Island Cures

By Joe McGowan

As there was no doctor on Inishmurray there was considerable recourse to cures when illness struck. These remedies were handed down from generation to generation. Some cures had a herbal base, some had special powers imparted to cloths or liquids by the saints, and others were comprised of secret knowledge or healing power which was passed on to selected individuals from one generation to another.

This had parallels on the mainland. While doctors may have been more available, medical care was minimal there too because of the limitations of travel or simply because many could not afford it. A visit to the doctor was seen as a last resort.

Many of us will remember goose’s ame with a certain amount of nostalgia. This cure was applied to young people with chest infections or a chronic weak chest. It consists of the old style sugar bag made of course brown paper impregnated with rendered goose fat. It was pinned to the undershirt and worn next to the chest. Red flannel which was also applied in this manner had similar curative properties but was considered less odious as it was less odorous!

Islander, Michael Herrity explained a cure that was made from a freshwater dileasc, an algae known as conur. It grew on the blessed well behind Mointeach. It was a cure for the burn: Wash it and clap it on the burn. You could mix it with grease if you wanted to.

Shelled snails combined with slanlus (ox-tongue herb) and grease made into a paste was used as a cure for boils. A herb called the crann cromail mixed into a paste had curative properties when picked at a boundary where three farms came together. Michael believed there was a cure in the blood of the ballan: When you kill him fresh from the rock, if you suck his blood there’s a cure in that. I saw lots of people long ago sticking a knife in them and suckin’ the blood.

When the fairies sported through the fields long ago one of their games was to throw small polished stones to each other. A cow accidentally struck by one of these became elf shot and could not rise. Lost elf stones therefore made up part of the cure for this ailment. As on the mainland a cow that was elf shot could be cured if given a drink of the essence of elf stones and a piece of copper boiled in water that came from the juncture of three streams.

Florrie Brady was badly burned from head to toe when a young girl growing up on Inishmurray. The sea was rough so no doctor could come from the mainland. Linseed oil mixed with roached lime was applied to the burn. When eventually the doctor made the journey to the island he was amazed to see how well the home made cure had worked as the burn had healed with no scarring.

But prevention is always better than cure. A cloth left outside on St Brigid’s Eve, the old Celtic festival of Imbolc was blessed by the Saint as she passed during the night. The Brat Bhride or Brigid’s Cloak, was then kept as a talisman for the rest of the year to give protection against sickness. Two rushes, left over from the making of St Brigid’s cross, were twisted together and bound around the head. Worn to bed one night and kept under the pillow for the following three nights this acted as a preventative for headaches.

A remnant of the festival of Samhain, the Celtic New Year, a farm animal, chicken or cock was bled on the eve of the feast of St Martin, once the most important feast of church and people. This custom known as bleeding for St Martin took place on Oul’ Halloweve, the 10th November. The blood was drawn and sprinkled on the four corners of the house to ward off evil and bring blessings for the coming year. In Sligo and Leitrim the blood was sometimes put in a ponger on the dresser and left there until it dried. If anyone in the house got sick or had a sore throat the blood-soaked cloth was applied to the affected part to heal the ailment. People believed that the person who ate the meat would be free from disease during the year.

Island man Dominick Harte related in 1940 that no work was allowed on Inishmurray on Martin’s feast day. Neither was it allowed to turn a wheel whether cartwheel or spinning wheel. Fluent in his native tongue he explained: Caitheadh Mairtin isteach I sruth muilinn agus maraiodh e ag an roth agus da bhri sin ni ceart roth d’aon tsaghas a casadh an la sin. (Martin was thrown into a mill stream and he was killed by the wheel and because of that it was not right to turn any kind of wheel on that day). This custom was held at one time on many parts of the mainland too.

Excerpt from Joe McGowans book Inishmurray: Land of Gale, Stone and Fire