The Wisdom of the Ancestors
Throughout the world, there are tales of Shamans; Medicine Men; Witch Doctors; Faith Healers; Quacks; Bone-Setters who are known to the people of their district for having cures for a wide variety of ailments, hurts, and diseases. t was no different in the Ireland of bygone years, when the majority of the population were poor, peasantry who could not afford proper medical assistance and depended on such people as these to aid them in their need. There were certain women, often called ‘Wise Women’ who had no education but were able to work their charms to help those who were ill. By some means, natural or mysterious, they had discovered the healing power contained within certain plants. In an island of green fields, woodlands, mountains, and lakes they knew the plants and herbs that gave some relief to every part of the body, both internally and externally.
There were tales that these healers had lived among the fairy folk or other strange unearthly people from whom they had learned their magic charms. Some even specialised in their area of expertise and became known as Fairy Doctors, Cow Doctors, and Horse Doctors, each one being educated by the unseen spirits in their own Irish language. Their success in the different districts in which they worked made some famous all over the whole island as their reputations grew and people sought them out in their desperation. Not all of these healers could cure all the ailments that people had, but there were a few who could almost do the impossible and became famous for their cures, especially those who succeeded in healing a patient whom the medical doctors had failed. Some healers were acclaimed by a superstitious people to be able to bring back the dead with the ‘Slanlus’ and the ‘Garblus’ which were the same herbs that revived the Lord after his death on the Cross.
‘Slanlus’, a ‘Ribwort Plantain’, which is a perennial weed with almost worldwide distribution and grow aggressively. The leaves would be plucked fresh, cut, chewed up and applied to the sore. Apparently, it was known to prevent blood poisoning and encourage healing. ‘Garblus’, better known to us as the ‘Dandelion’ was considered as being able to cure the world … “and it was these brought our Lord from the Cross, after the ruffians that were with the Jews did all the harm to Him. And not one could be got to pierce His heart till a dark man came and said, “Give me the spear, and I’ll do it,” and the blood that sprang out, touched his eyes and they got their sight.
And it was after that, His Mother and Mary and Joseph gathered their herbs and cured His wounds. These are the best of the herbs, but they are all good, and there isn’t one among them but would cure seven diseases. I’m all the days of my life gathering them, and I know them all, but it isn’t easy to make them out. Sunday evening is the best time to get them, and I was never interfered with. Seven “Hail Marys,” I say when I’m gathering them, and I pray to our Lord and to St. Joseph and St. Colman. And there may be some watching me, but they never meddled with me at all.”Lady Augusta Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 1920).
There were also healers who were known to have cures for cattle and other animals, as well as cures for human being diseases and injuries. There were those, like many today, who claimed that they have the cure for a bald-head and can make hair grow on any skin irrespective of age. Below is a shortlist of ailments and some of the cures suggested for them, quite a few of which are still in use today.
Jaundice – “Jaundice” itself is not a disease, but a medical term that describes yellowing of the skin and eyes. Although it isn’t a disease, Jaundice is a symptom of several possible underlying illnesses, many of which are serious and can lead to death if untreated. It is formed there is too much bilirubin in a person’s system, Bilirubin being a yellow pigment created by the breakdown of dead red blood cells in the liver. In normal circumstances the liver would rid the body bilirubin along with old red blood cells, exhibiting Jaundice may indicate a serious problem with the function of your red blood cells, liver, gallbladder, or pancreas, caused by such things as Hepatitis; Cancer; Anaemia; Liver Failure; etc.
Modern medical advances have helped make Jaundice less severe than it used to be in times when it was not known what it indicated. There were several holistic cures practiced by the Healers in Ireland, one of which was made from a weed (Chickweed), the seedless plant and not the female variety. The weed was pounded into a pulp to extract the juice, which was then boiled in stout and sweetened with sugar. The resulting mixture was then squeezed, strained and given to the patient, and was said to be a sure remedy. It doesn’t sound to be a particularly pleasant concoction for a person to drink but, maybe, not as much as some other remedies that were used. One other remedy required ten snails to be boiled in a cup of water until they disappeared, and the cup was then strained and given to the affected person to drink. Some patients were even encouraged to drink their own urine, which was made sweet with sugar and lemon juice and was said to cure the sufferer when other remedies failed them.
Whooping Cough – We all know the dangers to children who suffer from whooping cough, or ‘Chin-cough’ as it was once know in Ireland. Before vaccination and modern medicines helped reduce the instance of this terrible child disease, it was a major cause of infant mortality and was not unknown to visit the older people of a community. The Healers in Ireland used a small white flower shaped like a chalice, which was known as ‘The Blessed Virgin’s Chalice’, or ‘Lady of the Valley’, which was boiled in milk. Another cure employed to relieve the suffering of the infected was heated asses milk, given to the patient to drink in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In some cases, the milk that a ferret leaves behind after it has eaten is heated and given to the patient to drink. A more strange cure for ‘Chin-cough’ was a hair from the tail of a white horse being boiled in milk, which is then given to the patient to drink. One tale spoke of a person in the house. where the sick person is, would see a man driving or riding a white horse and going to him would say, “Man with the white horse give me a cure, for the chin-cough” The man on the horse would then give the hair from the horse’s tail to be boiled in milk, or Poitin.
Warts – Warts are one of those things that can plague both humans and animals. I have heard of one remedy for warts in animals that was said never to fail, and the truth of that statement is in the story that the ‘Wise-Woman’ was visited by ailing animals being brought to her from all parts. The remedy that she is said to have used for curing warts in animals was said to contain the following ingredients i.e. 1 oz Tincture of Spanish Fly; 3.5 ozs Compounded Camphor Liniment; 3.5 ozs Soap Liniment; and a bit of soot which was said to thicken the mixture. The accuracy of this prescription cannot be vouched for and this may have been only some of the ingredients required.
Warts on human beings is a widespread ailment which, I would say 90% of us have suffered, and used modern treatments to have them removed or medically burned off. In the days of the healers, when these modern medicines were unknown, people were told to acquire a black snail and stick it on a thorn from the Whitethorn Bush (‘Fairy Tree’) and the wart subsequently rubbed against the same snail each morning, for nine mornings, before breaking their fast. It was said that as a result, the wart would fade away as the snail withered on the thorns. A less gruesome remedy, however, called for warts to have ‘fasting spit’ rubbed upon them each morning for nine mornings and this would cure them.
Some patients were told to carry a bag of stones, one for each wart, which was then thrown one by one over the shoulder in the hope that the warts would be passed on to the finder of the stones and removed from the sufferer. Another stone, known as ‘Bluestone’ is considered to be a cure. “Bluestone” is a cultural name often given to a number of building stone varieties, including limestone, which is quarried in Counties Carlow, Galway, and Kilkenny. This was also considered a cure for ‘wildfire’ on the lips.
Some of the other old prescriptions for warts included the patient carrying dampened Washing Soda in a pocket and then, rubbed on the wart several times a daily. There was also the scrapings from the inside of an Oyster Shell mixed into a paste and applied to warts. In the same way, the juice from the stems of a ‘Dandelion’ should be smeared on the wart daily. It was also said that if you were journeying someplace and, by chance, came across a small hollow in a limestone block that is filled with water then the wart should be bathed in that water at least three times, and it will fall away. There was also the tradition of rubbing a piece of bacon on the wart, which is then taken from the house and placed under a stone. In a few days, the patient would do the same thing, followed a few days after that by a similar action, then the wart was said to vanish when the bacon had gone.
‘The Spool of the Breast’ – The spool is a bone which is found under the middle – rib of a person’s chest, and it can be displaced by overexerting yourself or straining yourself by lifting heavy weights at the front of the body, causing the spool to fall down on the stomach. It was said that the raising of the spool of the breast was a cure peculiar to the local bonesetter. People become very weak and unable to work when their spool falls, and the bone-setter is immediately called. It was a complaint that affected people both young and old, and the ‘Bonesetter’ raises the spool of the breast by using his fingers in a specific manner, which took at least five minutes to complete. During the ‘operation’ the patient would sit in a chair and would often faint during the procedure. On occasion, the ‘Bone-setter’ would raise the spool of the breast using a lighted candle or cup, although I am personally unsure of how this procedure was carried out. Although these operations were continuing in the middle of the twentieth century, the medical fraternity gave no credit to the cure much as they do today with holistic medicine. There have been, incidents when sufferers were sent to the hospital and x-rayed, and doctors could not cure it. But, the local ‘Bone-setter’ was successful where the doctor failed.
Chilblains and Corns – Chilblains are small, but itchy swellings on the skin which arise as a reaction to cold temperatures, and they most commonly affect the extremities of the body e.g. toes. One common cure prescribed by the local healers was to rub in the affected areas a mixture made from salt and lemon juice, or rubbing in Paraffin Oil. Other remedies used included measures of whiskey or Poiteen briskly rubbed into the areas affected. Also, at this time, it was widely held that unsalted butter was good for both chilblains and rashes of the body. Local tradition, in fact. said that unsalted butter was a great cure for anything, even on the outside of the body, while a drop of good, hot poiteen was a cure for the flu or any ailment of the body’s interior.
Corns, much as they are today, were a regular and common ailment among people, on all areas of their feet. For Corns that appeared on the soles of the feet, people were told that they should wear insoles with holes cut in them where the corns are. But a common remedy for Corns that was employed in these days was the use of ‘Comfry’, which is a weed-like ‘Docken.’ This plant was cut fresh and the root was washed in clean water. The plant would then be pulped into a paste and, when cold, applied to the area in a cloth bandage and prevents them from becoming inflamed. As a first resort, however, some would be told that they should walk in their bare feet through the bog, assured that this would cause the corns to fall out.
Sore Back, Sore Head, and Sore Throat – It was common for the healers to make an embrocation that could be used on a sore-back. I have heard that the following is a recipe for just such an embrocation, but I cannot guarantee that this is complete – Mix one noggin of Whiskey/Poitin; One noggin of Turpentine; One noggin of Vinegar; The white of two eggs; one pound of ‘Castile’ Soap; 60 grains of Sulphur Zinc; 120 grains of ‘Sugar Lead’. I have also read that some people would go to a local (monastic) graveyard and entered through a hole in the wall and went out again through another hole in the wall to cure the pain in their back. In fact, it is told that certain men came to rob the monastery at one time and they were immediately struck dead and turned to stones. it is said that these stones are still to be seen, standing up in the field, just outside the graveyard wall at ‘Tempaill Mologga’ near Mitchelstown, Co. Cork.
For those who suffered a sore head or headache, the remedy was to use a ribbon around the head. This was no ordinary ribbon, but one that was put out on a window sill, or in the open air, on Eve of St. Brigid’s Feast day. The faithful believed that the ribbon grew in length during the night and was empowered by the Irish Saint. However, even in the early years of the twentieth century, the best cure for a headache was known to be the melting of ‘Aspirin’ tablets in a cup of water, which would be subsequently used as a and gargle it in your throat.
Of course, there were occasions when people developed a sore throat, and the recommended cure was the wrapping of your stocking around the throat at night time. In extreme cases, however, it was recommended by healers that a piece of fat bacon be roasted on a fork and then placed in a flannel that would be held against the throat as hot as it possibly could be. Another cure that was widely recommended for curing a sore throat was to put some bread soda into a cup of water, stir it and drink. Now, Mumps in those days was much more serious than it is today and healers often recommended putting warmed salt into a stocking, which would be tied around the patient’s neck. It was also used as a means of relieving the pain of Neuralgia.
One particularly odd cure was used occasionally to cure a child’s sore mouth, which was to permit an old man, who was fasting, to blow into the affected mouth.
St. Anthony’s Fire and Ringworm – ‘Erysipelas’ is a bacterial infection of the skin that typically involves the lymphatic system. It is, however, also known as ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’, which accurately describes the very real fiery intensity felt by sufferers of the rash. To cure the affliction healers were told that blood should be drawn from an old man’s finger and rubbed it into the sore. Another clue was said to be to write the afflicted person’s name around the spot on the face. This was also known to be a cure for ‘Ringworm’, a disease which grows in the form of a ring and usually appears on the head of an infected person, causing that patient’s hair to fall off and the skin rots away. It was traditionally known that the ‘Seventh Son’ had a cure for this nasty ailment, and there is a story in Mayo about a man from Newport who had the cure for ringworm. It is reported that he cured a boy in the district after the young man had spent a while in Castlebar hospital, and was sent home because the doctors could not cure him. Those who have seen the cure in practice tell that the seventh son simply rubs his hand on the earth before placing his hands over the ring-worm. there is testimony that states the ring-worm gradually disappears, but the hair will rarely ever grow on that spot afterward. The mysterious thing about this all is that tradition tells us that when the seventh son is born a worm must be put into his hand, and if he possesses the cure then the worm dies.
Stomach Complaints and the Fear a Gorta – Everyone of us has suffered from a stomach complaint of one kind or another and have taken antacids, Epsom Salts, laxatives, and even warm milk with sugar to help us get some relief. Prior to the outbreak of World War One, however, ‘Flummery’ was an article of food that was in common use in Ireland. When a farmer used to take his crop of oats to be ground in the mill, he also brought home with him the bran and pollen of the oat grains. It was from these that he would make a drink, which was called ‘Shearings’. This was said to be a cool thirst-quenching drink, which when boiled became ‘Flummery’, a thick, jelly-like food that was brownish in colour. It was said to be a little sour to taste and some people would add sugar to sweeten it. However, this was considered a good cure for indigestion and provided a great pick-me-up for those who took it. Others swore by the curative properties of Buttermilk with regard to the stomach, and hot buttermilk was often taken by those suffering from a cold. Wild garlic was picked by healers and boiled in milk, or eaten raw to cure colic.
But when it came to stomach complaints the superstitious peasants also feared the approach of the ‘Fear a Gorta’, the sudden and terrible feeling of hunger that was said to overcome a person who passed over a place where some poor person who had died during the famine was buried. The traditional remedy for this was a handful of oaten meal, and a farl of the oaten-meal cake was carried by many people in those days when they went on a journey, to cure the ‘fear a gorta’ if they were unfortunate enough to get it.
Minor Hurts – People are always vulnerable to picking up a variety of minor injuries and complaints. For skin complaints like pimples, people were often prescribed oatmeal powder to be put in the water the person washed with, while for a scratch on the skin-bone the cure was said to be the person’s own ‘fasting spit’ spread upon it. If someone was suffering from a sore ear they would be advised to take a piece of cotton with some home-made ointment put on it and placed into the ear for a cure. Other more odd-sounding cures were those like a ‘Dog’s Lick’ is a cure for a running sore or the sting of a nettle being used to cure rheumatism, and the pumping of a cow’s udder to help cure a fever. When it came to cows, should they take ‘the staggers’ the farmer would cut the cow’s ear and bleed it as a cure to make the ‘staggers’ leave.
Stranger still was the cure for toothache recommended to some sufferers that called on them to visit a graveyard at night to acquire a skull in which to collect water that the sufferer would then drink. A more common cure for a toothache, however, was to put a bottle of hot water under the jaw and go to bed. Similarly, warm water and salt were supposed to be good for styes in a person’s eyes, or they might be recommended to look through a widow’s golden wedding ring three times.
Many people, including myself, have suffered from in-growing nails and found it to be very painful. in my case, I was told that I should finely pare the middle of the nail and then cut straight across the top. It worked for me, but I didn’t realise that this was a cure that was also given to sufferers by the wise women and healers in bygone days. In the same way, I have been told that whiskey can be applied to an open wound since it acts just like iodine or another disinfectant, but did you know that scraped raw potato could be used on a burn to ease the pain, and a paste of bread-soda could be put to a scald? From my childhood, I always knew that a nose bleed could be stopped by using the age-old remedy of putting a cold object, such as a key or ice pack to the nape of the neck. As for a wound that is bleeding, in bygone days a clean cobweb would be applied to the wound to stop the bleeding, or the heart of a dock leaf was also used for the same purpose.
For Muscular Cramp, called ‘Taulagh’, the cure given was to tie a piece of dried eel skin tightly around the affected wrist. On occasion, an ordinary leather strap could be used on the wrist as a preventative measure, while another recommended cure was to tie a silk thread around the wrist that was affected. As for a sprained wrist or ankle, it was recommended the patient hold the injured part in a rushing stream of cold water and, afterward, tie it up in a spraining web got from a weaver.
An age-old remedy for boils, which I still recommend to people, is a poultice made from bread and salt, wrapped in a cloth or bandage and applied to the boil as hot as possible to draw out the contents. In a similar way, as in the treatment of Corns and Chilblains above, a plaster made from ‘comfrey’ roots was another method used for drawing and healing boils.
Those who suffer from weak, tired or sore eyes the recommended cure was to wash them in cold, clear water before going to bed while bathing with cold tea was said to be particularly good for relieving weak eyes, and honey was a popular remedy for sore eyes. On occasion, however, our eyes become scratchy or gravelly and the old cure for this condition was said to be the juice, or sap, from the Dandelion, which was commonly known as the ‘Pissy-Bed’. The use of water from a ‘Holy Well’ was also said to cure many things, including any eye trouble a person might have. there is a story told of a man whose trouble was threatening him with total blindness and was cured by washing his eyes in the water of the well. It is also said that a person who sees a trout in the well is guaranteed a cure, whatever the affliction they suffer may be.
Unfortunately, up to the middle decades of the twentieth century ‘Rickets’ was the curse of the poorer and undernourished people, and in particular the children of the peasantry or urban poor. To cure them, the children would often have been sent to the local blacksmith for a cure, which involved holding the child over the anvil and, while drawing some blood, speaking some mysterious words.
Some of you might recognise old cures that are still used in the family, and others might write them all off as nonsense. let me say, however, the ones that I have used have invariably worked. There is one cure that I have not tried because I have only heard about it recently. The old cure for those people who had a weak heart was said to be Water-Cress, which is said to put a new heart in people. Suffering from congenital ischemic heart disease I have decided to start eating the posh Water-Cress sandwiches that always seem to make an appearance in the afternoon teas taken by the ‘quality’. I will certainly let you know how I progress with the recommended cure…..