Published in Teathbha, The Journal of the Longford Historical Society.
Vol II. No. 1. July 1980
IRISH FOLK MEDICINE
by DR. PATRICK LOGAN
In the summer of 1939, I came home, radiating the glory of a newly acquired M.B. One Sunday afternoon, I was alone, a man called to see my mother. He was looking for a burn plaster, which she made, and clearly was not interested in my skill or lack of it. The plaster consisted of four parts by weight of mutton suet, and one part of bees wax. The fat was melted in a double saucepan and all the fibrous tissue removed. The bees’ wax was then added and blended smoothly with the fat. Strong linen bandages were then soaked in the liquid mixture, removed and allowed to harden. When required, one, two, or three thicknesses of the bandage are used to cover the bUrn, bandaged in position and must not be removed for the usual nine days. This is an excellent method of treating a burn. It provides a closed dressing and the high melting point of the mutton fat will ensure that the dressing will not be messy.
During the same summer, I heard of a young man who was suffering from sciatica.
He had consulted a lady who lived near where counties Louth, Meath, and Monaghan meet – some of her power was due to the place she lived – and was advised that the best treatment was bleeding. I was ignorant and proud and refused to bleed the lad, and I never got another chance. Later I learned that bleeding was advised as a treatment for sciatica in a famous medieval text book the Rosa Anglim, which was written by John of Gaddesden in the fourteenth century, and was very popular in mediaeval Irelande. (Rosa Anglica: Irish version Ed. W. Wulf. I.T.S.)
But my most enlightened case was that of a stout lady about 65 years old, a close friend of my family who complained of a severe pain in her right arm radiating down from her shoulder. I made the correct diagnosis – the pain was caused by pressure on the nerve roots as they came out of the spinal canal – and prescribed an analgesic. Unfortunately for the patient, and for me, the pain was not relieved, so her husband consulted a lady who made the cure. She applied a poultice, made of the leaves of Ranuculus Falamula. which had been macerated to the painful area. This is a powerful counter irritant and gave the patient considerable relief. Great blisters formed on the skin, and this was seen as removing water from the arm: the water was believed to be the cause of the pain. When the blisters began to dry up, the raw surface was treated with a preparation of “the healing ‘erb”. I was able to identify it as the slán lus, probable ribwort, and it soothed the tender surface of the arm. I must add that the lady’s husband was a gentleman, he gave me a Wedgwood vase and never again mentioned the case.
These few experiences taught me that Folk Medicine was a suitable subject for investigation, and I have been collecting and studying it ever since.
Folk medicine is a strange mixture. It can only be collected piecemeal, and in any collection cures will be found which are thousands of years old and others which are of the twentieth century. I propose to duscuss some of my own collection and show you some forms of treatment which are thousands of years old and go back to the Indo-European origin of the race. These practices include such things as transferring the disease, to the earth, to water, to a lower animal, or to another person. Some forms of treatment are recently derived from official medicine. Examples of these are the use of Carbon-tetra-chloride to treat liver fluke in sheep and the use of mercury ointment to treat some skin diseases.
Let me begin with a pilgrimage which I have made to a holy well in my native parish. The well is dedicated to St. Brigid, and the most popular day was of course the first of February, but it could be made on other days and was believed to cure toothache, headache, or sore eyes. Also the pilgrimage might be made on behalf of someone else. As one approached an old graveyard the rosary was said. The pilgrim then walked righthand three times around three ancient trees, saying some prayers. He then knelt before what was believed to be the face
of St. Brigid carved on a stone, where he prayed, and might leave some money or a few eggs.
When the stone was cleaned some years ago, it was found to be a corbel and the face had a beard.
It was, presumably from the medieval church. The pilgrim then walked along a lane, and across
three fields, to St. Brigid’s well where he again prayed, walked around the well three times,
righthand and drank some of the water.
These practices of walking righthand, around trees and wells, as well as the offering of eggs – the first fruits of the year – are all derived from the pre-christian religion of the Irish. I understand that similar practices around trees and wells can be seen in many parts of India as well as in some European countries. This is not to condemn such practices, which I would not presume to do, but to point out their origin.
Another very ancient practice is the use of clay to treat diseases. The earth was thought to be the great healer and the great source of life. In Connemara there is a striking cure for a disease called fiolun. Fiolun in the annals probably means the enlarged suppurating glands seen in bubonic plague and at present means any chronic ulcer. A synonym given for fiolun was lot. The sufferer was put into a hole and covered completely with clay – this was stressed.
More usually the clay was collected from special places and used as treatment. In the Parish of Templeport, in Co. Cavan, pilgrims visit St. Mogue’s Island and bring back some of the Saint’s clay. The clay has wonderful powers – it protects against fire and wind, and also cures sore eyes.
In the parish of Kilronan, pilgrims visit the well dedicated to St. Lassair. They drink the water from the well and some prayers are said. The clay is collected and taken home to be used to heal all sorts of diseases. Some pilgrims may crawl under the Saint’s flagstone, in order to be cured of back ache. A late life (or a late copy- of St. Lassair, written by an O’Duignan, a local scribe, describes the healing miracles of the Saint and the wonderful powers of the water of her well.(Eriu Volume V., p.73 et ff).
Two other more modern versions of the power of clay, may be given, also from the diocese of Ardagh. In the ruins of the Friary at Drumahaire, the grave of a Father Peter MacGovern is visited, and clay from his grave is used to heal diseases. Similarly the grave of Fr. John MacKeon, in the old graveyard at Kiltoghert, is visited and clay is taken to cure diseases. Cures similar to these, burying, passing under, or through holes in stones, and the use of clay, are found in the folk medicine of all the countries of western Europe.