The tradition of using herbal medicines from the Irish surroundings has a long and fascinating history in Ireland. However like many other aspects of the Irish culture that got disrupted during an invasion, indigenous cures have been largely lost. Now it is time to resuscitate them.
Written in conjunction with Rosari Kingston, a professionally qualified medical herbalist.
Herbal medicine in Ireland, while nearly stamped out by repeated invasions and parallel biomedical breakthroughs, is a thread that refuses to be broken. Luckily for us modern day Irishers, it is currently being invigorated with new knowledge, learning and research. There are well-established cures that are all around us…and the best news is that they are free. These cures come from plants found in the fields, bogs and meadows. It is the traditional medicine of the Irish. This almost-broken system cared well for Irish society until its dislodgement in the political turmoil of our history.
While from modern-day eyes the herbal cures still in existence today may seem like a bit of crazy witchery, there are basic facts about it that may actually surprise you. The Irish herbal physician of the 15th century and before, was trained for many, many years in highly regulated medical schools. These schools were regulated by hereditary physician families. They established and regulated the medical schools; developed the curriculum, oversaw the practical training of the physician and ensured that the best of European learning was grafted on to indigenous knowledge through translation of the manuscripts used in well-founded and highly respected medical schools abroad.
The Celtic physicians, known in Irish as liaig enjoyed high legal status in society – being one of the Gaelic learned orders. They were supported by the hereditary tenure of lands that were granted to them by the Chieftains in exchange for medical services. This was to ensure that they might be preserved from being disturbed by the cares and anxieties of life, and enabled full devotion to the study and work of their profession.
The liaig, before 17th Century politics damaged their medical system, enjoyed the same privileges as workers in precious metals and smiths. Each territory would have had a “luibh gort” or local herb garden. The Gaelic laws required that the luibh gort supply the medicine for the local people. The luibh gort was annihilated with the new political order when land distribution took place. As their political situation deteriorated, the knowledge of the liaig had to be passed on quietly via an oral tradition, so its survival scraped through – just. This local knowledge of herbs was still widespread in 1726 as can be seen in Threlkeld’s Synopsis ‘Stirpium Hibernicarum’ in which he speaks of sheaves of sea wormwood being brought from the coasts of Meath and Louth and of women selling wood sage, betony, and kidney vetch in Dublin. The liaig who previously earned a living from treating people had no job by the time the new ownership of the land was in place. Under the penal laws it was extremely difficult for the Liaig to practice their profession as education was no longer available to the Irish without professed loyalty to the crown. It does not take long in perilous times for written knowledge to disappear when reading and writing are forbidden.
J.B.van Helmont (1577 -1644) wrote in his Confessio Authoris about medical care in the old Gaelic society: “I remember the Chieftains of Ireland used each to give a piece of land to a healer who lived with them; not one who came back trained from the universities but one who could really make sick people well. Each such healer has a book crammed with specific remedies bequeathed to him by his forefathers. Accordingly, he who inherits the book inherits also the piece of land. The book describes the symptoms and ailments and the country remedies used for each, and the people of Ireland are cured more successfully when ill, and have generally far better health than the people of Italy.”
The loss of land, the loss of legal status and protection, the gradual loss of reading and writing meant the complex remedies contained in such family tomes were lost forever.
For those outside the medical families and establishments, many families had specific cures for ailments that were passed down through the generations. This could be a cure for anything from shingles to sprains. Many people still get a pot of ointment for the treatment of an ailment, received from ‘someone who knows someone’. The person who received it may say it was the only thing that ‘worked’ and it is testimony to the riches contained in the Irish herbal tradition. The knowledge of each cure is specific to a person within the family and passed on through the generations. An entry in the school folk lore notebooks of 1938 mentions that, “John Milliard, The Rock, Drimoleague, was supposed to be able to compound a mixture for curing sore eyes. Unfortunately, the cure seems to have died with him.” The tragedy is that so much of this information is obliterated with death as the knowledge is never transmitted outside the family. Also, with increasing urbanization many Irish people have no time for such ‘cures’ preferring modern biomedical treatment instead. This shift to urbanisation may also mean that the guardians and holders of such ‘cures’ do not see their significance in the Irish herbal tradition.
While some older folk often mention “old cures” and swear by them, many younger people scoff at the information. And yet, there is a growing body of evidence that old cures can be genuinely beneficial in human healing. Still common in the countryside are maxims such as ‘whiskey for the heart and brandy for the stomach’. This has resulted in whiskey in previous years being prescribed for angina and it also being seen as an emergency cure for someone having a heart attack.
While we are not recommending anyone to scull whiskey while being mid-myocardial infarction, let’s remember this about whiskey. It has known effects on the GABA receptors in the brain. GABA (Gamma- Amino -Butyris Acid) is an amino acid which acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. It calms nervous activity which is often at the root of heart problems. Aging whiskey in oak barrels increases the GABA effect. The chemicals are released from the alcohol as a fragrance and appear to reach the brain by inhalation. It reduces anxiety, is a sedative and has anaesthetic activity. You can see why it is popular as a nightcap. But if you were mid-heart attack, and waiting for the ambulance, would you down a whiskey slammer? I think many people would, if not for the fact that if they were on their way out they’d like to do it with a bit of warmth in their belly. You can take your chances without our approval!
The use of cobwebs to stem bleeding isn’t just an Irish cure; it has been used all over the world since the beginning of time. A child from Dunmanway in a notebook from the 1938 National Folklore Schools Collection mentions the use of cobwebs to stop bleeding. Anecdotal reports from country dwellers, that this has been used until very recently, to staunch bleeding when dehorning cattle as well as for when cuts and scrapes are plentiful. Spider webs are rich in vitamin K, which can be effective in clotting blood. Webs were used several hundred years ago as gauze pads to stop an injured person’s bleeding.
Charles Stuart Parnell crushed his hand in machinery at his Arklow quarries and an old servant dressed the injured fingers with cobwebs from the cellar walls. This knowledge about cobwebs can be traced back to a medical manuscript that was transcribed from Latin into Irish by an Irish liaig, T.Ó Cuinn in 1415. The Ó Cuinn manuscript has this to say about cobwebs: “The spider’s web; cold and dry; it has the retentive virtue; it stops the bleeding of wounds, and it heals as we have said.” Cobwebs were among one of Galen’s (129 -200 AD) favourite wound dressings and they were also used in wound care in ancient Egypt. It is quite extraordinary that this gem of wisdom survived the vicissitudes of Irish history to appear in a notebook in Dunmanway.
This tiny berry is woven intensely throughout Irish Celtic history. In fact an annual festival called Bilberry Sunday is gaining prominence once again in modern-day Ireland. Over long and dark centuries, the bilberry has been used for its medicinal qualities. It contains anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant qualities. This fruit is used as an astringent – a substance that causes the contraction of body tissues, used to reduce bleeding from minor abrasions.
The bilberry is also has antiseptic properties which can treat various health problems like diarrhea, dysentery, hemorrhoids and gastrointestinal inflammation. But the most important use for the humble bilberry has been the treatment of various eye disorders and improvement of capillary health. And it is not only the berry that holds medicinal power. Bilberry leaves can be used to treat diabetes, as the leaves have hypoglycemic properties.
Other uses have also been documented: topical treatment for eye and mouth inflammation, skin infections and burns. It is also used to treat varicose veins, pain, itching, and skin ulcers in the legs. Eating bilberry mixed with honey is a popular home remedy for diarrhea. So getting a good bilberry cure may be a good idea the night after that dodgy curry.
We all hate nettle in the park: we worry that our kids will fall into a pile of it or we remember tripping face-first into a big mesh of it in our youth. And yet nettles have been used since the dawn of man in Ireland as medicine; historical evidence of this is a mile high.
Arthritic joints were traditionally treated by whipping the joint with a branch of stinging nettles. The theory was that it stimulated the production of anti inflammatory properties and thus reduced swelling and pain in the joint. Various studies support the effectiveness of this treatment. In terms of allergies, nettle contains properties of an antihistamine to be used for treating reactions associated with the respiratory system.
Brooklime, also known as European speedwell, is a succulent herb that grows on the margins of brooks and ditches in Europe. It has smooth spreading branches, blunt oblong leaves and small bright blue or pink flowers. The use of brooklime is well-documented throughout Irish history. In a historical text, it says to mix it with buttermilk and oatmeal as a boiled poultice. (A poultice is a soft moist mass, often heated and medicated, that is spread on cloth over the skin to treat an aching, inflamed, or painful part of the body.)
Brooklime can be used on wounds such as cuts. It was reported in the 1938 National Folklore Schools Collection that ‘the main root of it would cure anything.’ It is attributed with the power to heal a scabby head, rash, alopecia, hemorrhoids (plus mustard, garlic and wine), external piles, boils known as anthrax, deafness, pain in the sides and kidneys, dry cough, ripening boils and finally, as a ‘drawer’ of poison. The T.Ó Cuinn manuscript mentions that a warm plaster of brooklime serves well against poisoning and pain. Even though the T.Ó Cuinn manuscript is a compilation in Irish of various Latin works there are 22 herbs mentioned therein for which no Latin source have been found. It is most probable that these herbs relate to a purely Irish tradition.
While it sounds rather ghoulish, bonesetters have an important place in Irish society. If you broke your arm while hunting deer, you could not, obviously, call an ambulance and get it set in the hospital. You had to go see the local bonesetter. A bonesetter was a practitioner of joint manipulation. Bonesetters would also reduce joint dislocations and ‘re-set’ bone fractures. The use of this form of treatment has been documented as far back as Hippocrates, the ancient Egyptians and Asian cultures, and was carried through the ages by families of bonesetters.
Across Europe in the Middle Ages, the industry of bonesetters was regulated by the bonesetters guild, which served as a means of training, disciplining, and mastering its craft. It was living medicine. It may not have passed the double blind, placebo-controlled trial which is the gold standard of the pharmaceutical industry, but it served many a person well. It has now been replaced by the chiropractor and osteopath. Instead of taking the basic skill and techniques of the bone setter, respecting this knowledge and building on it, it was viewed as something from the country’s poverty-stricken past for which there was now no need. The bonesetters and those with specific ‘cures’ lost their reputation as the guardians of such medicinal cures. Instead they were progressively marginalized as Anglicization marched on. However there are still bonesetters around today who many patients deem highly skilled.
There is now the chance to reclaim our diminished tradition. For the first time since 1650 Irish men and women can train as a liaig (herbal physician) in the old manner. The four-year honours Herbal Science degree in the Cork Institute of Technology gives students a thorough grounding in current scientific research so as to enable the graduates to move into research, industry or clinical training. If the latter is chosen a further 2 years (minimum) training is required to attain the skills, knowledge and expertise necessary for clinical practise .
Rosari Kingston is a professionally qualified medical herbalist based in West Cork, Ireland. In addition to running her practice she lectures, writes, and undertakes research. She is a member of the Irish Institute of Medical Herbalists, a professional body committed to the highest standard of training for herbalists. Contact: Rosari Kingston M.Sc (Herbal Medicine), Herbal Medicine Clinic, West Cork Herb Farm, Knockeen, Church Cross, Skibbereen, West Cork, T: 353 (0) 28 38428 firstname.lastname@example.org