Wandering across the faerie hills on the wild west coast of Ireland, the only sound I heard was that of the wind and the waves, falling water and the occasional caw of a raven. We had come to this mystical landscape at Europe’s westernmost point on the Dingle Peninsula to offer gratitude and forgiveness to our ancestors at an ancient ceremonial site called the “Drummer’s Mound.” It had been a life-long dream to visit Ireland and if the old idiom is true, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” then the weave of magic in my life might have a wee bit of its root in my Irish ancestry.
A little further down the narrow path I heard a quiet, cricket like song that beckoned to me, so I followed it. Stepping off the ordinary path as if through a portal I discovered at the source of the sound a plant with delicate yellow flowers. The plant itself was unfamiliar but the flowers were vaguely reminiscent of mullein flowers, and aside from that it bore no other resemblance. Certainly, it must be medicinal or I wouldn’t have been drawn to it, so I took a photo with my smartphone for later identification.
With the sun setting in the West and the wind blowing cool against us from the north, we proceeded to gather atop a wide, flat surfaced mound with a large flat rock half embedded in the earth at its center. There the altar cloth was lain. It was on this cloth that we would place two items representing our ancestor or ancestors for which we had come to pray.
I reverently approached the altar, laying my items gently at its edge. As I lightly pressed them against the cloth I promptly received a finger prick. An unseen plant lying beneath the surface had drawn blood. How appropriate I thought, a blood offering to the ancestors. And then we prayed: I am sorry, please forgive me, I forgive you, I love you, thank you.
As I looked out over the hills I could feel something lifting and then a wave of gratitude from the unseen worlds. The ancestors had been waiting for me here, for this very moment, and we were walking each other home.
The next morning brought waves of fog like clouds rolling over the tops of the mountains to the east as I sat sipping my tea and watching the sun rise. Curious, I took out my phone and pulled up the photo of the plant to which I had been called. My search revealed Yellow Gorse, Ulex europaeus, a member of the pea family (Fabaceae) which grows well near the sea and is clearly a feature that lights up the Irish landscape.
“Kissing’s out of fashion, when the gorse is out of blossom.” – A traditional jest as gorse is thought to always be in bloom
Yellow Gorse’s bright yellow flowers are aligned with the sun god Lugh, the Celtic god of light. The scent and taste of the blossoms grow stronger in the sunlight and mildly resembles almond and coconut. They make a wonderfully aromatic flower tea and were also used for dying cloth a saffron color. Dying cloth was an art and considered a magical process in early Ireland to be carried out only by women until the advance of the patriarchy.
Its Irish name is Aiteann; aith meaning sharp and tenn, meaning lacerating due to its prickly nature and fierce thorns. Aiteann is considered to belong to the Sidhe, or faerie folk and thought to guard entrances to the otherworld, therefore sacred or cursed depending on your belief. Yellow Gorse is tied up in Ireland’s history and mythology, embodying the polarity of opposites: good and bad, healing and wounding; nurturing and dominating, fierce and protecting. My belief was that we were standing on a sacred faerie mound protected by Sidhe as evidenced by my finger prick. The unseen plant beneath the altar cloth was Yellow Gorse.
Aiteann is an evergreen native shrub that is highly flammable and used to fire traditional bread ovens. It was also gathered to be burned on the ceremonial fires of Beltaine, and used for lighting the other nine sacred woods: Birch, Rowan, Ash, Alder, Willow, Hawthorn, Oak, Holly and Hazel. Beltaine falls on May 1st, also known as Green Man Day, the day my husband was born and one of the reasons he is affectionately called the “GreenMan.” With the advance of Christianity this celebration was replaced with May Day.
As I searched to discover the medicinal value of Yellow Gorse what I learned is that this plant’s medicine mostly lies in its use as a flower essence. The flowers are recommended for hopelessness, loss of faith or for those who think themselves incurable. I marveled at how complimentary this felt considering the invoking of ancestral spirits that had taken place the day before. And sometimes we need only to invoke the spirit of a plant to receive its healing medicine.
My Irish grandfather had died of alcoholism, thinking himself incurable. The ancestors before him sinking into hopelessness through alcoholism, famine, slavery and displacement. The loss of faith came through the institutional abuses of church and state. My prayers had been heard and the ancestors had responded with gratitude for my journey to acknowledge their suffering and willingness to forgive. Forgiving is not always easy, nor is it forgetting, excusing, condoning, or regretting. Forgiveness is a field of energy that releases all placed within it so that we can be restored.
“Gorse lost all hope and said, I can go no further; you go along, but I shall stay here as I am until death relieves my sufferings.” – Dr. Edward Bach, 1934
The flower essence of Aiteann helps us to see things in a different light. Some could go no further and some went along, carrying the light of hope into the future. That was the gift of the ancestors to us – our very breath and life. May the light prevail, faith be restored, and forgiveness be yours…
Blessing, by John O’Donohue
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.