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.
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.
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.
More about The Hill of Tara and its fairy tree…
St. Bridget’s Holy Wells in Kildare…