ANCIENT CURES, CHARMS, AND USAGES OF IRELAND.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO IRISH LORE.
FOR A HEADACHE
Measuring the head for nervous headache is much practised. The measuring doctor has certain days for practising his art, and receives or visits his patients on no other occasions. He first measures the head with a piece of tape above the ears and across the forehead, then from ear to ear over the crown of the head, then diagonally across the vertex. After this he uses strong compression with his hands, and declares that the head is "too open'' And he mutters certain prayers and charms at the same time.
This process is repeated for three days, until at last the doctor asserts that the head is closing and has grown much smaller — in proof he shows his measurements; and the cure is completed when he pronounces the head to be "quite closed," on which the headache immediately vanishes, and the patient is never troubled by it again.
They say in Shark Island, that any man who rubs his tongue over a lizard's back will be given power to cure a burn by applying the tongue to the part affected.
Some wool taken, from a black sheep, and worn, constantly in the ear, is a sure remedy for earache.
Spiders are of great use in curing disease. A few tied up in a bag, and worn round the neck, will keep off fever and ague; but none, save the fairy doctor, must ever open the bag to look at the contents, or the charm would be broken. Also a black spider, laid as a sandwich between two slices of bread-and-butter, and eaten — one every morning — will be found a great strengthener of the body.
The king's evil is cured by the blood of a black cat. A peasant woman had a cat whose tail was almost entirely nipped off by the repeated applications made for a drop of the creature's blood.
Finally the cat was carried away altogether, probably to effect a speedy cure by the more copious use of poor pussy's healing blood.
Spiders are used for many ailments, especially for ague. A small living spider should be rolled up in a cobweb, then put into a lump of butter and eaten while the fit is on. Pills, also, may be made of the cobwebs in which the eggs remain, and taken daily for three days ; after which time it would be dangerous to continue the treatment.
The spider's web is also an excellent styptic, and is still in use amongst all classes for the staunching of blood, or any abrasion of the skin.
In the operation of bleeding, salt was first sprinkled on the plate and in the cup, and the lips of the patient were touched with the first drops of blood that flowed. It is considered unlucky to bleed a young girl in the arm; the operator therefore, when possible, bleeds her in the foot, which is first placed for some time in warm water.
Duckweed boiled down, and the liquid drank three times a day, is an excellent potion for the sick.
THE FALLING SICKNESS
Burn the patient with a red-hot church key along the head, and he will be cured. Should he fall in the fit, put the juice of absinthe, or fennel juice, or sage juice into his mouth, and he will get well at once.
FOR SORE EYES (1460).
A charge of great power, called "The Charge of the Artificer's Son," and from the Danes it was got; and these are the herbs: onions and dill, with ambrosia and garlic; and let the plants be broken and boiled upon beer; then add the gall of a hog's liver and a drop of wine or of doe's milk, and, when well strained, pour it into an amphora of brass, and apply the liquid to the eye, when the benefit is certain.
Another illustrious charge is made of white lily, valerian, and the leaves of the rowan tree.
Also yarrow, and honey, and the gall of fish boiled together and strained, then applied to the eye, will carry off every description of blindness and clear the pains of the head.
Charms, relics, holy wells, stroking by an adept, and the hand of a seventh son, are all esteemed infallible curative agents. But the seventh son born in succession, without a daughter intervening, has the power of curing pains and aches by merely waving his hand over the part affected. He must, however, first pray in silence for power and strength.
Mesmerism has been practised in Ireland from Druidic times, and cures were effected by waving of the hands without contact, or by stroking. The phenomenon of clairvoyance, called in Irish the "enlightenment," was also well known to the Druids, who by this means ascertained the will of the gods in important matters, and by its aid prophecies were made and the thoughts of the heart revealed.
Rheumatism was chiefly cured by stroking, and all remedies that acted on the imagination, such as lying in a saint's bed, mesmeric charms, and incantations, were deemed most effectual. Latin words were used as charms, sewn up in a bag and carried in the pocket, tied round the hind legs of a hare. An eel-skin had great virtue placed on the chest, or tied round the knee. Forge water had many virtues and could allay rheumatic pains; also potato water, used hot, with the froth on.
Called by the Irish the "wild fire," is believed to originate from fairy malice; and blood must be spilled to cure the disease. The blood of a black cat is best, consequently few of these animals can be seen with an entire tail, for it is nipped off bit by bit to perform the cure.
The black cat is a very weird and mysterious creature. If you manage to possess one particular bone of it, you can at will render yourself invisible.
To obtain this, boil the cat alive, then take the bones one by one, and hold each singly in your mouth before a looking glass, strictly observing if the bone is reflected there; for should you happen to hold one in your mouth that is not reflected, then you may know that the mystic bone at last is found which will make you invisible at pleasure.
If a cow is sick, the witch-man or charmer mounts astride on the animal, and is given a bannock to eat, well buttered, along with a bowl of cream ; these he takes, saying: "A bite, a sup, a bite, a sup; if it be so ordained, let the beast get well; if not, leave it to its fate; but the bannock I will eat."
A wise woman, learned in the mysteries, has been known to cure the depression of spirits, called in Irish "the sinking of the heart," in the following manner. Holding a cup of meal close to the patient, the operator says in Irish: "Base to the heart, ease to the heart," at the same time repeating the words of an invocation known only to herself, and which has never been written down.
This is done on Monday, Thursday, and the Monday following, each time the meal being cast into the fire after use. Then a cake is made of the remainder, the patient sitting by till it is baked, taking care that neither cat, nor dog, nor any living thing passes between him and the fire till the cake is baked and the sign of the Cross made over it.
It is then eaten with nine sprigs of water-cress, and if any is left, it must be thrown into the fire, so that no animal should touch it, the sign of the blessed Cross being stamped thereon.
The peasants have such faith in the ancient cures that, in case of accident or sickness, they wonld far sooner trust the wise woman of the village than all the dispensary doctors in Ireland.
One of these authorised practitioners narrates that a woman once consulted him about a severe affection of the throat, and when examining her he found that she had a scarlet worsted thread tied round the throat, and another round the wrists.
Asking the meaning of this, she said that the old wise woman of the place had given them to her the night before as a certain cure. "So, as they did no harm," added the doctor, "I left them on, though meanwhile I added what I considered best, and under the usual medical treatment she soon became quite well. But, all the same, she believed in the scarlet thread, and secretly thought that by its power she was cured of her ailment."
Philters, love powders, and charms to procure affection were frequently used in Ireland, and the belief in them existed from the most ancient times.
The bardic legends have frequent allusions to love charms; but the most awful of all is the dead strip. Girls have been known to go to a graveyard at night, exhume a corpse that had been nine days buried, and tear down a strip of the skin from head to foot; this they manage to tie round the leg or arm of the man they love while he sleeps, taking care to remove it before his awaking. And so long as the girl keeps this strip of skin in her possession, secretly hidden from all eyes, so long will she retain the man's love.
There was a terrible care employed in old times for insanity, which the people believed in with implicit faith. It consisted in burying the patient for three days and three nights in the earth. A pit was dug, three feet wide and six feet deep, in which the patient was placed, only the head being left uncovered; and during the time of the cure he was allowed no food, and no one was permitted to speak to him, or even to approach him. A harrow-pin was placed over his body, for the harrow-pin is supposed to have peculiar mystic attributes, and was always used in ancient sorceries, and then the unhappy patient was left alone. If he survived the living burial, he was generally taken out of the pit more dead than alive, perished with cold and hunger, and more mad than ever.
Yet it was averred that sometimes the senses were actually restored by this inhuman treatment.
THE FALLING SICKNESS
This sickness is best cured by the hand of a priest. But it is said that if on the first attack the person's shirt be taken off and thrown into the fire and burned, his hair cropped, and his nails pared, and the hair and the parings buried, together with a young cock put down into the grave alive, then lie will never have another attack while he lives.
Madness is also cured by giving the person three substances not procured by human means, and not made by the hand of man. These are honey, milk, and salt, and they are to be given him to drink before sunrise in a sea-shell. Madness and the falling sickness are both considered hereditary, and caused by demoniacal possession.
For king's evil, a most effective cure of proved power is made of burdock roots, the common dock, bog-bean, and rose-noble boiled in water, of which the patient must drink three times a day.
Vervain and the mountain ash are the best preservatives for cattle against witchcraft. Some should be tied round the cow's horns and her tail.
Then no fairy or witch can do harm while the herbs of power are on her.
Exorcism and incantations by a witch-doctor is another remedy but as it is a laborious under-taking, a good supply of whisky is always provided for the adept. When any person in the village showed signs of madness, this man was sent for, and, after a good pull at the whisky, the caster out of devils began his exorcism by pouring forth a torrent of gibberish in a loud voice, which he called Latin prayers; while at the same time he dashed holy water all over the room and the patient.
Then, taking a stout blackthorn stick, he proceeded to thrash the demented person most vigorously, the patient being held firmly all the time by three or four of the friends or neighbours. When the poor victim was half stupefied, and unable even to yell any longer, the operator announced that the devil had gone out of him; but as the evil spirit was still lurking somewhere about, he must be expelled by force or magic. Whereupon he commenced to whirl the blackthorn stick round in all directions, striking everything, animate and inanimate, that lay in his way, as if crazed with fury; especially beating the doors, by which, he said, the devil might escape, and he was determined to have a good blow at him; and all the time, during the process of beating, he kept on reciting the gibberish Latin in a loud, strong voice, fortifying his efforts at exorcism by frequent appeals to the whisky jar.
A singular case of attempted cure took place lately in Roscommon. A young man named Davy Mynn became suddenly raving mad, or "elf- stricken" as the people say, and the great witch- man of the place was sent for one Sunday morning in all haste. He found him bound hand and foot, and foaming at the moutb, while five or six strong men were trying to hold him down; and a great crowd was gathered round the door, who declared that the wretched madman was not Davy Flynn at all, the handsome Davy, once the pride of the village for beauty and strength, but a fairy demon who had taken his shape. So the witcb-man having examined him, and performed sundry strange rites and invocations, pronounced his opinion that the lunatic was certainly not Davy Flynn, but an old French charger, a fine stalwart horse in his time, once belonging to a French general who came to Ireland long ago in tbe time of the troubles; and to keep the real man alive, who was now in Fairyland, the substitute must be well fed witb the proper food for a horse.
On hearing this the friends ran for a sheaf of oats, and crammed tbe straw down the wretched maniac's throat, after which tbe exorcist prepared for his mortal combat witb the devil, aided of course by the poteen, five kegs of which were brought in for the general strengthening of the company.
The operator first tied a white apron over his shoulders, then, witb a wave of the hand in the form of a cross, he commanded silence. After which, be began the invocation by a volley of gibberish Latin, thundered forth between the occasional draughts of whisky, while poor Davy had only a bucket of cold water thrown on his head, to which he responded by terrible cries.
At last the people got tired of the work, and one of them secretly cut the cord of the halter, which held the supposed French charger, while the witch-man was busy over the poteen. Davy, thus finding himself free, sprang at the doctor as if he would tear him to pieces, on which a panic seized the crowd, who rushed from the house, the witch- man following, while the maniac leaped after them with hideous yells and curses. At length the maniac was secured and tied down by a strong rope till the magistrate arrived, who ordered him off to the Roscommon Lunatic Asylum, whither he was at once taken, and where he eventually died, to the great relief of his friends, who really believed that he was the old French charger, and that till the death of the demon-substitute, poor Davy had no chance of being released from the bondage he was under in Fairyland.
Dog-fern roots and shamrocks should be cleaned and pounded well, then mixed with butter — made on May morning — and holy salt, till a kind of paste is formed. This is rubbed all over the back, while the Lord's Prayer is said, and the Hail Mary; and the paste is by no means to be washed off, but left till the cure is perfected.
FOR THE LIVER COMPLAINT
The leaves of plantain, wild sage, the shamrock and dock-leaf, with valerian and the flower of the daisy, are to be plucked by the person before sun- rise, and fasting, on Mondays and Wednesdays, while Hail Mary is said, and the Paternoster; all these are to be boiled and strained, and the herbs, afterwards to be carefully burned. A glassful of the liquor to be taken twice a day.
Woodbine and maiden-hair, pounded and boiled in new rnilk, with oatmeal, and taken three times a day, the leaves to be afterwards burned.
(From an Irish Manuscript in the Royal Irish Academy, dated about 1450.)
FOR THE FALLING SICKNESS
Put salt and white snails into a vessel for three nights, add 7 lb. woodbine leaves, and mis them to a paste; a poultice of this applied for nine days will cure.
Or, the heart of a crow, beaten up with his blood, and drank for nine days, will relieve the disease.
Or, a plaster made of mandragore and ground-ivy, boiled and laid upon the head. If the patient sleeps lie will do well, and iE not, he will not.
Or, a band of the fresh skin of a wolf worn round the body as a girdle, and as long as the patient wears it he will be free from the falling sickness.
Or, pour wine upon a pound of hemlock, fresh gathered, and let it be drank while the person is in the fit.
Or, three hairs of a milk-white greyhound to be tied up and worn on the neck as an amulet.
This keeps the fit away.
The scribe who copied these receipts says of himself, "I am Conlan Mac Liagk son of: the doctor, and in the Monastery of Tuam I am this 14th day of the moon's age, and a thousand years, four hundred years, and nine years the age of the Lord."
Pettigrew, in his interesting book on medical superstitions, mentions the ancient idea that black hellebore was to be plucked, not cut, and this with the right hand, which was then covered with the robe, while the herb was secretly conveyed to the left hand. The person gathering it, also, was to be clad in white, and to offer a sacrifice of bread and wine.
He also mentions that vervain, one of the sacred herbs of the Irish, was to be gathered on the rising of the Dog-star, when neither sun nor moon was shining, an expiatory sacrifice of fruit and honey being previously offered to the earth. Hence the power of vervain to cure fevers, eradicate poison, and render the possessor invulnerable. And he makes mention of the virtues of the elder tree as being widely known for effecting a cure in cases of epilepsy; also the use of spiders and their webs for curing ague, applied in the same manner as is usual with the Irish. Barton, in his "Anatomy of Melancholy," mentions having himself used a plaster of spiders, the web being effective for the staunching of blood, as also the moss from a dead man's skull brought over from Ireland,
A porridge advised by Dianecht, chief physician of the Tuatha-de-Dauans, has been handed down through the centuries for relief of ailments of the body, as cold, phlegm, throat cats, and the presence of living things in the body, as worms. It consists of hazel-buds, dandelion, chickweed, and wood sorrel, all boiled together with oatmeal. This porridge to be taken morning and evening, when the cold and the trouble will soon disappear. Also a poultice of yellow baywort tied round the throat is excellent as a cure for the throat cats.
According to Dianecht, there are fourteen disorders of the stomach, and he gave recipes for all, consisting mostly of plants and herbs. Against witchcraft he ordered a potiou to be made of the roots of the alder tree and the roots of the apple tree that grow downward in the earth. These to be boiled with the brains of a wild bog, and drank fasting, till the bewitched person casts up the evil thing: that was in the stomach.
TO CURE A FAIRY STRICKEN CHILD
Make a good fire, throw into it a handful or more of certain herbs ordered by the fairy-women; wait till a great smoke rises, then carry the child three times round the fire, reciting an incantation against evil, and sprinkling holy water all around.
But during the process no door must be opened, or the fairies would come in to see what you were doing. Continue reciting the incantation till the child sneezes three times; then you may know that the fairy spell is broken, and the child has been redeemed from fairy thraldom for evermore. It is good, however, in addition, to tie a small bag round his neck, with three rounds of red ribbon or thread, containing a nail from the shoe of an ass and some hair of a black cat, and let this be worn for a year and a day.
A black cat without any white spot has great power either for or against witchcraft, and the hair must be taken from a cat of this description, for the demons fear it. Also, about midnight, give the child a drink mixed with the blood of a crowing hen; then he will be safe from fairy, or demon, or the evil of witchcraft.
Take the cowslip, roots, blossom, and leaves, clean them well, then bruise and press them in a linen cloth, add honey to the juice thus pressed out, put it in a bottle, and pour a few drops into the nostrils and ears of the patient, he lying on his back. Then, after some time, turn him on his face till the water pours out, carrying away whatever obstruction lay on the brain. This may be repeated for three days. Or fold up two eels in a cabbage-leaf, place them on the fire till they are soft, then press out the juice and drop it into the ears.
But for ordinary disease there is nothing so good as the native poteen, for it is peculiarly adapted to the climate, and, as the people say, it keeps away ague and rheumatism, and the chill that strikes the heart ; and if the gaugers would only let the private stills alone, not a bit of sickness would there be in the whole country round.
FOR FALLING SICKNESS
No one should touch the person in the fit, only the man who works the charm. He first takes a bundle of unbleached linen yarn, and ties it round the patient, then cuts his hair, and the finger and toe nails; these clippings he gathers together and burns with the linen yarn. The ashes are then divided into two parts, after which the patient is laid flat on the earth and two holes are made, one at his head the other at his feet ; into these are poured the divided ashes, while a harrow-pin is placed over all. So they leave him for a day and a night. And thus the falling sickness is buried for ever in that spot, never to rise up again while the ashes aud the iron remain untouched.
Many of the cures, however, used by the people and the witch-doctors are not merely superstitious practices, but are based upon the accurate knowledge of herbs, and their mystic power on the human frame, which the Irish have possessed in all ages from the remotest times. For the rules and tenets of this primitive science have been transmitted
orally through countless generations, with sacred reverence and solemn care, chiefly in the direct line of special families, who are the trusted guardians of the mysteries, and are bound by strict custom and traditional law not to divulge the secrets of herbal lore, except to the eldest son of the eldest son in direct succession.
In the County Cavan, the MacGowans, for instance, have a wonderful but secret cure for hydrophobia, known only to themselves, and acquired in this way: About one hundred and fifty years ago, two brothers of the name, living at opposite sides of the lake, used frequently to cross over in their boat to visit each other. One day a strange dog came swimming towards them and was lifted into the boat, but he instantly bit one of the brothers severely, and showed all the signs of decided madness. The young man gave himself up for lost, and wandered about the fields all night, till at last, overcome by fatigue, he lay down in his own garden and fell asleep. Then and there a dream came to him, that under his head grew a herb that would cure him, if prepared in a certain way revealed to him as in a vision.
On awakening, he at once sought for the herb, and having found it, to his great joy, set about the preparations for the potion exactly as it had been shown to him in the dream. The result was his perfect restoration f rom the fatal disease; and the strange story, having got abroad, the MacGowans became famous throughout the country for the cure of hydrophobia; large sums being paid to them for the exercise of their skill and knowledge.
Thus they amassed a deal of money, for the wonderful herb seldom failed to cure the terrible malady; but no amount of money could tempt the brothers to reveal the name of the herb or the mode of preparation. This great secret remains, therefore, a mystery to this day, known only to the head of the MacGowans, who preserves the tradition, and will transmit it only to his eldest son.
But to ensure a pei'fect cure, certain rules and orders must be rigidly observed. First, the patient must be brought under care within nine days after the attack, before the hydrophobia has become virulent; secondly, he must not cross water during the progress of the cure.
Quite recently a curious case happened which tested the power of the MacGowans, and excited the greatest interest throughout the country.
A pet cat, belonging to a farmer's family, suddenly showed signs of savage ferocity, and flew at every one, inflicting severe bites. Six of the children were laid up, and even the farmer himself was attacked before the animal could be
killed, Evidently the beast was mad, and, in terror of the consequences, the family sent an urgent request to the MacGowans to come and help them.
Three brothers of the name were living at the time, and the eldest agreed to go and try the cure, if fifty shillings were paid down to him before starting. This was a large sum for the farmer to give; but as six of the children were lying half
dead from fright, he consented, and paid the money.
MacGowan at once set forth on his mission of mystic healing, bringing with him two kegs of liquid, each containing about five gallons, also a largo stock of garlic and hazel-nuts. The fluid was of a green colour, and very nauseous to the taste. The people said it was made of the Atherlus (ground-ivy) which has singular mystic properties; but MacGowan kept strict silence on the subject, and no one dared to ask him a question as to the nature of the ingredients.
The family, meanwhile, were ordered to provide two stone of barley-meal and three pounds of butter, and with these cakes were to be made, moistened with the fluid from the keg, of which also the patients were to drink copiously; and during the three days appointed for the cure they were to have no other sustenance, save the barley cakes and the green fluid.
If at the end of that time the cure was not effected, then the patients would surely die, their only chance was over, nothing more could be done to help them. Happily, however, the cure was quite successful. The children were all restored, and, consequently, the fame of the MacGowans increased, and no end of presents and money were sent to them in addition to the sum paid down.
Still the head of the race resisted all entreaties to reveal the name of the herb or the secret of the green fluid, and to this day no man nor mortal, not even the priest himself, has ever obtained a knowledge of the mystery, save only the eldest son of the eldest son in each successive generation of the MacGowan family.
But other modes of curing the bite of a mad dog are used in different districts; one is to apply some of the hair of the dog to the wound and leave it there, bound tightly, till all danger is over.
Another is to take out the liver of the dog, grind it to powder, then mix with water, and give it to the patient to drink.
In old times, in Ireland, people afflicted with canine madness were put to death by smothering between two feather beds; the near relatives standing round until asphyxia was produced, and death followed.