So. Thorn Maiden. What’s that about then?

Many years ago, I watch a series of Irish language programmes on the BBC. The fact that most were filmed around Donegal was a big draw – it was fun to spot the different areas.

One episode stuck in my mind – The Thorn Maiden. It wasn’t the setting, but the story. I was aware that hawthorn trees had a special status in Ireland: an old superstition that they should never be cut down. Sometimes, they were called ‘fairy trees’. Supposedly, they were inhabited or protected by Irish fairies – the fay, sidhe, little folk, Tuatha De Danaan, lords and ladies, etc. and so forth. Irish fairies are not the twinkly, fluttering, bluebell-dwelling,  granters of wishes of Victorian England. They’re a troublesome bunch of savages, to be avoided or placated. Leave a bowl of milk on your doorstep, or your cows will go dry. Dress your sons as girls till they’re four, or risk them being stolen. Never travel past a crossroads or a fairy ring or a henge by night, or be driven mad or taken in the dance. Bargains struck with them will always go wrong – for you. Their favour is as damaging as their enmity. They’ll taken you for your beauty, or your talent, or just for the music of your screams.  A right shower, the lot of them. You have been warned.

Personally, I look for the practical reasons behind these old superstitions. Don’t walk under a ladder, not because it’s bad luck, but because the eejit on top of it will probably drop his hammer on your head. Black cats crossing your path are bad luck only if you trip over them, and thirteen is an unfortunate number of guests at a formal déjeuner.  Now, thorn trees have been used forever as boundary markers, hedging, and so on. Great stuff for keeping the sheep contained, and keeping the grockles orff yore laaaaarnd. Funnily enough, if someone were to take an axe to your thorn tree, well, there go the sheep, and all sorts of undesirables would be turning up on your doorstep. Bailiffs and landlords, for example, or that land-grabbing fecker down the road who can now claim that the boundary marker between your farms is that tree 200 yards closer to your house than the one that’s now warming his hearth…

Anyway. The Thorn Maiden. She’s seen only briefly in the programme, a pouty, willowy nymphette with a cloud of dark hair, in wispy robes entirely unsuited to the Irish weather, waving her arms ineffectually at the gasur chopping down the tree while whortling in a vaguely Enya-like manner. In the story, the wielder of the chopper is driven crazy by this apparition, and forced to make reparations before fleeing the country.

Umm, no. That skinny wee girleen wouldn’t scare the hens off their mash. Somehow, I’d expected to see someone like Bang, my old boarding school matron: a dour, curmudgeonly spinster in stout sensible shoes, carrying a lump of gnarly wood vainly passing itself off as a walking stick. To see Bang bearing down on you with purpose in those dragon eyes was to know true fear*.

That’s my Thorn Maiden – more thran than thorn. Now, get off my laaarrnd!

* Actually, she was a lovely woman. Just scary as all get out.

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