A version of this article on the Rag Tree in the Irish Tradition first appeared as a guest post on the Call of the Morrigan community blog in 2016.
So, I’ve worked for the last 14 years as a professional tour guide to the sacred sites of Ireland, and let me tell ya, I’ve seen some shit. And some of that involves the Rag Tree tradition.
Or rather, the mangling of our rag tree tradition!
8 of those years were spent managing the sites and visitor centre at the royal complex of Rathcroghan, Cruachan; which (as many of you know, unless you’re believing the nonsense that there’s no Morrigan sites in Connacht), is where the Mórrígan ‘resides’ – Her primary site in Ireland is the Cave of the Cats, Uaimh na gCait.
This site is an ancient cave, worked by human hands in later times, known as the primary physical entrance to the Irish Otherworld, which Medieval Christian scribes referred to ‘the Gates of Hell’ due to the unfortunate amount of monsters and demons (to their perception) which flowed out from this hole in the earth on an all too regular basis.
I’m probably telling y’all stuff you already know here, if you’re folk who are interested in Herself. Although, I’ve also seen some pure shite being said by folk who claim to know all about Herself… so a quick recap never does any harm. I’ve been Her priestess for 13 years, and I know how hard she pushes us to do the work, and how important real information is to Her.
But what you might not be aware of, and what I’d really, really, like you to be aware of (and tell all your mates), is the absolute misconceptions and horrific disrespect that Pagan or ‘spiritual’ visitors to Ireland show at our sites.
In Ireland, we have long had the custom of the ‘Raggedy Bush’ or Rag Tree, and there’s similar in Scotland, with what they call ‘clooties’ tied to certain trees.
The trees are Hawthorn, one of our most prominent native trees/bushes – Crataegus Monogyna, or in Irish, the Sceach Gheal. The Irish name literally means something like, ‘that which makes the hedgerow bright’, and when it’s covered in colourful rags it sure does. Most often, there’s a particular hawthorn, growing near a particular holy well, and this is the local Rag Tree.
Occasionally there’s no well or spring to be found, but my theory on that is that there used to be one and it’s gone now, or that the misconceptions around Rag Trees stretch back further than your average modern American tour group, and some fecker just decided at some stage that a single growing hawthorn was actually a Rag Tree, way back in the mists of time, and it stuck. Now, that doesn’t mean there’s no magic there today… just that it probably didn’t start out that way. The water nearby is a pretty important part of the magic here.
What’s it all about then? Well, basically, the tradition goes that you take a piece of cloth from a sick person, tie it to the tree (often with prayers), and the sickness disappears as the rag rots away. The water nearby is most often a holy or healing well, which helps of course.
Sounds simple enough, right?
From a magical perspective, we’ve got sympathetic magic in the rotting of the fabric – the visual representation of the illness losing power and strength and eventually disintegrating. We’ve got an energetic loop that’s formed between the sick person (it has to be an item they’ve worn while ill, so imbued with their DNA or essence) for illness to flow to the tree, and back the way then with the healing energies from the water, through the roots of the tree.
Make sense? Sure!
You know what doesn’t make sense though? Folk who come along and tie their rubbish to the rag tree. Or tie strings or cloth so tight they damage the tree branches. I’ve removed everything from crème egg (candy) foil wrappers to junk jewellery rings to plastic covered wire wrap ties from the branches of our Rag Trees on this island. Not cool people, not cool. That, at least though, can be written off as ignorance of a ‘quaint’ local tradition they want to be a part of, by people who are really just here for lip smacking the Blarney Stone and the Guinness.
What’s more worrying is the visitors who come to sites where there’s no Rag Tree, on supposed spiritual pilgrimage, and tie their shit to whatever tree happens to be there.
The Cave at Cruachan is a prime example of this. I was a guardian there for 13 years, and for 8 of those I was paid to be in and out of it most days of the week. There’s a hawthorn that grows over the mouth of the cave, but it’s a relatively young one. Maybe 20 or 30 years old is all. It’s a fairy tree in the sense of it being smack bang over the mouth of a Sidhe dwelling, and it’s definitely magical… but it’s not a Rag Tree.
Every week though, there’d be some new bit of tat tied to it. One tour group got a nylon umbrella off their bus, ripped it to bits, and tied the bits to the tree. Then they left the umbrella carcass in the field, got on their bus, and drove off.
There were obviously some who wanted to leave an ‘offering’ at the site, to connect themselves there in some way, and perhaps that’s how some of the cloth strips got into the tree. Maybe some were even cloth from the garments of sick people. But this is not a healing site.
In my experience – personally, and collected from feedback of those who energetically interacted with the site – the entities at this site will gleefully follow any connection you choose to make there, go right back to source, and tear down anything weak that they find there. Ostensibly ‘for your own good’, of course, but they are absolutely merciless about it… if you lay a pathway for them they will follow it.
This is not a good thing, for most people. Especially unprepared people. People who maybe think that Irish entities and Sidhe spirits are essentially pleasant and good natured, full of the craic, and harmless to let in. People who are perhaps sick, and not at full energetic defensive strength.
There was once a baby’s bib tied through the branches of the hawthorn tree at the Morrigan’s Cave. Just take a moment, and let that sink in for yourself.
You see now why I might be a bit ranty on this topic? Can we not do this anymore?
My best advice is to take local advice. If you want to find a real Rag Tree, there’s websites and books that will tell you where to begin your search, but first and foremost you should be talking to local people.
Get exact directions. Check that the tree you think might be the one is actually the one.
DON’T tie things that are not biodegradable to the trees – to any tree?! Tying strings and straps around our trees that stay there for years – I’ve literally seen the poor trees trying to grow around the shite that has been tied to them – will, in the worst cases, literally strangle and kill the branch it’s tied on, and sicken the whole tree.
And remember, just because some eejit has tied something to it before you got there, doesn’t make it a Rag Tree.
Please, be sure?
New Pagan Interview Series: I’m talking to people from international Pagan communities about their spiritual path, and the Facebook groups they help to organise and run.
When and where did your interest in Pagan/Earth based Spirituality begin?
Whilst my vocabulary and intellectual understanding did not go far till I was twelve I would say it was present from my earliest memories. This came through in my interest and love of myths and faerie tales, which I still have. I give talks on this subject and perform storytelling to this day.
I talked to everything: trees, toys and animals and loved films that involved magic, witches and wizards. I always wanted to be one.
With this I also had psychic experiences, some I interpreted as evil or dangerous which I have learnt as I matured were not. I would see and speak with faerie and other beings and in some ways it held such a common place I didn’t realise it was magical though I still wanted magic.
How did you practically go about getting started, and what resources did you have available to you – eg. books, teaching courses, events, people you met?
I wanted to explore all this more and when I was 12, an esoteric shop opened in my local high street. I can’t recall how but I had funds for some books and used my local library to take on as many books as I could on magic, paganism and divination.
I met some pagans early on but they wore glittery robes and to my mind were more style over substance, this made me keep my distance.
As I got older I tried again and found some intelligent, interesting and wonderful people.
Additionally I joined a spiritualist circle which allowed me to practice my communication with spirits as well as divination and healing.
What does being Pagan mean to you? (or your term of choice, please explain!)
Pagan to me today is an umbrella term for those practicing earth based spirituality, often reinvented or restructured, which is good as a religion of the earth should evolve, which a religion of the book tends to struggle with. I am more inclined to use the term witch or magician as my focus is on magical work. To me these are working titles, I am not interested in hierarchical titles or being called adept etc (which I am not) simply I work with various powers and in doing so these terms are titles of that.
Some see more in them and that is fine and some romanticise the terms and I am not sure how I feel about that. For me I have simply answered a calling but I still have to clean the kitchen and iron my clothes.
To me a Pagan path is essentially, a narrative of the earth, within various traditions are its own nuances.
What sort of things do you do on a daily/weekly, monthly or seasonal basis to explore or express your Spirituality?
I do daily meditations and simple rituals of stillness. Seasonally I perform basic rituals to bring in the power of the season to flow through myself, home and land. Or I just walk amongst nature and let myself connect. On Spring Equinox I like to go to Kew Garden for example. I like to walk in my local woods and see how things are growing and how it feels.
What advice do you wish someone had given you, that you would like to give people starting out on this path?
I realise that magic is in all things. It is in ritual and conversation it is in the kabbalah and the sun, the moon and the rain. It is all around us all the time and in our childhoods. I realised one day I knew more than I realised and that the bible I was raised in (not fundamentally) was full of magic, along with the faerie tales I grew up with.
It may seem obvious that faerie tales are full of magic, but getting at the patterns within them and the magical messages took me time. When we mature we think magic isn’t faerie tales, we know it as something practical and powerful. In being mature we let go of Childish things, but there is a difference being childish and being childlike and being childlike. Being childlike is a gift.
I think mystery is in that we know more than we are aware of and that awareness comes from experience.
What is the name of the Facebook Group you admin, and how did you get involved there? (please feel free to provide group details eg. member numbers or general guidelines, and a link to group)
The Centre of Pagan Studies has been going on for some time. I got involved last year after reading Philip Heselton’s biography of Doreen Valiente. I had been looking to give back to the Pagan community and found Doreen to be an inspiration person who had been involved so decided to offer to help. [The Centre for Pagan Studies FB Group is Here.]
What is the most frustrating thing for you about being involved with that group?
I think it can be frustrating to find the right vocabulary. In magic and Paganism we do not really have our own language so we have to work quite philosophically to communicate effectively. I have seen people essentially agree with each other but end up arguing as their words are interpreted differently. Ultimately it is not really a problem just a shame it’s hard to bypass.
What is the most satisfying thing for you about being involved with that group?
The fact that we remember those who came before us who made strides for Paganism. We have set up blue plaques for people like Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente. Also people involved are very engaged in the subject matter and we discuss often some ancient practices which some people still practice or have come across. We attempt to provide both an educational resource (giving talks for example) and discussing these subject matters keeping it organic and shifting.
If you could guarantee that each group member had read AT LEAST one book before joining, what book would that be?
I think it would be hard to pin point one book but I would go back to faerie tales. To have read some of the Grimm brothers work and look into the early stories as well as the colour books (The yellow fairy book, red fairy book etc compiled by Andrew Lang).
There are some great occult books out there and some bad ones, though I found all of those helped me develop a magical vocabulary.
Further to this I would encourage to read history and anthropology as well as classical texts.
Anything else you’d like to share?!
Whilst books are great the essence of magic is doing it and living it. The essence of paganism is in practicing it and living it. Keep it simple and embrace the stories you were told growing up and the cartoons you may have seen (often based on these books). When you have conversations remember language is insufficient to express magic and spirituality. So take care. When I talk to magical practitioners of various traditions if you work to find a common language, we find we have a lot in common.
I would encourage people to tread lightly and to take their time and to listen.
Richard Levy works with the Centre for Pagan Studies and the Doreen Valiente Foundation.
BIO: I began my pagan path at a young age but and magic is something I feel was always a part of my life. But with time I learned how to nourish this part of myself. I feel today we are encouraged to ignore these parts of who we are and it is something we re-learn. It is in many ways learning to do what breeze and river and bird do naturally. I studied philosophy and theology at university and whilst I did not have formal training I learned a lot from people I met along my path from Children to adults. Should people want to contact me about the interview they can contact me on: firstname.lastname@example.org
It began at a hospital bedside in Western North Carolina.
Holding my grandmother’s hand as she took her final soft, short breaths. She was surrounded by the people closest to her, being loved and supported as she slipped away into the Otherworld.
There was something mesmerizing about that moment. In the days that followed, as the grief settled in, I replayed it over and over in my mind.
Despite the pain, there was something so peaceful and beautiful there. I wished I could go where she’d gone… except for the permanent part. Like a death nap, maybe. Where I could wake up in a couple hours.
I’m not sure if She had noticed me before then, but that’s when The Morrigan really began reaching out to me. As the ache of loss threatened to drown me, She appeared.
She met me in a bookstore one night, with I see Fire by Ed Sheeran playing on the loudspeakers and an article about Herself in a magazine I happened to pick up.
And if we should die tonight
Then we should all die together
Raise a glass of wine for the last time
Calling out father, oh
Prepare as we will
Watch the flames burn o’er and o’er
The mountain side
— “I See Fire” by Ed Sheeran
She began to whisper to me there. I felt Her presence in the car on the way home, offering relationship.
I was honest. “I’ve heard you’re not to be trifled with,” I said. “I don’t want to make a commitment until I know what I’m getting into.”
I began to research Her while crows took up residence in my yard. I took Lora’s annual Meeting The Morrigan intensive programme. And finally I stood before an altar that had become Her altar and committed to Her for a year-and-a-day.
And then all Hell broke loose.
Long-forgotten traumas resurfaced, demanding to be dealt with. Relationships that maybe weren’t that good for me anyway strained to the breaking point. It seemed there was chaos all around me. Donald Trump was elected President of the US.
Somewhere in the midst of this chaos, She helped me find my backbone. A backbone I’d never realized I had, much less deployed. I began creating boundaries, and sticking to them. When my parents took their lifelong verbal abuse a step too far, I cut them out of my life. Forever. When one of my closest friends just couldn’t make time for me, I said goodbye. When my job expected me to keep working for free so we could get investment on the grounds that I’d have a tiny ownership stake, I quit.
Not gonna lie, each and every one of those things felt like a dagger in the gut. They hurt. But as I sit here on the other side, 3 months into my second year-and-a-day (which She and I both know at this point is really permanent), I am amazed at my own growth.
She put me through the fire – or perhaps She saw the fire coming and went through it with me. Either way, I am no longer the same person I was sitting at Grandma’s deathbed. I’m stronger than I ever imagined I could be, and I still have a long way to go.
This month I attended a memorial for another family member. I was consumed with anxiety beforehand about seeing my dad there. Would he confront me? Would he whisper something triggering in my ear just to see my reaction?
I discussed my fears with Herself. And when the day came, my dad skipped the memorial service and went straight to the cemetery. The moment I arrived there, he left. The bully was scared of me.
It’s a small, rural cemetery on the side of a mountain in Western North Carolina. It’s not Ireland – although there are people buried here who were born there. Some of my people who are buried here are only a generation or two removed from Eire.
But somehow, I don’t think that’s why The Great Queen showed Herself that day. I think it’s because I’m Hers.
And that is worth every bit of the upheaval of the last year.