Monday, May 25, 2009

The darling buds of May

Mayblossom at Doorus, Co Clare

Right now, our hawthorn trees and bushes are putting on a great show. And there’s a good chance that wherever you are in the Northern Hemisphere you’re going to be sharing the same experience ..... and feeling, just as we do, that the hawthorn display really does signal that summer is just around the corner.

Most people across the British Isles know it as May or Mayblossom – a reminder that many centuries ago hawthorn blossom was reliably available as decoration for the First of May – May Day. These days, apart from in the more climatically favoured south east of England, it’s normally at its best a couple of weeks into the month. So why is it now usually late?

Surprisingly, the answer is not climate change - or the influence of the El nino ocean currents – or one of those other fashionable environmental explanations. It’s much simpler than that. As far as Britain, Ireland and most of North America is concerned it dates back to 1752 when the Gregorian calendar was adopted. This inserted the calendar correction of removing 11 days so that Wednesday, 2 September 1752 was followed by Thursday, 14 September. So when May Day came round the following year, it was actually only April 20 – and this shift in dates has remained with us ever since.

The hawthorn's pivotal position between spring and summer made it deeply important in mythology – reflected in Shakespeare’s phrase the ‘darling buds of May’ – referring to the opening buds of the Hawthorn pointing towards the warm summer ahead and marking the change from youth and exuberance to adult maturity.

It comes from Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

We also see how the flowering of the May tree has long been regarded as an important moment of seasonal change in the proverb: ‘Ne'er cast a clout ‘til May be out’ – clout being old English for an item of clothing.

Although the Hawthorn is widely known as May, it also has a host of other names, some of them quite odd. Where I grew up in West Yorkshire it’s known as ‘cheese and bread’ – presumably from the taste of the shoots which are edible when young. Here in Ireland it’s often referred to as ‘Johnny Magory’ or ‘Johnny MacGorey’ – I’ve no idea why.

In Ireland there's also a lot of superstition surrounding the hawthorn. A tree standing alone in open ground is known as a fairy tree and there is a strong feeling that to cut one will disturb the fairies and bring a great deal of bad luck. Even in recent years roads here have been re-routed to avoid uprooting hawthorns.

The hawthorn also features in one of the most evocative books recounting the horrors of the Irish Famine in the 1840s when over one and a half million men, women and children died from hunger and related diseases. ‘Under the hawthorn tree’ by Marita Conlon-McKenna tells the story of the three O’Driscoll children who lose both parents and then their baby sister who is buried under the hawthorn tree to be with the fairies. They set out to walk across Ireland to try and find their great aunts who they only know about from the stories their mother told them. Not surprisingly, it’s an epic battle for survival. It was made into a film by a cast and production company made up entirely of young people – mostly at school. Here’s a clip.

The last part of it refers to protests against the disgraceful continuing export of corn from Ireland to England rather than it being used to feed the starving.

Even more inexplicably, Britain’s relief effort, such as it was, centred around dried corn which was bought from the US and kept under close lock and key in the control of Sir Charles Trevelyn. He welcomed the famine as a “mechanism for reducing surplus population,” and refused to distribute this corn to anyone who could theoretically provide for themselves including those who were fit enough to work, regardless of the fact that no work available, and those with a quarter of an acre of land or more.

Anyone caught attempting to steal the corn from his warehouses faced deportation to Australia – the subject of one of the most powerful Irish songs - The Fields of Athenry – heard at its best when sung by many thousands at one of Ireland’s great rugby matches. This clip was recorded at a match between Munster and the welsh team the Ospreys just a couple of weeks ago. I was there with my daughter who was visiting from England, and you can get some idea of the spine-tingling effect of 25,000 voices singing this deeply moving song in unison.

Fields of Athenry - the Lyrics

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young girl calling
Micheal they are taking you away
For you stole Trevelyn's corn
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.

Low lie the Fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly.
Our love was on the wing
we had dreams and songs to sing
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young man calling
Nothing matters Mary when you're free,
Against the Famine and the Crown
I rebelled they ran me down
Now you must raise our child with dignity.


By a lonely harbour wall
She watched the last star falling
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she'll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.


BT said...

Interesting history of the hawthorn, most of which I didn't know. Loved the 2 videos. Did you join in the singing?

Twisted willow said...

Of course I joined in. I knew nobody would be able to tell which of the 25,000 voices was singing so badly out of tune.

Beth said...

Glad to know you join in singing..BTW i love MayBlossom

Jason said...

Good stuff. When I drove out the gate yesterday the road was covered in the may blossom.

Intesting about the fields of athenry. I remember this sung very late in an Irish Hotel in Dingle, West ireland. It was excellent. Amanda also used to sing it often when drunk! It was like a default setting when drunk.

Twisted willow said...

Thanks for calling by, Beth. I think Mayblossom is universally loved because it suddenly bursts upon us and creates such a wonderful display. And, of course there's just so much of it in England. They reckon 200,000 miles of hawthorn hedges were planted in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Thanks Jason. Yes, Fields of Athenry is one of those songs that everyone in Ireland thinks they can sing an awful lot better with a few Guinness's inside them. It's replaced Danny Boy as the song of choice for those late night occasions.


Lovely post, Willow. I love your stories about the plants and history. I had no idea about the history of Hawthorn in Ireland and GB. Very interesting. I enjoyed the two videos too. Thanks for sharing.

jinksy said...

Really enjoyed this informative post -especially the fairy trees! Wish I had one...

Twisted willow said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Coneflower. I wandered a bit from hawthorn, but that's how my brain works! I've just bought some Echinacea seeds - you name reminded me that we haven't got any growing in our beds - and we really should have.
I love the idea of fairies living around the roots of the hawthorn trees, Jinksy - and of a child being buried there so she could be with them.

Jan (Thanks For 2 Day) said...

Wow, such a wealth of info here:)

Twisted willow said...

Lovely to have you drop by, Jan. Hope the amount of info wasn't too overwhelming!

lakeviewer said...

What a lovely informative post. I enjoy reading about myths and histories, and you wove these beautifully for us. Thank you.

Twisted willow said...

Thanks Lakeviewer. Your comments are very kind. As I said before, my blog is a reflection of the way my mind is - cluttered up with lots of linking bits of useful, and often useless, information!

suzi said...

Hawthorn- I love, all those memories of lovely sunny walks down country lanes.