Irish Folk Medicine: Transference Cures

Continuation of Irish Folk Medicine: Introduction.

Transference Cures

These are probably the most common of all folk cures. The intention is to pass the disease on usually to a lower animal. Here is an example from Co. Meath. An old lady who thought she knew no Irish, went to visit the child of a neighbour, who had mumps. When she had seen the child she went quietly out to the yard, stood beside the pig sty, and was heard to say to the pig “A mhuic, A mhuic,  chugat an leicneach seo.” A slightly different version from Co. Westmeath is that the person saying the words must stand as tall as possible against the door post.

There are many other such examples, you probably know of the practice of putting the winkers of the donkey on the sufferer and leading him around the pigsty. This is usually used to treat mumps or whooping cough. The patient, wearing the winkers, may also be led to a south-flowing river, where he drinks the water directly from the stream. Another method is to lead him across the stream.

Warts may be treated in many ways; one method is for the patient to pick up pebbles, one for each wart and place them at a cross roads. The intention is that the person who picks up the pebbles will get the warts. Another example of a transference cure for whooping cough – it is only necessary to go to the curer and tell him about the case, and it is cured in this way.

You all know about different methods of treating warts in children. All the different methods may be classified, as washing cures, wasting cures, and transference cures. Here is another transference cure: The sufferer must touch the coat of a man who never saw his father. One may also bring the warts from the sufferer.

Washing may be done, in the water of many holy wells, or in the water found in a hollow in a stone. This is especially efficacious if come upon by the patient when he is not looking for it. Certain wells are famous; one at Clonard Co. Meath, and one at Clonmacnois. The use of forge water will also cure warts but there is a difficulty – the forge water must be stolen. Wasting cures are equally effective. Here the warts may be rubbed with a piece of bacon which must be stolen. A piece of raw meat may also be used, and then it is necessary that the meat be buried in clay. As the meat decays so will the warts. Another type of wasting cure is the use of a black snail to rub the warts. The snail is then impaled on a thorn, and as it shrivels and withers so will the warts.

And here is a method of treating warts in cattle from Lemanaghan in Co. Offaly.
The warts are bathed in the water of the saint’s well. Then some leaves are pulled from a tree beside the well and buried in the earth. As the leaves decay, so will the warts. This one combined both washing and wasting.

In the same neighbourhood there is a method of treating a burn which must be thousands of years old. The last man who had this cure, the late Larry Ruttledge, did not leave it to anyone. The person who wished to acquire the power to heal burns by licking them was told to go to a certain spot where he is likely to find an alp luachra this is the common water newt. He must pick it up and lick its back nine times and put it back on the ground. This had to be repeated on nine successive days and on the ninth day the alp luachra died. When the person seeking the cure returned to the same spot on the following day the dead alp was gone, and he then knew that he had acquired the power in his tongue.

Some other animals may be licked to acquire the power to heal burns. I have heard of frogs and leeches. In all cases the explanation given is that the tongue of the licker has acquired a poison from the animal and this poison is able to overcome the poison in the burn.

The idea of ability to get healing power from a lower animal is very old, and is found in Anglo-Saxon magic medicine. It may be worth mentioning that the Alp Luachra had a day of glory in the history of Irish medicine. On 26th May, 1684, Thomas Molyneux used it to demonstrate the circulation of the blood before the members of the Dublin Philosophical Society – probably the first time it was demonstrated in a reptile.(Minute book of the Society.).

Holy Well Photographs at : St. Gobnait’s, Ballyvourney, Cork ; St. Fintan’s, Cromogue, Laois (Queen’s Co.) ;  7 Holy Well’s, Killeigh, Offaly (King’s Co.)

Published in Teathbha, The Journal of the Longford Historical Society.

Vol II. No. 1. July 1980

Part III: Irish Folk Medicine: Colours and Blood

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