One of the many trees growing near to where we lived on the Creamery Road was an old rowan. It was perfect for climbing and in the summer when in full leaf, I could see for miles from my vantage point in the topmost branches, it was my favorite of all the trees in the area with a big oak next. When my sisters were outside, I would sometimes throw small twigs at them and laugh silently when they couldn’t see where the missiles were coming from. It was a great tree and a perfect hiding place. More than a hundred years old, all around the trunk were lots of carvings and heart shapes. I carved my initials one day with an old pocket knife my father had given me once when we were out fishing. I loved to climb, especially when I knew there was a bird’s nest hidden somewhere in the branches. One night my father told us a story about the rowan tree as we sat around the fire. It was the wintertime and snow covered everything in a pure, glistening white blanket. The wind howled outside but we were warmed by the blazing log fire in the open hearth. My mother had baked soda bread earlier that afternoon and as we sat with our cups of steaming cocoa and slices of the still warm bread smothered in melting butter, my father settled back in his armchair and began to tell the story.
“There are several trees growing in Ireland that the Druids believed had very special powers. They believed that each one had its own specific place in the order of things and had medicinal qualities which could cure many ailments. The rowan tree was the most important one and the Druids revered it. In Ireland, it was planted near houses to protect them against evil spirits. The wood was used for stirring milk to prevent it from curdling, and as a pocket charm against rheumatism. When the Vikings invaded they used the wood from the rowan trees to make ‘runes’ which were worn as amulets for protection from sorcery and the evil eye. Much later the rowan wood was used to build cart wheels, boats and walking sticks, as a form of protection on a journey, and the bark of the rowan can be used as a powerful dye.”
“Who were the Druids?” I asked, puzzled.
“They were the sages and seers that guided the Celts, our ancestors,” he answered.
“What are sages and seers,” I inquired.
“They were wise men and were very, very powerful.”
He explained that the Druids were a priestly sect who accompanied the Celts as they migrated across Europe.
“Was there someone chasing them?”
“Yes. The Roman army was after them and wished to stamp them out.”
“Why, didn’t the Romans like them?”
“It wasn’t a matter of liking them, they feared them. Now, let’s get on with the story.”
He rolled a cigarette from his tobacco tin, lit it and continued,
“The Druids used rowan branches on funeral pyres as a symbol of death and rebirth and rowan trees planted in cemeteries were believed to protect the dead from evil spirits. It was also one of the nine sacred trees to be burned in the Beltane fires to symbolize new beginnings. Rowans were often planted near gates and doorways to protect against evil spirits and misfortune. The twigs of the Rowan were placed in barns and above doorways for this same purpose, similar to the Cross of St Brigid, who is associated with the rowan according to Celtic folklore.”
I looked over at my mother who was sitting in her chair knitting and saw her smiling. She was listening to the story too. My sisters were playing with her cat in the hallway, but I don’t think they were listening. My father stretched toward the log box, picked out a fat log and placed in on the now dwindling embers. As he did, a rush of brightly colored sparks crackled and rushed up the chimney, carried aloft by the thick plumes of smoke. The cat, which had just sauntered in the room at that moment froze in her tracks and with a loud frightened ‘meowww’ jumped on my mothers’ lap for comfort and safety.
When all of this commotion died down my father continued the story,
"Rowan berries are bitter but not poisonous and the Druids used them to make wine and medicinal potions and remedies for cleansing the blood. In Irish mythology the first human women was created from the rowan tree. It is a tree said to belong to the fairy folk who can be seen dancing in circles surrounded by rowan trees when the moon is full. The rowan is also known as the traveler’s tree, and anyone going on a journey would always carry a sprig to protect them and ensure that they would arrive safely at their destination.”
“Like a lucky penny?”
“Yes, but more powerful than a lucky penny.”
“The Druid always carried a long staff which he would cut from a rowan tree as he believed it had magical powers.”
“Like a magic wand!” I asked excitedly.
“Not quite, a magic wand is short, a staff is a lot longer.”
“In fact,” he added, almost as if he had just remembered it,
“Saint Patrick, when he returned to Ireland as a newly appointed Bishop, went to the nearest rowan tree and cut his first staff from it.”
I was still trying to visualize the difference between a wand and a staff and was very confused.
“A dowsing rod would also be cut from the rowan tree,” continued my father.
Now I was completely baffled.
“Dowsing rod?” I queried, lost. “Who, St. Patrick?”
I was trying to visualize St. Patrick climbing a rowan tree and wondered aloud,
“Was St. Patrick a Druid?”
“What are you talking about?”
Now my father appeared as puzzled as I was.
“You said he cut his dowsing rod from the rowan tree,” I answered, totally bewildered.
“No, not St. Patrick. I meant that the Druid cut his dowsing rod from the tree. Saint Patrick cut his staff from it.”
“Oh. I see,” I said, embarrassed.
My sisters were giggling like silly idiots by then and when my father wasn’t looking I stuck my tongue out and glared at them and resolved to throw lots of twigs at them the next time I climbed the tree. Even the stupid cat seemed to be grinning.
“Now, where was I?”
“The dowsing rod, Mal,” hinted my mother.
“What’s a dowsing rod? I queried again, still puzzled.
“The Druid used a dowsing rod for many purposes. For example, if he wanted to find the perfect place to set up a new village he would dowse the area until he found the ley lines. Or to find the place to use as a sacred spot for worship, it’s also used to find water underground,” he explained.
I glanced over at my mother looking for clues, but she was intent on her knitting.
“What are ley lines?”
“Ley lines are underground energy sources.”
He got up, went into the hallway and returned holding a slender branch that looked like a large letter Y. Holding the Y shaped branch aloft he announced,
“This, is a dowsing rod.”
Then holding a leg of the branch in each hand and pointing the other end straight ahead, he walked back and forth across the floor.
“When any source of energy, including water is detected, the rod will move and point downward showing you where the source is. So you see, the rowan tree is very special.”
“And,” he quipped, “a good magician always cut his wand from a rowan tree.”
My mother got up then, put the knitting in her basket, set the cat on the floor, smoothed her dress and said,
“Bedtime girls and boys, school in the morning.”
© John A. Brennan 2022. All Rights Reserved.