Thursday, 27 May, 2021
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Ireland is well known for its folklore, myths and legends and part of this are the recordings of old cures and healing powers attributed to people. In times when a doctor or vet could be ill afforded knowing someone with a cure was invaluable. 

Clonbrock Estate in Ahascragh, Co. Galway

Picture: Dog bite? The touch from the hand of a seventh son cures the bite of a mad dog

The Schools' Collection compiled in the 1930s provides a great local history resource for anyone interested in researching myths, legends and history in a very local context. The collection is retained in University College Dublin and is part of the wider archives represented by the National Folklore Collection. What it provides is the embedding of people and place in folklore practice, preserving and reflecting the distinctive perspectives, beliefs and aspirations of communities over time.  More and more of the School's Collection is being made available online on a phased basis through the Duchas Website. This information is a valuable source in its own right but equally so when taken together with official trade directory information, maps, census statistics, headstone transcriptions and other sources detailing a parish’s history. 

Much local folklore came about as a result of what we would today call superstition but also from an intimate knowledge of the weather, animals or basic biology - something that in today's hectic world we are a little removed from. Cures and special remedies could sometimes have an underlying reasoning behind their application that is quite understandable. If you suffered from a cold, for example, a common remedy included various mixtures of honey, butter, sugar and lemon. Some cures though are not so easy to understand. In Ardaghy, Omeath, Co. Louth one recorded cure for toothache required a promise by the patient never to shave on Sundays

As well as being a valuable insight into social and cultural norms and traditions, the exercise books themselves are a tangible connection to our ancestors as children, teachers and parents. As more and more of the collection is being digitized, we can search for mentions of our ancestors amongst them, or find an actual account written by one of them and read the story in their own handwriting.

Baldness, warts, worms ...

Cures could be found for all sorts of ailments from shingles, baldness, warts, worms, skin conditions and many, many more. Many people were said to be born having the cure for something and this they could sometimes pass down through generations. For some cures the gift passed specifically on either the male or female line. In his book, Irish County Cures, Patrick Lohan refers to a family near Tuam, Co. Galway known for five generations as bone setters. Sometimes the bone setters symbol can be found on a headstone, indicating that person's skill in the area and is recognizable as a fist clutching a broken piece of bone. 

Picture: Bone settler symbol on headstone in Kilbannon Graveyard, Tuam, Co. Galway

"Going for the Cure"

The Schools' Collection gives an insight into life in Ireland before x-rays, chiropractors or midwives were readily available. Often times no money was exchanged as part of the process and sometimes the fulfilling of the remedy involved prayer on the part of the person with the gift or the person receiving it. More often than not the recorded cures had a very practical application, particularly for children. 

Some examples are provided below and it is interesting to see how the treatment of common ailments like whooping cough, warts, colds and headaches differ from one part of the country to the other and also how similar stories are found in the Collection in Barnaderg below, as well as for the neighbouring parishes of  Abbeyknockmoy and Tuam:

"Milk given to a ferret and what it leaves; drink up by child affected afterwards is said to be a cure for the chincough. There is a very old cure for sprains. The person must go before sunrise to some place where three waters meet on three mornings in succession. Then the part affected must be placed in the water. This was thought an infallible sure in olden times."

Cure collected by Martin Reilly from Mary B. Reilly, Barnaderg, Co. Galway

Writing a review of a Handbook of Irish Folklore, Francis Shaw stated that ‘when truth and beauty and goodness cannot be found in modern civilization, we are forced to seek for these values in other places’.  As a source of family and local history the value of the School’s Collection should not be overlooked. 

Irish cures for your affliction?

Put a hot potato to the cheek or fill the mouth with cold water

For a cough
Drink boiled buttermilk and sugar on it or blackberry drinks

Sore throat
Tie a woolen stocking round it

A stie on the eye
Get nine gooseberry thorns and point them at the eye

For Hayfever

Nettles boiled and the water in which they are boiled in drunk

The Cure for Hayfever

For a horse with colic
Drench her with hot ale and ground ginger

Taken from Schools' Collection at the National Folklore Archive

We hope you have found the information we have shared helpful. While you are here, we have a small favour to ask. Ireland Reaching Out is a non-profit organisation that relies on public funding and donations to ensure a completely free family history advisory service to anyone of Irish heritage who needs help connecting with their Irish place of origin. If you would like to support our mission, please click on the donate button and make a contribution. Any amount, big or small, is appreciated and makes a difference.