This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any discrepancies or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!
Just a note before I begin – I think I make this pretty clear in the episode, but wanted to state it up front as well – I of course don’t recommend any of the cures I mention here as a treatment for the coronavirus, or any illness to be honest! They are interesting historically, but they are not medically valid in any way. The best thing you can do for coronavirus is follow the medical guidelines on social distancing and hygiene. Now, on to the episode.
Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
This is a slightly different episode, as you can imagine. Even though my podcast looks towards the past, at the moment it’s hard to think of anything but the immediate present, and the sickness which has so rapidly escalated.
So I thought I’d talk a little about the folklore that exists in times of sickness, and what we can learn from the ways people reacted to desperate situations. A couple of years ago, I had the chance to sit down with my grandfather, Con Ryan, from Tipperary, and record him as he spoke about the old cures he remembered being used by his parents and grandparents as a child in the 1940s.
Con: There were a lot of old cures, and I’d say it came maybe from desperation. People were desperate to try to cure something, and it was a mixture then of piseogs I suppose, and old beliefs, and as I say desperation.
Ireland, and particularly rural Ireland, was a very different place at this time. Without electricity, running water or many of the medical advances we now take for granted, people had very little ability to control the spread of illness, and the pain of watching it take your loved ones was profound.
When disease swept through a community, people would try anything that might help to save the ones they loved. In times before modern medicine, illnesses rarely seen today, like measles, pox and whooping cough, were killers, bringing real terror into homes and parishes. Traditions were passed down by families desperate for anything to give them the luck they needed to survive through the crisis.
Often, people looked to coincidences – if that person down the road survived, what did they do differently, and can we do it too? Sometimes this was useful approach – after all, observation is the beginning of almost any scientific discovery. But putting your trust in superstitious actions and legends of past cures could also lead to some very strange results.
Con: It was the whooping cough of course, but in the local vernacular here they called it the chin cough. Now there are a number of cures for it. One was that the godfather of the child that had the whooping cough had to steal the top of a goat’s ear and there was a thread put into the ear and it was hanging around the child’s neck until it was withered and the whooping cough was gone. Now that might seem strange now, and ridiculous. But I wore one, when I was a child and had the whooping cough. My three brothers also wore them.
Ruth: What age were you do you think when you had the chin cough?
Con: We were about, I’d say 10 or 11. I have a very good memory of it. We got it. Paddy and Michael got it from their godfathers. Roge Ryan of Cooga was Michael’s godfather. He went up to the top of the hill and stole a bit of Connell’s goat’s ear. And my uncle Con stole a bit of Heffernan’s goat’s ear. Like, to put it in context, people who had no land at that time kept goats for milk. So we all had them, and my grandmother who totally believed in all that kind of stuff, she totally believed in it and she had all the old cures. She said one day when they were having their dinner – ‘they’re all getting better’ she said, ‘above, and John is – it’s getting worse with John,’ she said. And my brother John, God rest him, his godfather who was cranky, my late uncle Rogie. So Uncle Rogie went up late that evening and he got wet and everything, and he lost his good penknife, but we used be laughing at John because he cut – it wasn’t just the top he cut. I’d say he was so cross tore at the goat and he cut half his ear! So John – we used be laughing at John, we called them the medals. Now, there’d be very little smell, I can’t remember any. The reason being of course that there’d be very little blood, particularly in the top of a goat’s ear. But John got a whole half a goat’s ear!
Another chin cough cure, from which I’d recoil even more strongly, involved letting a ferret sip from a bowl of milk, then forcing the sick child to drink the dregs of milk that the rodent had left behind in the bowl. Whooping cough was very often fatal in children, and so people were keen to try almost any rumour or myth, inviting whole host of strange cures.
Con: There was another one then: in and out under a donkey, we called them an ass, a donkey’s belly, three times and the father son and the holy ghost. Now sounds ridiculous to myself now but when I was child it didn’t because it was done and that was it. So that would be the chin cough or the whooping cough as we called it.
Certain herbs and wild plants were commonly believed to have curative properties also.
Con: Another childhood illness, the mumps. They were called, my mother never called them anything only the plucamas, which I understand is the Irish word for them. Cure for the mumps was they went out and collected a dandelion. They cut it up and heated it, made a poultice for it, they put a poultice for the mumps from the dandelion and the put it onto the child’s neck. I haven’t heard of any other ones for the mumps or plucamas, but I’m sure that there are others.
And cures were not just for humans. At a time when animals were a chief source of food, income and transportation for almost every family in the parish, there was real fear when an animal fell sick, and cures for livestock abounded.
Con: You take the black leg which was a killer disease in cattle. Ah, we lost an animal with black leg a couple of years ago. One cure they had was to put the leg up in the chimney of the dead animal, and it was left there away and it would wither away in the chimney.
You would find calf’s legs in chimneys throughout the parish at this time.
Certain special people were believed to have the power to “set” more complex healing charms. One such healer in Tipperary in the early 20th Century was a man called Jack Tom.
Con: He had the reputation of being able to stop bleeding, without doing anything only setting a charm. Now, I remember if a person was bleeding he was brought to him. Ah, I’d put a big question mark over that needless to say in fact I wouldn’t believe in it. But I remember a horse cut a foot here once on wire. Now it was very serious, a horse would bleed to death quickly, and there was panic if a horse got cut, because they depended totally. Remember, the only way they had of going to the creamery, going to mass, going to town, going to the bog to cut turf, or whatever. They depended totally on the horse. So Jack Tom was sent for. He was the local man who was supposed to have this charm to stop the blood. Now he was sent for and he came down. I remember the horse. But he didn’t do anything physically to her. He looked at her and he walked around her, and he took off his hat. Why’d he take off his hat, I don’t know. He appeared to say some prayers. I was quite young but I have a memory of it all right. And he came up here and walked around. There was a grove here where this house is. He walked around for a good while. And the blood stopped. I would say it probably clotted, I don’t know. But the blood stopped.
The ways people inherited these curing abilities were interesting. Certain professions, such as priests and blacksmiths, were also frequently called on for cures. Priests who had been “silenced” or barred from saying mass for disobeying the church were sometimes even more trusted for cures than the regular rule-abiding priests! It was believed that when silenced, they still held the divine supernatural powers of the church, but as they were no longer bound by the rules of scripture so could use these powers in whatever way they saw fit.
Birth circumstances were thought to lead to curing ability as well – the seventh son of a seventh son was believed to hold a particularly potent healing charm, as was a son born after his father had died. And certain families were even said to hold healing powers in their blood.
Con: Shingles, it was called the wild fire. Now it was quite serious, it could be very weakening and plus the fact that it was extremely sore. Now there were a number of cures for the wild fire, but the most common one was Walsh’s blood or Cahill’s blood. That is someone with the name of Walsh or as they used call him locally here Welsh, or Cahill’s
Mary: And a black cat’s blood.
Con: And a black cat’s blood is right. Now I barely remember a man, he used to work here. He was a man called Packie Walsh, and I heard my father saying that all his fingers were cut. Someone would come, the fingers were – he’d have to cut them and put a few drops on, the father, son and holy spirit.
While superstitions were usually benign and sometimes even led to a genuine cure, several could be very harmful. The real issues came when certain old cures encouraged people to go against medical advice, or proved to be dangerous.
Con: But there was other ones harmful. A burn – put pig dung to it.
You can imagine the pain and infection this so-called “cure” must have caused. A common Irish saying was “Dearthair don Bas fios a chur ar an dochtuir” – Sending for the doctor is brother to death. Another ill portent was Blascadh an Domhnaigh – if a patient appeared to be improving on a Sunday, it was viewed with worry and even suspicion, as a sign that the disease was something more serious or supernatural in origin. Such ideas could lead to families neglecting to call on the few doctors who were available in the local area, squandering a precious opportunity to have their loved ones examined by someone who might really have a way to improve their condition.
And believing in supernatural cures also meant you were likely to believe in curses or black magic as well. In Ireland, these malicious charms were known as piseogs.
Con: Now May Eve was supposed to be a famous time for what they called setting piseogs, which basically was to do harm to your neighbour, bringing good to yourself. But there was a real fear of them. A real fear of piseogs. Particularly around animals. There was a belief in it.
Con: I often felt that they wanted to keep in with both crowds, the kind of piseogs which were I suppose, well certainly weren’t very Catholic, and keep in with religion as well.
People believed that their neighbours might curse their animals to die, or their crops to fail, through setting dark charms. If you found eggs left in strange places on your land, or a piece of meat in your shed, this was a sign that something supernatural was afoot. Having to fear that someone nearby was causing you harm obviously wasn’t great for community spirit, raising suspicions and paranoia that could turn dangerous at times.
And it wasn’t just humans you had to fear. In Ireland, it was believed that the sídh, or fairy people, who lurked just out of sight, could cause terrible illness and injury too. Children or young women who became suddenly weak and frail, were sometimes said to have been ‘fairy struck.’ It was believed that the fairies wanted to raise them as their own, or marry human women off to one of the fairy chieftains or princes. The person would get rapidly weaker, pining away seemingly without cause, until they died and their soul passed over to the fairy realm. Those who died in April were often believed to have been carried off by the fairies, for May Eve was a time particularly feared for supernatural goings on.
Worse still were stories of fairies taking children and leaving a fairy child in its place – these ‘changelings’ as they were called, looked like their human counterpart, but people believed they could tell that something had changed, by strange things this fairy imposter did or said. And it wasn’t just children who were at risk. Sometimes, it was said, fairies would disguise themselves as old men and women, who would spy on families from their corner by the fireside, and weave malicious charms on those who lived there.
Of course, stories like these were thrilling to tell, and for the most part a harmless way to make sense of illness and death. But when a community had deep superstitions, belief in fairies and changelings became much more sinister. People with disabilities or deformities had much to fear in these times, and to be accused of being ‘not quite yourself’ could have very dangerous consequences. The ways of exorcising a changeling spirit were quite extreme, involving pain, starvation and fire.
Superstitions like these might seem quaint and backward to us now. And it might be hard to picture why someone would ever think a goat’s ear, a cow’s leg or a man’s prayers could have such powerful healing properties attributed to them. But as we have already begun to see with the Coronavirus crisis, the pull of ritual and rumor is often irresistible, and uncertain times, when the news is ever-changing and people feel worried or scared, provide ideal conditions for superstition to flourish.
These days, in our digital age and with social distancing keeping people apart, folk advice and customs spread through social media – and particularly through messaging sites like WhatsApp, which has been at the centre of much misinformation during our current crisis. You may have seen or heard of a whatsapp message circulating lately, telling people to put raw onions in the corner of their rooms to ward off the coronavirus, for example. This is quite an old superstition, actually, that has been around since at least 1900, when onions were said to offer protection against flu. The rumour became regained popularity in the time of swine flu in 2009, and is now back once again for coronavirus, where it is still proving to do nothing, other than help desperate people feel, with disease sweeping through the community, that at least they are doing something.
Not all of the current superstitions have been as strange as the onion rumor, but there are so many of them out there. And, as is typical of folklore, the person sharing the advice will usually say that they heard it from some unnamed authority figure, for example a friend who works in the Health Service, or the government, or the army, which lends the rumor a reassuring air of authority, and lulls you into a belief that this time it might actually be right. Not so different from the strange old cures that were said to come from God in days past. So it is important not to take all the advice you receive online at face value. I’ll leave a link in the show notes with some advice on how to think critically about the rumors you hear.
Despite how strange they seem with hindsight, rituals become rituals because people want to turn the chaotic, ravaging effects of disease into something they could control and understand. I think that’s easy to sympathize with. Although the people of times gone by had a more mystical view of world order, they still believed that life conformed to a set of principles. Their strange superstitions were how they explained the world, without the scientific resources we have today.
And, occasionally, they got it right. It has been estimated that about a quarter of folk remedies and superstitions actually had some real medical basis. For example, penicillin was used in many Irish households long before it was available on prescription – families would keep a loaf of bread or a piece of bacon in a damp spot of the house, and use the mould that grew on it to treat infections and sores. Lumps or cuts were said to be cured by rubbing them with saliva.
Con: A lump on the face – a fasting spit. When you’d be fasting in the morning, the saliva, you would rub it to your finger and put it on it. I remember my father saying, some old lump I had, he said ‘Why aren’t you putting your fasting spit on that, to the father son and holy spirit.’
Saliva was later found to contain many healing agents – think of the last time you had a cut in your mouth, and how quickly it healed. And, famously, the smallpox vaccine was discovered when Edward Jenner listened to the folk wisdom of local women he treated, who for generations had observed that getting other poxes would give you immunity from this more serious illness.
So, while I don’t think anyone should be following old cures and customs as a replacement for modern medicine, their origins are more complex than entirely irrational superstition. And if it makes you feel better to place an onion in the corner of your room, I’m not going to stop you – as long as you are following the real medical guidelines on hygiene and social distancing as well!
The coronavirus crisis has rekindled the kind of uncertainty, fear and superstition that illnesses of days gone by inspired. And with it, certainly, has come a distressing kind of folklore. But it’s been heartening I think to see that more positive kinds of folklore and folk customs are rising up out of the gloom also. Whether you’ve been holding balcony music sessions with people in your apartment block, clapping for healthcare workers in the evening, or finding ways to entertain and cheer up your friends through social media, you’ve been engaging in the folk ways of modern times, helping people to connect with each other as a community even in a time of isolation.
News of these little moments of people creatively finding ways to connect, has reminded me of other times in the past when people came together in their own separate isolations. There’s a wonderful book called Minor Monuments, written by Ian Maleney, and in one part he talks about how fishermen used to communicate to their colleagues and families even on boats far apart from each other on the sea.
[Eoghan] recalls sitting at home at night with his mother, listening on a CB radio to his father and his fellow island fishermen as they work out in the ocean beyond Tory, talking to each other across the waves. ‘And some nights when they were in good form and the night was calm, you’d hear a fragment of a song coming over the radio,’ he says. ‘They’d sing songs to each other from one boat to the next, the sound travelling over the waves. Sometimes it was so faint, almost not there, as if you were imagining it.’
Community, friendship and folklore always finds a way, and even in times of physical separation, nothing can keep our spirits apart. Ian Maleney writes beautifully about finding hope in those small faint voices, stretching out across a vast social distance.
The sound of their voices coming faintly through the night air is proof of survival. The songs they sing are proof of a particular life, and their stories float like mist through the atmosphere.
So even if you’re apart from the people you love, try and reach out emotionally in the ways that you can, and share that good kind of folklore – the coming together, and support, that will get us through, until we reach the better days ahead.
Thanks once again for listening to this episode of Unreal. And a big thank you to my grandparents, Con and Mary Ryan, who have shared such incredible knowledge of old cures and customs with me. I’m glad to finally be including them in an episode. As a result, I haven’t needed to use quite so many written sources time, but you can find links to a couple of books I consulted in the shownotes on UnrealPodcast.com, as well as the music I used. You can also find a link to the book I read from at the end – Minor Monuments by Ian Maleney, which was published last year by Tramp Press. It’s a really beautiful narrative about sound, memory, and rural Ireland – definitely worth a read!
If you enjoyed this episode, I’d love if you could leave a rating or review on iTunes or social media. And if you’re interested in learning more about old cures and traditions, I’d recommend you check out the Dúchas.ie archive, and have a go at transcribing some of the handwritten folklore they have collected. It’s a fascinating way to pass the time in quarantine!
I’ll be back to normal next time, with an episode to take our mind off things. And until then, I wish you well. Stay healthy, stay inside, and go néirí on bóthar leat.