The Fairy King’s advice on Trees. A poem from Early Ireland

Ancient woodland (source)

This medieval Irish poem about trees is taken from a text known as Aidedh Ferghusa meic Léide (the Death of Fergus). In the poem, Iubhdán, the king of the fairies, advises the ruler of Ulster, Fergus mac Léide, on the special qualities of trees and which ones can be burned in the household fire.

The pliant woodbine/honeysuckle if thou burn, wailings for misfortune will abound,
Dire extremity at weapons’ points or drowning in great waves will follow.

Burn not the precious apple tree of spreading and low-sweeping bough;
Tree ever decked in bloom of white, against whose fair head all men put forth the hand.

The surly blackthorn is a wanderer, a wood that the artificer burns not;
Throughout his body, though it be scanty, birds in their flocks warble.

The noble willow burn not, a tree sacred to poems;
Within his blooms bees are a-sucking, all love the little cage.

The graceful tree with the berries, the wizard’s tree, the rowan burn;
But spare the limber tree; burn not the slender hazel.

Dark is the colour of ash; timber that makes the wheels to go;
Rods he furnishes for horsemen’s hands, his form turns battle into flight.

Tenterhook among woods the spiteful briar is, burn him that is so keen and green;
He cuts, he flays the foot, him that would advance he forcibly drags backward.

Fiercest heat-giver of all timber is green oak, from him non may escape unhurt;
By partiality for him the head is set on aching, and by his acrid embers the eye is made sore.

Alder, very battle-witch of all woods, tree that is hottest in the fight–
Undoubtedly burn at thy discretion both the alder and whitethorn.

Holly, burn it green; holly, burn it dry;
Of all trees whatsoever the critically best is holly.

Elder that hath tough bark, tree that in truth hurts sore;
Him that furnishes horses to the armies from the sidh (fairies) burn so that he be charred.

The birch as well, if he be laid low, promises abiding fortune;
Burn up most sure and certainly the stakes that bear the constant pods.

Put on the hearth if it so please thee, the russet aspen to come headlong down;
Burn, be it late or early, the tree with the palsied branch.

Patriarch of long-lasting woods is the yew sacred to feasts as it is well known;
Of him now build ye dark-red vats of goodly size.

(Translated from Irish by Standish O’Grady)



Standish H. O’Grady (ed. & tr.), Silva Gadelica, (London: Williams and Norgate, 1892), Volume 2, p.278


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9 Responses to The Fairy King’s advice on Trees. A poem from Early Ireland

  1. Debbie Pedersen June 14, 2017 at 8:50 pm #

    Thank you!! Love it!!

  2. Annie June 15, 2017 at 9:34 am #

    I find it surprising that the king of the fairies would recommend the burning of trees connected to fairies, witches etc. One suspects that some Christian tidying-up has been done.

    • Rob June 15, 2017 at 11:41 am #

      I tend to agree with you on that Annie, but what hasen’t been tampered with in the name of christianity.

  3. Karen June 16, 2017 at 3:30 am #

    I think the reference to burning elder is about making charcoal. Perhaps that has a sacred purpose?

  4. Jim Travers June 16, 2017 at 10:20 am #

    Reminds me of the Fairie Forts we were told about as children. Farmers would never plough or interfere with the Forts for fear of bad luck

  5. Evan June 17, 2017 at 12:29 pm #

    It seems to remind me of the Celtic tradition of giving trees to each month and applying qualities to people born within each of those months. Like a birthstone or blossom.

  6. Clare McKeever June 19, 2017 at 10:30 pm #

    I feel like that about trees, the exception being leylandi lol! Have a ‘fairy tree’ in my garden which I would never ever cut down!

  7. Reen Collett June 30, 2018 at 12:40 pm #

    Is it known if there was ever an effort to plant trees? With all the centuries of cutting down, what did people think in those days? Often wondered. Never seen it mentioned.

  8. John Anthony Fingleton November 1, 2018 at 4:11 pm #

    Passing a forest at evening

    This place I passed as evening fell,
    A forest of the sweetest smell;
    Preparing its fragrance for the night,
    As acorns silently close their shells.

    I paused to watch the melting light,
    As the sunlight filtered out of sight.
    Seducing colours to appear,
    Calling day birds back from flight.

    With flapping wings they circled there,
    Then into the leaves to disappear,
    Singing their last songs in trees,
    A choir of nature, for all to hear.

    But that evening they just sang for me,
    As if they choose this hour for to see;
    If they could find a soul to free –
    With a swansong as their final plea.

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