When I was a child, about eight years old, I had jaundice. I remember my father came home from the pub with a cure for it: a herbal bottle which I had to drink a little of each day. It was unpleasant to take, but I did as requested and my sickness disappeared.
I also recall my grandmother taking me, a young girl, for a walk through our fields at dusk to the fairy fort. We stopped close to it and listened; we heard the cry of the banshee and saw the shadowy figure of a woman at the edge of the wood. I was fascinated. Since then, I have loved the stories of Ireland long ago, our mythology and archaeology.
Cures were part and parcel of community life in rural Co Sligo when I was growing up. I knew there was something special about this tradition, and as an undergraduate in the late 1980s I conducted research into the old cures and I interviewed people who had them. Twenty years later I returned to the subject in earnest and spoke to many more with cures. I tracked down the nephew of the man who made the jaundice bottle from my childhood; he had inherited the cure.
Sitting in their kitchen, over a cup of tea, he and his wife told me that they made the cure using convolvulus (bindweed), which grew abundantly around their farmhouse. The cure took about an hour to prepare and in addition to the herb, he used one litre of milk, four half pint bottles of beer, and a secret ingredient. He suggested people take a teacup of this herbal drink in the morning before breakfast until it was all gone, about seven days later.
Relief from pain
In a sleepy village in north Leitrim, I spoke to a woman in her twenties who had a popular cure for shingles. Her cure was a mixture of 13 plants found locally: ‘It’s just herbs that you pick, that are growing in the fields and ditches. It won’t do anybody any harm, it’s just all natural,’ she said. It took almost three days for her to make a large batch of the cure, which involved simmering the plants with unsalted butter.
People were directed to rub the cure, a green ‘soap’, on their shingles twice daily. The last line of the instructions which accompanied the cure stated, ‘Hoping, please God, you have relief from pain.’
And, on the banks of the Shannon in north Roscommon, I interviewed a cattle dealer in his sixties with a prayer cure for bleeding. He had been asked to help a variety of haemorrhages, including ones related to the nose, brain, threatened miscarriage, childbirth, operations, accidents, and dehorned cattle. The amazing aspect of this man’s cure was the number of people he made it for and the places they came from. Over the 33 years that he had been making the cure, he had received “thousands of calls … six, eight, ten calls a day.” People phoned him from every part of Ireland to request the cure and many from abroad. “I get calls from all over the world - England, America, New Zealand, Canada and even from the Congo and India,” he said.
I met a young woman in Cavan who had a cure for calving paralysis. “It’s when a cow gives birth and they remain down, their back two legs get paralysed,’ she explained. She said it was a common problem and that sometimes the cow could be ‘down’ for a week before the farmer phoned her. She had to travel to where the animal was. She blessed herself to start the cure, next she circled the cow slowly and repeatedly, rubbing her and praying. She said the cure prayer and then recited the Creed three times. This set of prayers was repeated twice more and a blessing finished the ritual. She accepted no money, not even for petrol; now and then a farmer came out with a bag of goodies for the kids in the car.’
Whooping cough cure
In the heart of an old port town in the northwest, there was a man with a well-known whooping cough cure. He was able to make it because he kept ferrets. Those who wanted the cure brought a litre of milk to him. He gave his ferrets some of this milk to drink for three days. Each day, whatever milk the ferrets did not drink, he collected, strained and bottled. This was known as the ferret’s ‘leavings’ and it was the cure. The milk had to be drunk by the person with the whooping cough, usually a child, for three days in a row. Many parents put it in the baby’s bottle at night when the cough could be worse. On the day I interviewed this man, he had seven ferrets in cages at the back of his house. He brought one into the living room for me to hold as we were chatting.
The tradition of the seventh daughter or son having healing power has been very strong in Ireland. If seven girls or seven boys are born consecutively in a family, the seventh child will be able to heal ringworm and sometimes, other conditions.
One seventh daughter I spoke to cured warts as well as ringworm, ‘I just make the Sign of the Cross on the parts that has the ringworm or warts and I say prayers,’ she explained. She lived in a large town in the midlands, and was born in a Co Longford nursing home in 1974. A nun working there had asked could the baby be tested with a worm. So, when she was just three days old, a worm was put in her right hand, and her parents watched as it stopped wriggling and died. Many of the seventh daughters and sons that I interviewed told me a similar story.
I had known this woman when she was a child as her grandmother’s house was not far from my family home and she often came on holidays there. She said the first time she used her cure (at age four) was to heal my little sister of ringworm on her arms and legs. My mother, who had great faith in the traditional cures, had asked would the child make the cure; she did and it worked very well. Almost 30 years later, I found myself interviewing this woman, part of my childhood, with a cure which had survived and was thriving.
Cures of Ireland is published by the Irish Academic Press. Available in bookshops nationwide or at irishacademicpress.ie (€22.99)