will help me with Irish ash-tree lore."

The rowan and hazel are known to have been and still are considered sacred trees; but the lone trees and those most often found at holy wells, stations, and ancient churches are the ash, the hawthorn (May), and the yew. When in such places they are considered holy, but whether they are naturally holy, or get their sanctity from the places, I cannot learn. The hawthorn, or skea, grows in most unaccountable places, away in wild mountains, and under such circumstances is supposed to be a fairy haunt. There was such a tree on the lone mountain road between Feakle and Gort near the mearing of Clare and Galway. When a boy my attention was directed to it by the parson of Feakle, who said it was considered a fairy bush, and pointed out the worn spot under it where they danced. The fairies were said to have left the county during the famine years (1848-52) as the grass grew on the bare spot, but they returned afterwards. As this was the only shelter for miles on the road, it is possible that it was not the fairies but sheltering wayfarers that wore away the grass; the latter growing during the famine years while the country was desolate and without an inhabitant. Also dififerent thrushes carry the haws and plant them in the out-of-the-way places where the hawthorn grows. In North Munster the fieldfare or feld is called the skeauraun because it carries the haws and sows the skea in the grass-land.

What carried the seed of the ash, except the wind, I do not know, as I think it is too bitter for any bird to eat. As it grows so quickly, is so easily transplanted, and is so common, it is not to be wondered at if it was specially planted adjoining the wells, while afterwards it would be protected by its sacred position. Some of the oldest Irish trees that I remember to have seen were ash; especially a hollow one at Duniny, co. Gal way, in which a hedge-schoolmaster held his school. A second very large one in the same county is at an ancient church near the shore of Lough Derg, its back having sent up a circle of young ash-trees. The yew's connection with ecclesiastical settlements seem to have been principally due to its being required on Palm Sunday in the religious procession. A great many places in Ireland, as mentioned by Joyce, have been called after the yew. Among the others, Youghall, co. Cork, was called after a yew-wood now under the sea in Youghall bay, while Mayo was the plain of the yews. There are different fine ones still remaining in some of the ancient abbeys as at Muckruss, Killarney; while lone leafless stumps occur in places all over the island, the finest assembly being on the crags near the ferry of Knock on the Galway side of Lough Corrib; of them there used to be twenty-three or thereabouts coming up out of the bare crag. These ancient yews must have been as old as the yews found below the peat in the neighbouring bogs.