Tag Archives: Irish Customs

Irish Folk Medicine: Colours and Blood

Continuation of Irish Folk Medicine: Transference Cures.


Colours are important in the practice of folk medicine. We all know of the virtues of red flannel. It is widely used to relieve backache. It may also be used to treat whooping cough. In this case it is applied to the chest of the sufferer; and, to have the full effect, it should be put on by the godfather of the patient. A piece of red thread may be tied around a sprain. This is especially useful if nine knots are tied on the thread. Some of you will have seen pieces of red cloth tied on the tails of cattle. This is done to protect them against dangerous fairies or against the evil eye, or against elf shot. Blackleg may be prevented by putting a stitch of red thread through the dewlap of the animal and leaving it in position. In Indo-European mythology red is a colour which resists or expels demons, and clearly these practices are part of this belief.

Yellow is also an important colour, and the use of yellow things to treat jaundice is widespread. The important thing to realise is that jaundice is a dramatic symptom, and in the great majority of cases it clears up satisfactorily. There is a shrewd distinction between the black jaundice which is not curable – it may be due to cancer of the pancreas – and the yellow jaundice which is curable. There is an old legend that if a jaundiced patient sees a yellowhammer, the bird will die and the patient will get better. In Sweden a roasted yellowhammer is eaten by the patient. Here all sorts of yellow flowers are used. Charlock, buttercups, corn marigold and the flowers of the yellow iris. Official medicine also used yellow flowers until the end of the eighteenth century, but, in addition, the patient was also given an emetic and was also purged, bled, and sweated. These measures were most uncomfortable, and probably made the patient worse. This heroic treatment was based on the theory that jaundice was due to obstruction of something somewhere, and the treatment was designed to relieve all obstructions. Here I would include the use of yellow flowers to treat liver fluke infestation in sheep. In addition to the others, yellow wall flowers, and the yellow head of the buachallan may be used. 

Blood is also used in folk medicine, and is another example of pre-christian magic medicine. The best known form of this is the use of Keogh’s blood for treatment of the shingles. A family named Keogh living near Two Mile House, Co. Kildare has this cure, which consists of rubbing some of the blood of the healer on the blisters. People come from all the neighbouring counties to have this cure made.

I have heard of a patient who was admitted to the Co. Hospital in Castlebar to have an infected arm amputated. Whilst there he was told of a woman who had the cure, so he left the hospital and went to her in the mountains of West Mayo. The lady was eighty years old, and said she was too old to make the cure but he persuaded her to try. She took some blood from her arm, mixed it with unsalted butter and dressed the hand with it. The hand healed quickly.

In a primitive society, blood would be thought of as the seat of life. The use of blood was forbidden in the Anglo-Saxon Penitentials. The intention may have been, in the beginning, that the healer shared some of his own life with the sufferer and in this way restored him to health. ‘ 

Continuation of Irish Folk Medicine: Introduction. ; Transference Cures

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

Vol II. No. 1. July 1980


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

Irish Folk Medicine: Introduction

Published in Teathbha, The Journal of the Longford Historical Society.
Vol II. No. 1. July 1980



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.

Part II: Irish Folk Medicine: Transference Cures