What are Wishing Trees/May Bushes?

The Fairy Tree, The Wishing Tree, The May Bush covered in clotties/clooties

The Wishing Tree at the Hill of Tara

Wishing Trees (aka May Bushes, Fairy Trees, or Rag Trees) are hawthorn trees where people tie ribbons to ask blessings from the local saints/deities/wee folk. The hawthorn flowers in May, time of the Bealtaine festival of rebirth (now generally known as May Day). Local people still tie ribbons or strips of colorful cloth to the wishing tree as a symbol of their prayers or wishes. If you visit in May or June, you’ll find wishing trees covered in colorful fabric and rippling in the breeze. If you visit after the summer — you might not even notice the tree, as the decorations will be sun bleached, rain soaked, or blown away (unless the site is a popular tourist attraction). May bushes were usually associated with a holy well, but time has often dried up or filled in many of the wells. The wishing trees that still grow beside known holy wells tend to be used year-round.

 

Fairy trees are a colorful part of any vacation in Ireland

Conventional and Unconventional clotties side-by-side at the Hill of Tara.

Hill of Tara

A May Bush grows along the ancient boundary wall that surounds Tara, the seat of the High Kings in County Meath. The well associated with this particular bush is long gone (although several are mentioned in various sources), but the tradition endures. (Actually, there are currently two trees growing side by side, but the tradition endures regardless.)

The ribbons and colorful items tied to the tree are known as clotties. When we visited Tara last summer it was just seven weeks past Beltaine, and the the tree was still a colorful presence. Among the usual ribbons, we spotted some rather unusual trinkets and gifts, including a large number of pacifiers, perhaps in thanks from grateful parents? The offerings at a popular location like Tara tend to be rather idiosyncratic, presumably because many of the gifts are impromptu. Our eldest daughter likes to make origami cranes, and leave these as her gift to the spirits.

[Edit: Since I originally wrote this I’ve been back several times, including as part of a large clean-up crew attempting to undo some of the damage inappropriate offerings can do to the rag trees.]

St. Bridgid’s Well, Co. Kildare
Another popular site with a wishing tree is St. Bridgid’s Well in Kildare. The signposted well is actually a 1950’s replacement for the original well, built a couple of hundred yards away. The original well is now in a corner of the Japanese Gardens’ car park (it’s also known as the Wayside Well). The newer well is nearby, and is set in a little park with various stations for the faithful to contemplate the various aspects of the saint. The tradition of leaving clotties to ask blessings of the saint continues at both wells, although the tree serving this function at the modern well is not a hawthorn.

The clooties/clooties at St. Brigid's Holy Well, Co. Kildare

St. Brigid’s Well, Kildare, with clotties on the tree behind.

 

So, be on the lookout for wishing trees while you travel around Ireland. They’re easy to spot in May and June, but you might have to look a little closer during the other months.

 

Don't forget your computer cords when you plan your vacation in Ireland

Sign of the times? A modern offering left on the wishing tree on the Hill of Tara.

 

Notes

More about The Hill of Tara and its fairy tree…

St. Bridget’s Holy Wells in Kildare…

What items are appropriate to hang on rag trees?

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10 comments

  1. celticknotring’s avatar

    I leave a clottie on the Wishing Tree (or “Fairy Tree” as my famly call it) every time I visit the hill of Tara. Most of the time they’re impromptu offerings, such as a yarn pulled from my scarf, but always something.

    1. Rich’s avatar

      I think those are the best kind. Colorful, unusual…

    2. julie’s avatar

      Think its an absolute disgrace what’s been done to the tree on tara the tree is smootered with all the crap that’s been put on it not good

      1. James Byrne’s avatar

        Youre dead right Julie. Ive talked to tourists whose experience on the hill involved seeing guides running around chasing litter from the tree

        To call that new age littering an irish tradition is an outright lie. People only started doing that recently. At a holy well its a part of a pattern day with specific prayers and its a cure for serious illnesses. The cloth from sickbeds naturally biodegrades and the sickness goes with it. Its not random people putting plastic crap on a tree as a way of paying for a blessing. Even the idea is repugnant.

        Calling it a fairy tree is an even bigger joke. You wouldnt go near a fairy tree/Sceach in Irish tradition in case you upset the fairies. You dont interfere with it even to trim it back. Leaving offerings for fairies is absolutely not irish tradition.

        The only decorated trees in irish trad are the may bush and the wren day bush. Both specific to a time of year with specific decorations and a specific purpose. Anyone who endorses this littering of a heritage site is definately uninformed about their trads.

        “Keep an eye out for fairy trees” at heritage sites. Ive another message. Keep an eye for the foot in the arse youre going to get for littering a place thats important to people.

        1. julie’s avatar

          I agree with u totally James boils my blood to see what has been done to these trees destroyed for what absolute selfishness they really believe they will receive blessing from destroying any tree fairy tree or not find it hilarious when I see pictures posted of “the fairy tree on tara” any fairy’s that were near that tree are long gone

        2. Rich Rennicks’s avatar

          Some of you may be interested in the recent clean up of the rag trees on the Hill of Tara.

          http://atriptoireland.com/2014/07/28/what-should-you-hang-on-a-fairy-tree/

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