I remember my uncle Tommy Makem once telling me that when he was a teenager, he one day casually brought a few sprigs of broom – an evergreen bush – into the house. His father, my grandfather, was immediately aghast. He sprang to his feet and stepped back toward the wall in a state of shock.
“Get that out of this house! Now! Get that broom to hell out of this house!”
It was as if a leper had sauntered in with a face of sores in full view. Tommy made a sudden and speedy exit with his piece of broom, equally shocked at the anger in front of him, closed the door behind him and went away to sort out what exactly he had done wrong.
He soon found out that it was all about bringing back luck to the household. For a long time afterwards my grandfather went through all sorts of rituals with an utterly solemn face, shaking holy water all around him, sweeping the floor in case any part of the broom bush had dropped, opening the door to let out whatever might have remained in the air, and only hours later did he begin to settle, satisfied that he had healed the intrusion, that anything spiritually contagious had fled and was away somewhere else never to come again. Normality resumed.
When Tommy ventured home, he was surprised at the calm and was simply told not to bring such a bad luck thing into the house again and no more would be said, because it was even bad luck to talk about it.
The Faerie Tree
In the middle of a neighbour’s field adjacent to our land in Derrynoose is a large ash tree, sometimes called a rowan tree. When quite young, I recall the local farmer arriving on the tractor to plough this field, and I marvelled how he ploughed around it in an ever-narrowing circle.
Then when he came to harrow the field, he did the same manoeuvre and when opening drills to sow the potatoes, expertly drove around the beech, close, but never touching it.
Later in the year when we would go to help the farmer gather potatoes there, things followed the same procedure, the same ritual. Then I heard, quite accidentally, that there was a problem with this tree. It had grown from a sapling over three generations, and none would dare touch it as it was designated a Faerie Tree.
This means, as I later discovered, that it was, along with the oak, a designated sacred plant in Irish folklore where certain spirits lived, and it announced its presence by growing in specific isolated places such as the middle of a field.
It was downright bad luck to cut down a faerie tree or damage it in any way, that a person will never know a good night’s sleep again for the rest of their lives if they harmed it as if it were a living, knowing entity, watching everything happening.
Through every generation, the owners would not dare touch it, or even break a twig of a branch. That is a fact.
I heard that the ill-fated DeLorean car company, that was the iconic symbol of the 1980s here, was built in a Belfast factory on a plot of ground where a faerie tree was said to have stood. They were warned. But the tree was cut down to make way for the factory and folklorists contend that this is the reason for the failure of the company, nothing at all to do with its finances.
In recent times, the Ennis bypass in Co. Clare was delayed for a number of years due to a faerie tree on the chosen path of the motorway, and the road eventually opened going around the faerie tree.
Forty years after I first noticed what was happening in Derrynoose, the tree still stands alone and aloof in the neighbour’s field, and only the odd scratching of a cow or calf disturbs the peace. I heard of no problems with milking, so I presume the animal kingdom is immune.
But again, locals don’t talk too much about these things, that even to make comment is tempting fate.
The Cycle of Three
There is a third superstition, if in fact it may be referred to as such, that in some townlands, people die in threes, and then a new cycle begins. There’s one local townland – I’m not allowed to say its name as it might tempt fate and start another cycle.
My father often commented on this, that after a long gap of say 20 years, somebody would die and people would say “that’s the first. One down, two to go!” And within a year there’d be another from the same townland and then people would start talking about who was not well, or getting very old, or not looking great, or that somebody could be knocked down by a car or train, or some disease taken them “like snow off a ditch.” But always within the three-year cycle, fate would take somebody else.
I remember in a much later cycle only two people died within the time limit and people thought that was the end of the entire business and it was all a thing of the past. But then word came from America that a native of this townland had in fact died out there a few months previous, and order was restored.
I have no idea as to the origin of these things. But I know that the present modern generation in this non-superstitions scientific age of the Internet and atheism and whatever are as sensitive as their ancestors to these matters.
Would I disturb a faerie tree? No. Would I bring a twig of broom into the house? Never! Would I declare the cycles of death in specific townlands as old wives tales?
Not a chance, especially now that the net has been widened to include the US, Britain, Australia and the worldwide Irish Diaspora.