Between 1937 and 1939 the Folklore Commission began a unique and invaluable project to collect different aspects of Irish folklore. In order to do this they requested the help of primary school teachers throughout the Irish Free State. More than 50,000 school children from 5,000 schools took part in what became known as the Schools’ Project which is now being made available for public consumption on the internet.
In neat handwriting in both English and Irish, national school pupils, after consulting their relatives and neighbours, wrote about folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, games and pastimes, superstitions and cures of their local area. They form a portal to another era and much of what they wrote down has long since being forgotten and highlight a time when people lived very closely with the land. Today we go to the health food shop and buy overpriced goods to maintain our health but people a hundred years ago knew how to find these things in nature. Nettles were boiled and eaten during the month of March to purify the blood. Burdock or cradán as it was also known was boiled and drunk to do this as well. Wild carrot was used for kidney trouble. Chicken weed heated very hot was applied to swellings and sores. Bleeding was stopped with cobwebs and fine feathers.
One of the ledgers I consulted was compiled by school teacher Eibhlín Halliday of Knockroe, Dunmore, County Galway and the folk cures described in it interested me the most. She had a keen interest in folklore and it is clear from the ledger that she had been collecting them for years and many of the cures were told to her by her grandparents. Reference is made to ‘long ago’ and writing in 1937 this would be going back to the first half of the 19th century. People were a lot more superstitious in the early 20th century and the ledger contains a description of a woman in Carrnagur who had the evil eye and still born children were believed to have been taken by the faeries. We learn about the ailments people suffered from at the time. The most deadly one was consumption, otherwise known as TB, which was a major affliction in the country until Noel Browne tackled the problem in the 1950s. People suffering from consumption were encouraged to drink donkey’s milk. A child suffering from the whooping cough was placed under a donkey’s stomach. Another cure involved boiling a mouse in milk and having the child drink the milk. The soup from a boiled hedgehog was also believed to be a cure. Alternatively the advice of man on a white or grey horse was sought and followed. Those suffering from boils let a snail crawl onto the afflicted area. Turpentine was placed on loaf sugar and given to children suffering from worms. A toothache could be cured by boiling a frog and drinking the liquid. People with ankle sprains placed their leg under a waterfall and this eased the pain as indeed did goose lard rubbed on the afflicted area. There were healing men who would utter incantations as they performed their healing. Eibhhlín Halliday’s grandmother had turf mould in her eye and went to healer in Claddagh, Tuam. He placed a glass of water on a table and bade her sit close to it. He then muttered an incantation and the turf mould appeared in the glass and she was cured immediately.
Towards the end of the Great War Europe was ravaged by the Spanish flu. Although not terribly well remembered, more than 20,000 Irish people died until it subsided in 1919. People carried garlic around with them which was believed would ward off the fatal flu. Though not mentioned in the project, another cure for the Spanish flu was whiskey.
In Kilkerrin, school teacher Caitlín, Bean Uí Chuimín described a cure for warts. The afflicted person wrote their name on a rag with a burnt tick and burnt the rag secretly. It was believed that the warts would disappear as the rag burnt. A cure for a sore throat was believed to be found by heating salt and putting it on cloth tied around the neck or putting boiled potatoes in sock and tying it around the neck. Ring worm could be cured with a mixture of sulphur and unsalted butter. A herb known as buachaillí an tighe could cure sore eyes. A fox's tongue was used to remove thorns. A sprain could be cured by wrapping a snáithe leónta, a type of woollen string and accompanied by prayers wrapped around the afflicted area for nine days. Those suffering from headaches would have their head measured three times on three different occasions as they believed that their head might have actually split. Warts could be washed before sunrise in the water found in a particular bullaun stone blessed by St Patrick. A bullaun stone was a hole in a rock, and its water was believed to have curative properties. Drinking water from a holy well before sunrise was believed to have general curative properties though some such a well in Boyounagh graveyard were believed to specifically cure warts. Boiled nettle juice was believed to cure measles.
Faith healers such as a seventh son of a seventh son were more common and could cure by merely touching the afflicted area. Some people believed that they only had curative powers if something was placed into their hand immediately after birth before being placed on their mother’s breast. A worm placed in his hand would ensure he could cure scurvy while a herb would give them the power to cure cancer.
The cures are to the modern world bizarre but would have been tried and trusted and passed down several generations. The power of belief is the most important cure. My own grandmother used to make an ointment which was known to cure burns, the ingredients of which were known only to the women of the family. At her funeral last year, I was impressed by the amount of people who proclaimed how the ointment had cured them of their affliction.
All of the above cures were taken from different ledgers of the schools project which is available to view free of charge on the dúchas website at www.duchas.ie. More ledgers can be viewed at the folklore collection, stored at the UCD library in Dublin.