In the middle of a field stands a lone hawthorn tree. It looks the same as any other hawthorn tree with its serrated leaves, knotty bark, and thorny branches, but this tree is special. This is what’s known as a fairy tree, and it has magical powers.
Dotted throughout the Irish countryside are lonely trees standing untouched in the stark landscape. These fairy trees act as portals to the other world that, according to Irish folklore, the ‘wee folk’ of the Sidhe inhabit.
What are Fairy Trees?
Fairy trees are magical trees that act as gateways between the mortal world and the other world where the faeries live. Fairy trees also act as a sacred meeting place for these otherworldly beings, making them places of great significance.
Fairy trees can be of any species, although they’re most commonly hawthorn or ash. However, it’s the location that truly distinguishes a fairy tree from an ordinary tree.
While ordinary trees grow in woods, fairy trees stand alone in the middle of a field or by the side of a road.
Throughout history, the Irish people have been superstitious about fairy trees, with farmers unwilling to remove them, even when if it means they can’t grow crops where the tree stands. That’s why you’ll often see an untouched fairy tree standing in the middle of a perfectly cultivated field.
According to folklore, cutting down a fairy tree would bring bad luck for the rest of your life. On the other hand, those that treat the tree with respect, offering gifts or decorating it with ribbons, stand to be blessed by the residents of the other world.
How are Irish Fairy Trees connected to Folklore and Mythology?
For many years, a mythical race known as the Tuatha Dé Danann lived in Ireland and was worshipped by the Irish people. This tribe consisted of supernatural, godlike beings bestowed with special powers.
When the Gaels arrived in Ireland in the 11th century, they defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, forcing them to retreat underground. Here, they became known as the Sidhe, or faeries, of the other world.
The faeries used various gateways and portals to travel back into the mortal world. These were situated at the base of magical fairy trees, in burial mounds, and fairy forts. Some could even travel between worlds by diving underwater.
Fairy Trees Superstition
According to Irish folklore, fairy trees can bring either good or bad luck depending on how you treat them.
What Happens if You Cut Down a Fairy Tree?
If you chop a fairy tree down, it’s said that you’ll be cursed with bad luck for the rest of your life. Some even believe that “you will never get a good nights sleep again.”
Even taking a bough of the plant when it’s in flower can anger the faeries and bring bad luck on your family.
These superstitions may seem outlandish, but there’s evidence to suggest there might be some truth to the rumors.
In the 1980s, the car manufacturer DeLorean decided to build a new luxury car plant in Dunmurry, near Belfast.
Standing on the proposed site was a lone tree, regarded as many as a fairy tree. After his workers refused to bulldoze the tree, Chairman John DeLorean did it himself.
The company subsequently went into receivership and closed permanently in October 1982.
The superstition surrounding the removal of a fairy tree is so great that, in 1999, a proposed road between Limerick and Galway was re-routed to save a prominent fairy tree growing on the proposed route. The move delayed the completion of the road by a decade!
Can You Touch a Fairy Tree?
Although some offer gifts in the form of ribbons that they tie to the branches of a fairy tree, the main myth states that even touching one could attract the attention of the faeries and bring bad luck or ill health to your door.
What Happens if You Thank a Fairy Tree?
You’d think that thanking a fairy tree would bring you good luck, but that’s not the case. In the other world of faeires, it’s considered rude to say thank you as it suggests that “you’d forget the good deed they’d done for you.”
The best way to deal with fairy trees is to avoid them, as you would any place where faeries might congregate.
There are some exceptions, however. Golfers at the Ormeau golf course in Belfast are encouraged to nod at the fairy tree that stands there and apologize to it if they hit it with their golf balls. No one touches the tree, however, not even the club’s gardeners!
What Types of Trees are Considered Fairy Trees in Ireland?
Fairy trees can be of any species, although they’re most commonly hawthorn trees, although the fairy people will utilize the occasional ash tree if needs must. The location of the tree is what truly distinguishes a fairy tree.
While ordinary trees grow in woods, fairy trees stand alone in the middle of a field or by the side of a road. Many of them are surrounded by a ring of rocks or stones, which protect the tree and signify its importance.
Folklore stories maintain that, in order to grow in such exposed areas and withstand the harsh elements, “there had to be some sort of magical force helping them.”
Are there any Famous Fairy Trees in Ireland that are Worth Visiting?
You can find fairy trees dotted around every village in Ireland. Almost every farmer has at least one, but some are more famous than others.
The Hill of Tara Wishing Tree
One important faerie tree stands on the Hill of Tara in County Meath.
Also known as a Wishing Tree, the lone hawthorn tree standing on the Hill of Tara is extremely important. The area around it was once an ancient burial site and later became the seat of the high kings of Ireland.
Unfortunately, this famous faerie tree is now struggling to stand under the weight of the human ‘prayers’ and offerings bestowed upon it.
The tree toppled over in 2019 after too many people attached non-biodegradable offerings to its branches. According to the Tara Skryne Preservation Group, the message from the tree is clear – it no longer wants these human burdens!
The tradition of tying offerings to a tree is an old Irish tradition, but not one that was originally linked to fairy trees. Rag trees, as they are known, stand at holy wells and other ancient sites, while fairy trees are often situated in exposed, windswept locations.
As a result, the weight and amount of offerings attached to the tree “has caused a sail effect in high winds,” resulting in it toppling over.
Fortunately, many fairy trees have escaped this tradition and stand untouched, just as the fairies would want.
Fairy Tree in County Clare
The fairy tree that caused the re routing of the road between Limerick and Galway still stands proudly by the side of the road, despite being vandalized in 2002. The tree responded by magically sprouting new growth just eight months after the attack.
Although many drive past this gnarly hawthorn bush, few stop to offer prayers, perhaps because its believed to be a battleground where the fairies of Connacht and Kerry attempt to resolve their ancient conflicts.
There are many stories about certain trees, but few have survived in modern times. Nevertheless, the belief that removing this tree would enable the conflicting fairy armies to find a common ground halted road works as recently as 1999.
People feared that, should the tree be removed or cut down, the fairies would join forces and “wreak havoc on County Clare” for “anywhere between 10-15 years.”
How can People Learn More about Irish Fairy Trees?
There are some excellent online resources that explore the history of fairy trees and explain what the Celts believed about the other world, its inhabitants and its many entrances.
I found this article site particularly helpful while this one discusses where to find fairy trees in Northern Ireland and beyond. Irish folktales like this one also shed light on the significance of fairy trees.
Why might the Irish Tradition of Fairy Trees be Relevant or Meaningful Today?
Even ordinary trees are pretty magical. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to combat the effects of climate change.
Irish folklore may seek to protect fairy trees because of the wee folk that utilizes them, but their powers go beyond that.
Hawthorn trees, in particular, provide shelter and nesting space for various species of hedgerow birds, while fruit-eating birds like blackbirds and thrushes feed on its fruits.
The more trees we protect, the better it is for our environment, which suggests that the Irish tradition of watching over fairy trees is even more critical in modern times than it was in ancient Ireland.
To the Irish, fairy trees are sacred and full of magic. They allow the wee folk to move between worlds.
They also provide meeting places and battlegrounds where fairy communities gather and attempt to resolve their differences.
In Ireland, fairies are dangerous spirits that are easily angered and slow to forgive, which is why fairy trees are heavily protected wherever they grow.
Even if you don’t believe in Irish folklore, protecting these sacred hawthorn trees is just as important in modern times as it was for the ancient Celts.
Hawthorn trees provide shelter and food for many different species, including fairies, and help reduce the impact of climate change.
Personally, I hope there are wee folk living among the roots of Ireland’s famous faerie trees, and if there are, I hope they are powerful enough to protect these trees long into the future.
"Like many so-called Brits, I have a bit of Irish and a bit of Scottish in my blood, which is possibly where the red hair comes from. I’ve been fascinated by the history of Ireland for years, since I discovered the story of the Irish Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley.