Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived in a small cottage by a river, in the hills of Donegal. One night, several years before she moved there, she’d dreamt that she was walking through an enormous beehive, watching the nursery bees carefully tend to the pupae. Wandering the strange vaulted halls of this golden bee-cathedral, she came face-to-face with the queen, and (much to her relief) she promptly woke up. Soon after, she became a beekeeper. She and her husband tended their bees lovingly in two vastly different places: a fertile croft on the shores of a sea-loch in the north-west Highlands of Scotland, then a wilder bog-bound croft on the far edge of the world, as far west as it was possible to go in the salt-swept, gale-ridden Outer Hebrides. One poor winter when the wildflowers were late to bloom, her husband kept the hive alive by laying at its feet armfuls of prickly flowering gorse which he’d brought home from the island’s only town.
Then came a difficult year, and a long, hard winter, and along with many other things in her life and on her croft, the bees died. The woman and her husband moved away, and came to a beautiful, tiny old cottage in a small wood by a waterfall in the far north-west of Ireland. Its garden was set in a sheltered hollow, the green valley was full of wildflowers, and the land cried out for bees. An empty hive was set near the hedge of elder trees down by the river; here, in her heart’s place, she waited and waited for bees to come. Many things had changed in her life; many things began to settle. Still she waited, bee-dreaming, and the year turned and the woman and her husband planted saplings as companions for the tall but elderly tree-beings in their small but beautiful scrap of land. Oak trees they planted, and apple; birch and yew, and other native species to create an Ogham wood. But above all other trees, the woman longed for blackthorn, and closely watched the small specimens they’d planted with hawthorn and hazel to form a small hedge along the back border of their land. Spring came, and the blackthorns were first to leaf. The woman’s heart was glad, for the blackthorn is the tree most beloved by the Cailleach, the old creator-goddess of this land. The Hag of Beara, the Old Woman of the World, the oldest of the oldest of the old. It was her blessing that the woman longed for above all other things. It was her hard lessons, on a bleakly beautiful stony shore, that the woman had undertaken to learn several years before.
Summer came, and in a bee-loud garden several miles to the north and east of that old cottage by the river, a swarm of bees broke away from their hive and settled at the top of a tall blackthorn tree. For three nights and three days they stayed there, in wind and rain, until their anxious bee-guardian climbed and cut and climbed some more, and finally persuaded them into a box where they might begin to think of making a new home.
The woman, who had heard about the Blackthorn Beeing, walked to the river and closed her eyes. Hardly daring any more to hope, quietly, she asked; afraid of one more refusal, one more hardening in the face of too fatal a softening.
But it was time, now, and the lessons had been learned, and that old Cailleach turned her stony face from the wild sea and smiled for a moment on her daughter. So it was that a long drought ended. Now there are honeybees in that green valley in the Donegal hills. Old Crane Woman shrieks her joy to the skies, and the Seven Sisters of the Derryveagh Mountains who stand guard over the country of Riverwitch peer down to the river in delight.
Many thanks to Aoife Valley for the gift of the Blackthorn Beeing. And to Heidi Herrmann of the Natural Beekeeping Trust for her encouragement and advice.