Throughout the Northern Ireland countryside, there is a special tree – not one tree, but many, – standing alone, unharmed through generations, guarding its special place. It is the Fairy Thorn.
Most are hawthorn, the white thorn with its May blossom. Some ancient sites, especially in the uplands, are guarded by a rowan or mountain ash, a tree with supernatural associations – a rowan branch hung over the stable or byre protected the animals from witchcraft.
Fairy thorns may be associated with archaeological sites, such as the Neolithic chambered graves and wedge tombs. They may stand beside wells and springs, places known to early man and sometimes adopted by Christianity as Church sites or Holy Wells.
In some rural sites there may be no apparent built artefact beside a fairy thorn, but the tree may guard a small rise in the ground – a fairy hill, place of entry to the under or other world of the fairy folk.
One such thorn, beside cup-and-ring carved stones in an upland field in Fermanagh, was circled by tracks of small feet – they were badger marks, with signs of feeding, but could easily have been interpreted as fairy footprints dancing around the thorn at night.
Such special trees have a remarkable power about them. A gnarled thorn, often growing in harsh rocky ground, survivor of wind, weather, grazing, and many generations of man, has its own special strength. Stories still abound of misfortunes visited on those who risked disturbing such trees.