Most of us have at one time or another been unlucky enough to experience some unpleasant illness or ailment which lays us low. Thankfully, our recoveries from such infirmities are in the main, rapid and full. In days gone by however, and prior to the arrival of the flu-jab, our forebears had to resort to a wide array of traditional practices in their attempts to combat and drive out illnesses, some of which would appear quite strange to us today.
Owing to the importance of healers and healing, it is perhaps no surprise that mythological physicians feature in our ancient literature. Diancecht for example, whose name may perhaps be taken to mean ‘swift in power’, was a God of healing in Ireland, and he was renowned for his ability to cure even the most debilitating of injuries. Diancecht had a son Miach, who was famed as a better physician than his father, and, jealous of his son’s ability, Diancecht killed him out of spite. From Miach’s grave, we are told, sprang thee hundred and sixty five different curative herbs. Miach’s sister Airmed arranged these herbs according to their virtues and powers and laid them out on a cloak. Diancecht, seeing what she had done, came and jumbled the herbs that lay there, so that no one knows their right powers to this day.
Despite Diancecht’s attempts at obscuring their powers, a great many traditional cures involve the application or use of plants or herbs. Some remedies might be quite familiar to readers; the sting of a nettle for example, was traditionally eased by applying a dock leaf to the affected area. Similarly, the juice of the dandelion was regarded in tradition as being particularly useful in combatting warts. In many parts of Ireland the toxic milk from the stem of the small green plant, Euphorbia Helioscopia (more commonly known as ‘wartweed’, ‘wart-spurge’ or ‘mad-woman’s milk’) was also used to cure warts, though readers will be glad to learn that should these toxic juices fail to enact a cure, recourse could also be made to the practice of magic. For every wart with which an individual was afflicted, a stone could be placed in a little bag which was then left on the roadside. The unfortunate person who would pick up the bag, would have the warts transferred to them.
The dandelion-like plant Tussilago Farfara or ‘colt’s-foot’ was understood to clean the blood, and could also be drunk as a tea to ease throat troubles. Alternately, it could be dried up and smoked in a pipe as a cure for bronchitis, though smoking dried weeds in an attempt to cure bronchitis is not likely to feature high on the list of advice received from your local respiratory specialist nowadays.
A somewhat gruesome treatment for bronchitis was to be found in Aughrim in south Wicklow. This involved killing a hen and removing her entrails, before having the patient insert their bare feet into the cavity. If the hen decayed in half an hour, we are told, the prognosis was grim. If however, the hen did not rot immediately, the patient would enjoy a full recovery. A text from 1739 AD titled Zoologia Medicinalis Hibernia, which lists a variety of animals and their uses in Irish folk medicine, further attests to this once widespread custom, stating that ‘Pigeons being split up alive and applied to the soles of the feet, draw the fever from the head’.
Several ailments were remedied through the ritual use of some unfortunate creature, the idea being that the illness might be magically transferred to them, thereby relieving the patient of their distress. In some parts of Ireland, illnesses such as whooping cough could be magically transferred to spiders, caterpillars, or snails which were placed in a bag and worn around the neck. Thick spider’s webs were also used the country over in the treatment of deep cuts, being applied to the wound in order to stop bleeding. Medical assistance was wrought even from frogs, and tradition held that toothaches could be cured by making the Sign of the Cross on the affected tooth with a frog (alternately, if not fond of frogs, the application of green scum gathered from bog-holes was also considered most efficacious in the curing of toothaches). A sty in the eye could be cured by making the Sign of the Cross with a thorn held to the infected eye, or by looking through a wedding ring.
Aside from animals and herbs, certain individuals were also credited with special healing powers. Posthumous figures such as the seventh son or daughter were believed to have particular curative abilities. The Byrne and Kehoe families were also said to be able to cure shingles. This cure was brought about by a member of either family rubbing their blood on the affected area of the patient’s body, thereby bringing about a swift remedy to the ailment.
In today’s fast-paced world however, we might do well to more regularly practice what were reputed to be the best cures of all in the doctor’s book, namely, a good laugh and a long sleep.