The Fairies’ Right of Way, by Betsy Cornwell

Protecting the places where the magic folk roam

Photo by Johannes Plenio
Photo by Johannes Plenio

Protecting the places where the magic folk roam

Our new neighbor came home with a whitethorn sapling and a spool of red ribbon. Dark shadows sat under his eyes. He hadn’t slept well in weeks, he said. Not since he’d cut down the old whitethorn tree in his backyard.

The locals had scoffed: didn’t he know? Know never to cut down a lone whitethorn tree, and certainly never to expect a good night’s sleep again if he did?

No, he answered drily enough, he hadn’t known. He’d recently moved here from England. The fairies back home did things differently.

He laughed, but he still listened when they told him the tree was the fairies’ house, that it was their tree and not his, for all that he had just bought the land. So he brought home the sapling and the ribbon.

He planted the new tree that evening, and he tied red bows to its branches. That night he slept like the proverbial baby.

The fairies had forgiven him.

Like many things here in Ireland, the fairies are spoken of with a little tongue in the cheek, a little dry humor. “It’s cold enough to freeze a fairy” is a statement I’ve heard on several winter days, always with a wry smile. Still, as a friend’s grandmother used to say: “Pray to God for what you want, but if He doesn’t provide, it is safer to turn to the Devil than the fairies.” Fairies in Ireland were never bottom-of-the-garden sweethearts, but hallowed and powerful, at least respected, and usually feared. Even today, you don’t cross them if you can help it.

Much of their lore revolves around trees: a rowan branch laid under your bed on Good Friday wards off sickness, while holly wreaths hung on the front door at Samhain keep the winter cold outside. And of course, you must never cut down a whitethorn, because it’s where the fairies live. There’s a practical quality about this lore that I love: branches to keep sickness and cold out of the home, everyday concerns. And the fairies, too, just defending their own doorsteps.

The whitethorn lore is taken quite seriously, even on a national scale. A few years before my neighbor bought red ribbon, in 1999, the felling of another whitethorn tree threatened to curse the whole of Ireland with bad luck and insomnia, or so people said. A new motorway connecting Munster and Connacht was going to cut right through a field that contained a beautiful old freestanding whitethorn tree.

Building was already underway by the time people learned about the tree’s fate. Rumbles of protest began right away, and prominent Irish folklorist and storyteller Eddie Lenihan led a campaign to redirect the motorway. This particular whitethorn was especially important, especially sacred, he said, because it was where the Munster fairies met to plan their yearly battle with the fairies of Connacht. The roads authority risked angering a whole army of sidhe, or even two, if plans for the motorway went ahead.

The fairy tree’s impending doom made headlines around the country and eventually abroad. It was a charming fluff piece, easy to write and to read.

But then it actually worked. Lenihan’s and the people’s campaign convinced the roads authority to halt construction and redirect the motorway. Taxpayers’ money went to saving the fairies.1

Every time I’ve heard that story, it’s told with a bit of a wink to it too. The fairy tree brings in tourists, after all, which makes the diverted highway a moneymaker. But real, organized, skilled effort and time as well as money went into saving that tree and the fairies who lived and met there. The laughter and the sincerity aren’t mutually exclusive here; in fact, they improve each other.

Major André's Tree by Arthur Rackham
Major André’s Tree by Arthur Rackham

In Iceland, similar protests have sprung up in recent years; there, elves and dwarves are the threatened parties. A 2013 article in the Atlantic described the efforts of a group called “Friends of the Lava” to stop construction of a thoroughfare that would disrupt the supernatural creatures’ habitat, a lava field that is also a site of untouched, eerie, but entirely natural beauty. Protester Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, a seer who runs an “elf garden” in another part of Iceland, identified an elf church inside one of the craggy landscape’s lava formations. But the whole domestic lives of elves and dwarves go on in that landscape too, she said: farming, hunting, loving, living. Just as these supernatural creatures are tied to a beautiful natural setting, the sacred magic of their existence is explicitly tied to the domestic, the mundane, the parts of their lives that are most unremarkably like our own.2

What is so beautiful about the diverted roads in Iceland and Ireland is just that intersection of sacred
and practical, holy and domestic. Fairies and freeways. There is less separation of the everyday and the sacred, and part of what that means is that people talk casually about fairies, and that they can laugh while they talk—but still buy red ribbons, and still care enough to protest on their behalf and preserve the sites that are sacred to them.

It sounds a little funny, and it is. But where more sober and scientific arguments for saving the environment fail, maybe the idea of elves losing their home might capture the imagination enough to spur action.

That ancient, beautiful trees and landscapes should be sacred to us too, for their own sakes, seems obvious; but even if fairies are only a metaphor, a lens for understanding the necessity of conservation, isn’t that sacred enough? Put widely: isn’t our planet holy enough, magic enough, to be worth conserving, whether we’re rescuing elves in the process or not?

I will go outside this evening, I think, and tie a ribbon to the whitethorn tree in my own yard, even if I laugh at myself while I do it. I am learning to smile at the sacred. ♦


1 Deegan, Gordon.“Fairy bush survives the motorway planners.” The Irish Times, May 1999.

2 Jacobs, Ryan. “Why So Many Icelanders Still Believe in Invisible Elves.” The Atlantic, October 2013.

From Parabola Volume 42, No. 3, “The Sacred,” Fall 2017. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing

By Betsy Cornwell

Betsy Cornwell is Parabola’s story editor and digital editor. She is the New York Times bestselling author of Mechanica and other novels and teaches at the National University of Ireland. Find more of her work at