When the former owners of Reavilleen came to welcome us to the house in April, the wife, Paddy, brought me a sprig of hellebore from her garden to brighten my windowsill. It was a sweet gesture that brought a bit of the outdoors in during the cold and dreary days of April as we toiled away in cleaning and prepping the house. As we walked around the property she pointed out the plants they had placed as hedgerows and said to me: Those are whitethorns and hawthorns. They bloom beautifully in May, but never bring the blooms or branches into the house. It is Pishogue. I nodded thoughtfully and filed away the note, going so far as to write it in my list of things about the house – Whitethorn. Not inside. Is Pishogue. I had a general sense that it was forbidden, but she quickly diverted the conversation to travel and America and I lost my chance to inquire in depth.
As soon as we started meeting local people and getting on friendly terms I began asking what pishogue meant. Most of our friends just shook their heads and laughed. Oh, just superstition or That’s an old Irish thing or My mother used to say that too or I don’t believe in witchcraft. And while they laughed at it or brushed it off, most agreed that they, too, didn’t do some things that were considered pishogue. Superstition, spells, charms, folklore. Call it what you will, but the –thorn family of trees have a strong association with fairies and death, as being gateways between worlds.
After doing a little research I found that:
“Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed, but there was a taboo against bringing hawthorn into the house. Mediaeval country folk also asserted that the smell of hawthorn blossom was just like the smell of the Great Plague in London. 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.” 1.
“The hawthorn was often seen as a gateway into the fairy realms. Thomas the Rhymer, a Scottish poet in the C13th claimed to have met the Fairy Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Otherworld for a short visit, but when he emerged, he found that seven years had passed.”2.
“In Ireland it was believed that if one of your neighbors 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 fairies. It was also planted around the house and sheds to keep away witches.”3.
Indeed, to this day you can drive by perfectly plowed fields with rows as straight as a laser (indeed, sometimes laid out by such modern tools) and smack in the middle there will be a crazy looped diversion around a big hawthorn tree. Oak and Ash also enjoy some protection in the world of superstition, but none hold the fearsome reckoning that comes with disturbing the – thorn world of witches and fairies. Recently in County Clare they diverted a large road works already in progress because a large band of locals warned that if the Whitethorn in the way of the diggers was disturbed there would be death and destruction associated with the future road. Nearly 1.3 million euro was spent to re-jigger the plan. Belief in superstition runs deep and permeates the most mundane aspects of daily life, especially in the rural communities such as ours. I can’t tell you the amount of times we have been mid-conversation with someone and they have uttered a phrase and then said Touch Wood to ward off whatever evil spirits might be lurking to carry out some dastardly deed. I find myself knocking on wood when I say something bad, too, though I have done that my whole life. Salt over the shoulder, an offering on a windowsill, a ritual to start or end the day, we do all of these things to beat back the possibility of the furies exacting revenge.
Another West Cork custom that has enchanted us is the display of the Infant de Prague. We found ours left for us in a kitchen drawer by the renters that lived here before we bought Reavilleen. As I was scrubbing the drawer interiors I flung open the small one and this porcelain painted figuring came rolling forward. I held it up to show Tom and wondered at its significance and then put it aside. Near the end of our trip that April I placed it on the mantle over the stove, up out of reach, and began to ask our Irish friends for information. Apparently the statue is commonplace in Irish Catholic households, and is the grantor of wishes for good weather for weddings, communions, and confirmations. One has to place the statue under a bush or hedge the night before the event and say a prayer. Also, a coin placed at the feet of the statue ensures the house will never be hungry or want for anything. The statue’s power is increased if it is continually displayed, even if the head has been knocked off, though this has to happen accidentally. Our Infant holds its prominent spot on the mantelpiece, and even though neither Tom nor I practice religion, we have no intentions of taking it down from its honored spot. There are some traditions you just don’t mess with.
As this trip draws to a close I find myself already planning for our next return, as I am deeply enamored with the rhythms and customs of this country. Market days on Friday and Saturday, exploring on Sunday and Monday (but no shopping or eating because most everything is closed!) and Tuesday Wednesday Thursday of housework, gardening, daytrips, and art making. Clare is enclosed in her little garret up under the eaves, Tom has set up his studio in the utility room, and I rule the kitchen and dining rooms with three squares a day made on my finicky Irish cooker. There is a simplicity and a beauty to days of exploring and expanding our horizons. Tom’s retirement and my rest phase have come at a time when it is possible to relish the small things such as friends coming to visit and planning for parties in the future. There is no doubt that our current life is a charmed one; one that I hope to share with others. I’ll just be sure to leave the hawthorn branches outside and a little coin under the toes of the Infant de Prague in the hope that these and many other blessings will be granted.