Thursday 14 May 2009

Irish Folk Cures

I saw a copy of the book Irish Folk Cures by writer and folklorist Padraic O'Farrell in a charity shop the other day and had to buy it, even though my bookshelves have long run out of space.

After my mum broke her wrist last week, I dipped into its pages to see what would have been done to heal her in Ireland of bygone days. I was surprised to find that the old job of the bonesetter wasn't that much different from what doctors do to set bones today - although they have the benefit of modern plaster.

The book says:

"A bonesetter employed some athletic methods of leverage. By lying on the floor alongside the patient, putting his foot under his armpit and pulling, he separated sections of a fractured shoulder.

"Bandages soaked in soot or flour mixed with egg white acted as a light plaster. Scraps of sacking soaked in heated pitch and resin provided a stronger one."
Many of the remedies in Irish Folk Cures are more magical than practical, however. Arthritis was thought to be caused by fairy darts inflaming the joints. Cures involved brushing the affected area with mint leaves or hemlock, or rubbing it with a potato - preferably a stolen one -to dislodge the dart.

Elf shot was blamed for quite a lot of ailments, including poor milk yield in cows. Apparently you could tell if this was the problem by measuring the cow from head to tail and then tail to head. Any difference in the two measurements was a definite sign of fairy involvement. Cures involved either getting the cow to drink from a stream between parishes, or finding the mark left by the dart and then rubbing the area with an elf stone - usually a Stone Age arrow head.

Many Irish folk remedies involved herbs - and ancient Irish mythology has a story for this.

Dian Cecht, the god of healing, murdered his son Miach in a fit of rivalry, becasue he was jealouse that the boy was a greater healer than himself. When Miach's sister, Airme, visited his grave, she found 365 herbs growing where Miach's body lay. Each had the power to heal the organ, bone or muscle over which it grew.

Airme picked the herbs and wrote down their correspondences, but this knowledge was all-but lost when her notes were scattered by the wind across Ireland. Only details of seven of these herbs remained and the details of how to prepare them were passed down by herbalists through the ages. These herbs were elder bark, eyebright, foxglove, groundsel, hawthorn buds, ivy and vervain.

Actually, many of the folk remedies in Padraic O'Farrell's book contain other herbs, but these seven do appear frequently. For example, elder was used as a poultice to treat ringworm, boiled foxgloves were rubbed on sores and tying ivy around a sheaf of corn could supposedly heal corns.

A visit to a holy well or sacred stone could also cure a variety of ills. St Brigid's Well, Brideswell, Roscommon, was often frequented by barren women hoping to conceive. Dubliners would drink from a well in the Coombe to cure a hangover. Apparently people still visit St Hugh's Headache Stone, in Rahugh, County Westmeath, in hope of relief from the associated affliction.

Reading about folk cures always leaves me with mixed feelings - some, such as the bonesetting technique described, seem sensible and one can believe that they could work. Others, such as attempting to cure a cyst by touching it with the hand of a corpse, just seem gross. Many involving things now known to be poisonous would be more likely to kill than cure.

Nevertheless, it always strikes me that so much ancient knowledge of , particularly with the use of plants, has been forgotten. The tale of Airme's herbs that were lost to the wind is an beautiful allegory.

Irish Folk Cures by Padraic O'Farrell is published by Gill & Macmillan and is available through Amazon. He is also the author of Irish Ghost Stories, Superstitions of the Irish country people and Irish Customs among many other books. Padraic O'Farrell died in 2003. Irish Folk Cures was his last book.

NOTE: Many supposed folk cures do more harm than good. Always seek expert advice before taking any remedy. Consult your GP if you are unwell.

Irish Folk Cures


Unknown said...

What a lovely post, I've seen this book around I think I might treat myself next time I spot it! Comfry/Borage is another Irish fold remedy for broken bones.I feel so glad sometimes to have been raised in a country with such a rich heritage.
I love your blog btw it's very interesting!
This is my blog, it'd be cool if you popped by sometime, although it's only in it's early stages:

Anonymous said...

The bone setting made me wince .